Harold Prince is in the middle of a crisis.
If there’s anyone who’s used to dealing with crises — whether getting a massive chandelier to fall over the audience at just the right moment, or assuaging a cantankerous diva — it’s Prince. The legendary theater producer and director has been responsible for helming some of Broadway’s biggest musicals, and the list of shows he’s had a hand in shaping (49 and counting, not including revivals, over 67 years) is as illustrious as it is long, earning him a record-breaking 21 Tony Awards.
His newest musical, “Prince of Broadway,” a Manhattan Theatre Club production directed by Prince (with co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman), compiles musical numbers from some of his most popular shows, and opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Aug. 24.
But just days before, when he should have been laser-focused on that show, a flood in his Manhattan apartment was upstaging his plans.
“I was kept awake all last night by pumps pumping out water, then the beep, beep, beep when the alarm system went off,” says Prince, with a loud, hearty laugh. “More of my life these days seems to be dealing with floods than making art.”
AN EARLY OBSESSION
When it comes to a life in the theater, particularly Prince’s, that dealing-with-floods idea is a pretty apt metaphor.
“I’ve wanted to be in the theater since I was 8 years old,” says Prince, 89, known affectionately as Hal. “It’s a lucky thing to know as a young person what you want to do with your life.”
Starting out as an (unpaid) office boy for renowned producer-director George Abbott, Prince followed in Abbott’s footsteps, and perhaps more than any other individual in modern theater history, helped shape and expand the once-conventional notions of what a Broadway musical could be, from ’60s classics with dramatic heft (like “Fiddler”) to ’70s concept musicals (“Company”) to ’80s spectacles (“Phantom”). But just how he did that is harder to pin down.
“I think my dad goes to work to express something very profound about the way he’s looking at the world or his life,” says his daughter, Daisy Prince, also a director. “And he hopes other people will find his work engaging and invest in it the same way he does.”
Unlike great choreographers (the late Bob Fosse, whom he’s worked with) or composers (the late Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, John Kander — worked with, worked with, worked with) the role of a director or producer is less clearly understood, and often varies from project to project (“West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Company,” “Evita,” “Sweeney Todd,” and that chandelier dropper, “The Phantom of the Opera.”)
Part alchemist, part therapist, part cheerleader, Prince is known for his uncanny knack to see the potential in a project, even in its most nascent stages. And his ability to cast just the right person in a role (Joel Grey in “Cabaret,” Northport’s Patti LuPone in “Evita,” Michael Crawford in “The Phantom of the Opera”) is an art form itself.
“You’re in the job of stimulating artists to do their best,” he says. “You criticize and you support, both at the same time.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Taking on that kind of responsibility often meant spending months out of every year on the road, working on shows out of town, a sacrifice that kept him from his wife and two children. That hardship comes with the job, he says, but maintaining a strong family unit kept him grounded.
In an effort to clarify what Daddy did, Prince’s wife, Judy, accompanied him on the road with their two young children, so the kids could see the process firsthand. The show: Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.”
“So there they were sitting in a restaurant on opening night watching their father read the most disastrous reviews,” Prince recalls, “then watching Uncle Steve, book writer John Weidman and their father sit down and talk about how to fix the show, which we did.”
Watching Dad face the bad reviews — and for all his successes, he has endured his share of flops — was “brutal,” says Daisy Prince, but he wore his resilience like armor.
“The truth is, his motor is always running, and . . . there’s nooooo reverse in my father’s car,” says Daisy, chuckling. “It’s always running forward, he’s always chasing the next passion, the next project he wants to do.”
Where does that resilience come from? Prince’s parents were not likely sources or role models. (Prince’s father left when he was young and had little to do with the boy growing up.) “I think that’s why he became very protective, supportive and affectionate,” Daisy says, “and why being a part of something larger is really important to him.”
The scope of that “something larger” — the thing he’s been chasing since he and a stage manager first dreamed up “The Pajama Game” (Prince’s first Broadway producer credit back in 1954) — is what he hopes to share in his latest show.
They tested an early version of “Prince of Broadway” in Japan, where it was favorably received. Still, Prince wasn’t sure if the show would work for New York audiences.
“Then I got the idea that it should be about an empty space . . . and what we do to fill the space with our imaginations,” he says, referring to his decision to open the show on a raw, empty stage. “The whole opening unlocked the show, and makes it cohesive for my money — more an autobiography than a review. And that’s what I want it to be. About a life in the theater — it’s a very exciting life, if you’re lucky.”
COMPOSER, NO; COMPOSURE, YES!
Hal Prince may be a theater legend, but not everybody knows why that’s the case, exactly.
“When I got the Kennedy Center honor in 1994,” he explains, “an esteemed senator came up to me and said, ‘I’ve always been wanting to meet you. I courted my wife to your music, and we’ve been dancing to it ever since.’ It was the first I ever knew that there are people out there who think I write music.”
For the record, he doesn’t, but he has worked closely with Stephen Sondheim; John Kander and Fred Ebb; Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; Leonard Bernstein; Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cy Coleman; Andrew Lloyd Webber . . . well, you get the idea.
— Joseph V. Amodio