Harold Prince has loomed large over Broadway for nearly 70 years. The visionary director-producer has had a hand in some of the theatre’s most influential and beloved musicals, from The Pajama Game in 1954 (the first show he co-produced), to Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and She Loves Me in 1963 (the first Broadway show he produced and directed).
Cabaret followed in 1966, establishing Prince as a serious-minded innovator with a command of the concept musical, while the 1970s ushered in a prolific collaboration with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim resulting in groundbreaking works that experimented with form, content, and style, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, and Sweeney Todd. Even their troubled 1981 venture Merrily We Roll Along remains a musical puzzle that continues to inspire directors.
His association with Andrew Lloyd Webber, beginning with Evita in 1978, would lead them both to their biggest commercial success, The Phantom of the Opera, the global phenomenon that is still drawing audiences 30 years after its premiere.
Along the way, Prince picked up a record-breaking 21 Tony Awards (including a Tony Honor for Lifetime Achievement in 2008), so it’s only fitting that Prince of Broadway—a musical retrospective of his life’s work—should at last arrive in New York.
Prince sat down with Playbill during rehearsals for Prince of Broadway to reflect on his latest Broadway project and take a look back at some of the musicals that defined his career.
Directing wasn’t the first career path you saw for yourself in theatre, you initially wanted to be a playwright, correct?
Harold Prince: A lousy one. I wanted to be [a playwright] but I wasn’t, and I knew that right away. I didn’t get into the theatre to do musicals. I liked plays. But, I also wasn’t a good stage manager. I figured that one out years ago.
You’ve had a great influence on the narrative structure of the musicals you’ve directed. Do you feel that your early desire to be a playwright influenced your approach as a director and the projects you took on?
I think I certainly wanted to be what we currently call a creative producer, and that’s what the theatre needs, more creative producers. Though I couldn’t write, I had taste, and I felt something about storytelling. Certainly some of the shows were generated as ideas for musicals in my office by chance. With Company, Sondheim said, “My friend George Furth has written seven plays, and they want to do it [as a play], but something’s wrong, he thinks.” So, I read the seven plays and I thought three of them have a subject that’s in common, and it’s marriage, there’s a musical in this.
Each of your shows adheres to its own unique set of rules—from dramatic structure, to the style of acting, and the relationship of the action to the physical production. When you first approach the material, how do you begin to conceive what the audience experience will be and the world in which the show will exist?
I depend a lot on scenery. It motivates me, and I have to figure out how a show is going to look first. Then the motor of the show becomes part of the scenery. I do a lot of talking about metaphor, I think about it a lot. Sweeney Todd unlocked for me by being about the Industrial Age. It hasn’t been about that with anybody else. Nobody has ever done it set within a factory but me. When I said to Steve [Sondheim], “I can put this in the Industrial Age in a factory, which would make everybody share the same depressing life, and they would be open to revenge”—not all for the same reasons—but they’d be more than slightly unhinged. The first thing [Sonheim and Hugh Wheeler] said was, “Do we have to write for this?” I said, “Absolutely not. I’ll just put it in a factory.” [Scenic designer] Eugene Lee found a factory in New England, we bought it for $25-grand, brought it to New York, and then reconstituted a lot of it. He’s a great set designer and he did that. I had my metaphor, and the writers didn’t care. And as you’ve seen, a lot of Sweeneys since then they’ve never bothered with it.
In the case of Phantom, the metaphor was easy. I thought, “What is it in human beings that makes them repel atavistically from deformity?” We all know that’s crazy, and you shouldn’t and it’s just wrong. Yet, your immediate reaction is to repel. I thought that was the core of the show, and so at the end of the show when she kisses the Phantom, it’s the same moment as in The Elephant Man. There’s no new moments, ever, you just dress them up differently.
How did you go about selecting and narrowing down the shows that you’ve included in Prince of Broadway?
It’s choice material that I love. I think we’re taking from about 16 shows. There were more, but it would have been too damn long. It’s the right length now. I think it’s all about pacing.
The scenes and the costumes seem very much influenced by the original productions. The only thing I’m not doing is consciously trying to stage things identically to the way they were originally because I don’t remember. Memory is hard. I’m not one of those people that remembers because they spend a lot of time in the past. We decided we’ll do all this stuff, but we’ll stage it fresh.
Are you making new discoveries and adjustments as you revisit the material?
Sure, you do. There are some changes, absolutely. One of the measures I find that makes me think something’s right is that all the numbers—the segments—seem much shorter than they did originally. I think it’s probably a good sign. In rehearsal I said to somebody, “Didn’t we do reprises of that?” And they said, “No, we didn’t do reprises of that.” I thought, “Oh, really? It’s that short?” That’s a good sign I suppose.
Critics and admirers have characterized your musicals as elaborate spectacles, but they are often minimal and suggestive in terms of the physical production. How do you create that sense of occasion and emotional scale with such economy?
Less is more. The reason less is more is because what makes the theatre unique is the compact between live performers and live audiences. It doesn’t happen anywhere else. The more blanks you leave in—visually on the stage—the more the audience is complicit; the more they fill in those blanks, and that’s very important. Everybody looks at the stage in Phantom, sees a black enamel box, and puts wallpaper up; but no two people put the same wallpaper and that’s very important.
I’ve always been accused of directing spectacles, and there are spectacular moments in every show—God knows; a lot of them. But, generally, less is more, and the more engaged the audience is in providing the rest with their imagination, the better. There’s a wonderful production right now [that does this], Indecent, I think it’s just brilliant.
What keeps you hungry as a theatre artist?
Many different things, but often politics because I’m a political animal, and I care. Evita was the best experience of that because it was perfect—in the sense that it was a perfect examination of “We don’t know who lives in the White House.” Unfortunately, we now know who lives in the White House. You know what I mean? It’s a flip thing to say. In the case of Juan and Eva, they were these altogether too human and frail people, yet they got iconic images. The show was about what you see and what’s reality, and that’s true of everybody; true of anybody who lives in the White House, ever.
Cabaret, at the time, a lot of people said, “What are you doing with all those Nazis?”
I take no credit for realizing that West Side Story was an awesome project, but it really was a strange gang warfare on the streets of New York. It was difficult.
It’s hard to pigeonhole me. When Andrew Lloyd Webber said, “I want to do Phantom,” I said yes immediately because of a very simple thing: We both yearned for a romantic musical.
There’s a wide variety of what interests me. Less so, though, with musical comedy. When they asked me to do On the Twentieth Century, I was free and I was glad. They didn’t know that I was doing it to see if I could do it. I wasn’t sure because I had never done anything like it. I’d never done farce. I’d never done pratfalls and people walking into doors. So I chose the best actors in the business for it, and they taught me, and I edited what they did. Kevin Kline and John Cullum are genius, dazzling performers.
But everything that Company is about and everything that Follies is about is intensely interesting to me. And the authors are peerless. I’m very lucky to have been born when I was and to have collaborated with artists of that quality.
Throughout your career you’ve worked with some groundbreaking designers. Looking back, who were some of your most influential collaborators in terms of design?
Number one was Boris Aronson (Cabaret, Company, Follies). We worked a lot, and were really close. Eugene Lee (Sweeney Todd) is terrific. There was a Russian man named Alexander Okun, and we did a show called Rosa. That set is as good as anything I’ve ever worked on in my life. He moved to Florida to make a living to design restaurants and stuff. He was a great designer. The design for On the Twentieth Century is as good as any you’ll ever see. There are a lot of designers, and I put great store in them. If I can’t see a show, physically, I’m not good at directing it. There was an interesting thing with Merrily We Roll Along, I couldn’t figure out ever how it should look. I called the gang in my office to sit down and said, “The thing I really can feel is that you come into a theatre and kids pull racks of costumes on and they pilfer what they want to play a scene. We do it that way.” But I didn’t have the nerve. I don’t know that it wouldn’t work, but it certainly was the only thing I could think of. I’m sure there’s a better solution than that, but I couldn’t think of it.
You’ve given many artists their first break, especially writers. What draws you to new musical theatre writers?
Sometimes I really know, but sometimes there’s a buzz about people and you hear it, and you think, “I should look into that.” When we all started there seemed to be a collective age; everybody seemed 26 when they hit it big on Broadway. Now, everybody’s 46. Not everybody—there are the guys who just did Dear Evan Hansen—so there are no rules to any of it, but now it takes longer to do a show. Most of that is to find a producer and find the money, but I did a show every year like clockwork. It doesn’t mean the show wasn’t just as good as the shows that take ten years, in fact, ten years can be too much.
Many shows today seem to languish in workshops and development, but when you were starting out as a producer, it was very common for writers to have a new show on Broadway every two years. What do you see as the reason for that disparity?
That’s because putting them on was not a difficult job financially. The Pajama Game cost $169,000, Damn Yankees $162,000, even Fiddler on the Roof cost a little over $330,000 or something.
The more you work the better you are. If you could get a show on every year... Stressing over five to ten years to get your show on is debilitating, and robs you of the experience of working on something new. You learn from working. I’m still learning, this is a form I haven’t worked in yet and it’s interesting.
What we need are more creative producers. I suppose no one would argue with that. The trajectory now is a musical or a play opens in a regional theatre somewhere and then everybody runs to see it. If it’s a hit then people put money in it, and pray it will be on Broadway.
For a new generation of theatre artists, Prince of Broadway will be an introduction to your work. What do you hope they take away from the experience?
I think there’s a huge audience of young people who still love theatre and love new scores, and I think they’re my people. What’s happened is, I think the theatre has lost—to some extent—a sense of occasion. The fact that you were going to the theatre, and it was unlike going into a movie theatre. And I remember going to theatre, and putting my best suit on and sitting on the second balcony and being enthralled.
There were no sound systems, so the actors had to project, but you couldn’t quite hear in the second balcony for about five minutes, and then you could hear. It meant that somehow, something changed, whether you were sitting forward in your seat completely undistracted, and focused… That’s terrific.
Your productions embrace stagecraft and incorporate theatrical conceits into the storytelling, rather than trying to hide them or attempt to recreate a movie on stage. What about that is so appealing to you as a director?
I don’t cotton to high-tech much in theatre. There are moments when you have to have film; if you do Evita, you better have film, and you better have a camera, and you better have flash bulbs. That’s who they were. That show was about icons who were real people, and they’re not remotely the same as the pictures you see. So, in that case it’s justified. An awful lot of the time, I think, leaning on projections instead of scenery is not as emotionally rewarding.
We opened Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, and we had discerned that Her Majesty’s, one of the oldest theatres in London, had all the old theatre machinery in the cellar. Traps and things that worked by hand, and you cranked them up, and we did. All that machinery was re-oiled and the show was delivered by all that Victorian machinery. We came to New York to do the show, and of course, everything was automated. I remember vividly seeing the candles come up from the basement and I thought, “They’re all coming up like the Rockettes. I wonder what would happen if I got back to what I wanted in London?” And we timed that. So they come up a little out of sync now, and that pleases me. I don’t think anybody would ever notice it, but I think it’s right.
As a director, how do you sense when to stop working on a particular scene or a show, and that it’s time to step back and freeze it? Is it instinctive? What tells you that you’ve gotten it right?
You’re not always right. You have a deadline. You better freeze the damn show. Everyone says they always freeze the show, but sometimes you don’t. Often when you don’t freeze it, it’s because you’re troubling about it, and then it’s not going to turn out all that well. I think you put a deadline so you can say, “We’ve got to get there.” Then the cast can play the show for a week or so before anybody gets to see it. In the case of Phantom and Evita, I reckoned that they were dangerous, difficult shows to do, and that we would not be able to rewrite material. So, I thought that the first preview should be the show if you could possibly do that. Not a thing has been changed in Phantom or Evita from the first public performance in London. That’s unusual.
It was more determination than a miracle. It's all about the economy. To do Damn Yankees, I didn’t direct it, but I produced it, and we threw out eight songs, and put eight different ones in [during out-of-town tryouts]. When you throw out eight songs you usually have to throw out some costumes, and you may have to change some scenery. But it only cost $162,000 to do Damn Yankees on Broadway, so you could do that. You can’t do that anymore on Broadway, so you probably better get it right from the start.
Kiss of the Spider Woman was a show that had a difficult start during its 1990 developmental test run as part of New Musicals at SUNY Purchase. It stirred controversy after New York critics ignored your request to not review the show in its early stages, but it also gave you a rare opportunity to step back and re-conceive it from the ground up. What was that experience like?
The SUNY model was a really good idea. We had the original novelist Manuel Puig on board. He was infatuated with film—glamorous film. He took that and ran with it, but it was a terrible mistake. The show really wasn’t any good. We did it wrong. But the papers raked us over the coals. It was the luckiest disaster in the world because it was wrong. At SUNY it was about a Hollywood movie, and it’s really about a guy in a jail cell. More than a year later, whenever we decided to meet again and talk, I said, “The only way to do this show is in a jail. The whole damn thing.” How the hell do you do that? Jerome Sirlin, who was the set designer, works a lot on projections. He unlocked it. We projected on jail cells other places, but it was always a jail and that was very important. The chorus were all guys in a jail. They were scruffy-looking—terrible. And Chita Rivera was the iconic image. We had to make the mess we made before we got it right. That’s why the SUNY project was developed. Unfortunately, it would have been valuable for a lot of people [but it ended after Spider Woman.]
Which of your projects was the hardest to walk away from?
Merrily was the hardest to walk away from because my wife had said, “Do a show about kids,” and I thought she was right. We had two kids and my daughter was in it. I was largely responsible for it not happening. I could not see it, and that was bad. It’s been reprised with different age groups and so on. I think probably sometimes it’s been better than what we did; I don’t know. I don’t obsess too much when something doesn’t work.
What’s next after Prince of Broadway?
God knows I’m very eager that the fact that we’re doing this compendium of all my shows doesn’t seem to be a farewell project. I don’t want it to be. I don’t want to retire. I’d be a lousy retiree. I think maybe I have found the next project. It’s just an idea, but I fell in love with the theatre when I was ten. I think it’s simply wonderful if you really know what you want to do with your life. It’s a gift.
Get a first-look at Prince of Broadway below: