Written by Erin James
Harold Prince is 90 years young this year and to celebrate his many, many (many, MANY) achievements in the world of theatre, news outlets, blogs, podcasts and more have been falling over themselves to sit down and chat with one of the most influential figures in the history of the musical.
With all of the media attention surrounding his latest book (Sense of Occasion), his 70th anniversary in the Business of Show and his 90th birthday, there are some precious gems surfacing about Prince that many theatre lovers may not be aware of.
You probably know that he directed and produced some of the biggest shows in the modern musical theatre canon – West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Company, Parade, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Follies and Sweeney Todd to name a few – but there is plenty more to learn about the Prince Of Broadway.
1. Prince believes that theatre is an “Event”
In a recent interview with The American Theater Wing, he was asked the question “How have audiences changed over your career?”. His response included references to Wicked, the Kardashians and HBO dramas!
There’s a huge sea change now in ‘who is your favourite dinner guest?’. Never anybody who works in the theatre: a Hollywood star, a television reality star, a Kardashian. That’s a shame.
That’s why my book is called Sense of Occasion. I miss that. I miss the fact that you put on your best suit, your shirt your tie, and you go to theatre. Because it’s an EVENT. It’s not much of an event anymore. A lot of people are going but they are not treating it as an event.
When I went to see Wicked, I was sitting behind a family of six – four kids and two parents – at a matinee. They were all in shorts, they were all in flip flops and they were all in t-shirts with writing across them. That family of six represents $800 in ticket sales. I would like the theatre to be that elevated experience that you don’t then equate with sitting in front of television set seeing a great HBO drama. That’s all great, but something’s gotta take you out of your house and something’s got to invite you to communicate with live entertainment and that’s what the theatre provides.
2. Prince saw the shift from musical comedy to musical theatre, then he ran with it
In a live, recorded interview at The Other Palace with Evita’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Prince spoke about the moment he realised that a musical could be a more sophisticated event than the musical comedies that Broadway was accustomed to. It was the opening night of South Pacific on Broadway (which, incidentally was also the night he met Stephen Sondheim)!
South Pacific was seamless in its staging. That owes a lot to Joshua Logan, its director. I had been a stage manager before I became a producer and in those earlier musicals, you did a scene with some songs and then a traveller – a curtain – closed and the conductor played utility music and a little light went on when the scene was changed back of the curtain and then the curtain went out and the show went on. You were used to that. That was standard everywhere.
Suddenly in this show, it was continuous. Absolutely seamless.
And what he did was put some travellers that you could see through – scrims. And when a scene changed, these two scrims went all the way across the stage, people moved, short scenes took place downstage, some between the two scrims and backstage work was happening.
So it was such more like a movie. And you realised when you saw that show that you could direct a musical a little bit more like a movie than anyone had ever [thought previously].
3. Evita is close to perfect
In the same interview with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Prince confirmed that Evita The Musical is a work which he holds dear to his heart.
It is one of my favourite musicals by far, probably one of the two or three favourite musicals I’ve been associated with. [It’s] a show that depends on closeups, just like a movie.
In another interview given in January 2018, Prince called Evita “one of the most satisfying experiences of my career” and that he has long wanted to revive the original production, with no changes.
There is a saying here, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I believe Evita is close to perfect and I’m a tad embarrassed saying that, but it has been reflected in the comments of so many people who have seen it.
Luckily for Australian audiences, we have the chance to witness this near-perfection when the production is revived at the Sydney Opera House in October.
4. The theatrical culture has changed in Prince’s 70 year career
In his recorded interview with the American Theatre Wing, Prince says he feels that the culture of theatre has shifted during his career.
Ethel Merman played as much on the road as she played on Broadway. Mary Martin played South Pacific and One Touch of Venus [on Broadway] and then went right out on the road and played Ethel Merman’s role in Annie Get Your Gun.
While blockbuster stars do tour with major musical productions in Australia, a big star will almost never remain in a production for a regional tour in America.
We dealt in a different artistic currency, because the theatre was your life.
5. A director from way back!
A three hour interview with Jeffrey Seller (producer of Hamilton), released as “The Hal Prince Talks” earlier this year, Prince spoke about working with elements of the theatre as child – well before he completed his liberal arts degree at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
When Prince was a youngster, he would listen to broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera and direct toy soldiers on a model stage at home.
I had a cardboard stage and some tin soldiers from the Five and Dime, and I’d listen to the plot and then move the soldiers around while they were singing on the stage of the Met.
Since they were always singing in a foreign language, which I didn’t speak, my first act would end sometimes before the first act at the Met, and sometimes they’d say ‘And the great golden curtain has just closed,’ and I was still in the middle of the first act.