Harold Prince Details the Work and Research Behind 1968’s Zorba | Playbill

Special Features Harold Prince Details the Work and Research Behind 1968’s Zorba From conversations with Kander and Ebb to a research trip to Crete, Prince shared diary entries from his year-long journey with Zorba for the March 1969 issue of Playbill.
Herschel Bernardi and John Cunningham in Zorba on Broadway Friedman-Abeles/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

In these extraordinary diary excerpts, compiled and edited by Joan Alleman for the March 1969 Playbill, director Harold Prince tracks the progress of what would become the Tony-nominated musical Zorba, from initial interest to a research trip to Greece to just past opening night. In the process, he reveals the methodical, design-oriented approach he would bring to all of his projects, offering readers a rare glimpse into his process.

Sept. 22, 1967 (New York): Herschel Bernardi and Joe Stein have obviously been having some dish sessions backstage at Fiddler. In the past week, each of them has approached me individually about doing Zorba as a musical. I can’t for the life of me understand why it interests them. There was a splendid movie of it, fairly recently too, and I see no reason to compete with a camera. Also (shades of Illya, Darling), I don’t think I’m crazy to do all Greek music on the stage.

Oct. 10: I’m deep in Kazantzakis’ novel Zorba the Greek pressed on me by Joe. It’s a great novel, it really knocks me out. I never realized from the movie that Zorba was more than just the instinctual man… that he thinks about things, gets depressed, that he fears old age. The novel really concerns the existential questions that eventually all of us get around to asking— “What am I doing here? How does it all add up? What have I failed to do up to now that I must do before time runs out?” There is a marvelous passage early on in the book in which Zorba registers surprise at finding an old grandfather of ninety planting an almond tree. “My son,” explains the old man, “I carry on as if I should never die.” “And I,” replies Zorba, “carry on as if I was going to die any minute.”

Oct. 12: Finished reading Zorba last night. Struck again by how much more there is to it than just the story of a free spirit and tied-up young man. It really makes the strong point that death is not the inescapable fact of dying, but the tragedy of never having lived. Pondering on that age-old truth started me thinking about age-old theatrical conventions. What came to mind then was, of course, the Greek chorus. Suddenly, I found myself getting excited. What if we decided to do a musical version of Zorba in which the whole company would act as a chorus. Imagine—the whole company singing, playing musical instruments, observing and commenting on the action just as the traditional Greek chorus did. Why not? Allegro did. What could possibly be more pertinent, more indigenous than using our version of a chorus in a modern musical on a Greek theme.

Oct. 25: I can’t stop thinking about Zorba. I’m strongly interested in doing it now for I think we’re on to something that is special for the stage and has nothing to do with the movie. I have this fantasy of the curtain going up and the audience saying, “Ah, it’s not the movie. It’s going to be something else entirely.” One thing I’m certain of is that we’d better give them something different. Otherwise, we might just as well raise the curtain, lower a movie screen, and show the film.

Nov. 15: Called California to talk to Kander and Ebb about Zorba. [John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist on Cabaret.] Their reaction was absolutely positive without a note of caution. They will be tied up on The Happy Time for several more weeks, but after that both of them expressed interest in tackling Zorba.

Jan. 28 (London): Began rehearsals today for the London production of Cabaret. Came back to the hotel exhausted by work and the time change and ready to fall into bed. But instead I stayed up half the night rereading Joe Stein’s book for Zorba. Joe has written it as though it were a play without music—with the chorus observing and with indications on where they might comment musically on the action. Swell!

Jan. 31 (London): I’ve been trying to reconstruct in my memory just how the National Greek Theatre used the chorus. As far as I can recall it was used stiffly and traditionally and not all emotionally. I’m thinking now that our chorus should be a bunch of loudmouths having a good time in a bouzouki parlor, who just can’t resist commenting on what is going on around them.

Feb. 7 (London): Kander and Ebb arrived. They have read Joe’s first draft and they too are enthusiastic. Today they played four songs for me… the opening and closing number called “Life is What You Do” (it’s perfect); a charming French music hall song for Madame Hortense called “No Boom Boom”; “The Crow,” a haunting and frightening thing sung by the old women who wait for Hortense to die so that they can strip her home of all portable possessions; and a ballad, which I disliked so we cut it on the spot.

April 20 (New York): Judy and I leave for Crete on Wednesday. I bought a new 8mm Instamatic movie camera today, the kind that does everything itself, and in the nine days we will be in Greece I hope to retrace Zorba’s steps. Incidentally, I have been reading some of the correspondence the real Zorba (whose name was George, not Alexis) had with Kazantzakis. It is fascinating how exactly his outlook on life matches the fictional Zorba’s. His manner of speaking is very different though. He mutilates the language… although you can’t be sure if that is the translation or perhaps for comic effect.

April 24 (Crete): After a layover of less than an hour in Athens, we flew directly here. We were met by Constantine Nicoloudis, the guide sent to us by the Greek tourist people. Because of our time problem, he laid out a schedule, which will have us doing something every two minutes… I was taken back by how different Crete was from the rest of Greece. I had heard they called themselves a continent and it doesn’t take long to understand why. For one thing, the island is big—almost embarrassingly big for an island. And though it is surrounded by water, it is land country. You get the feeling of manure and greenery instead of the sense you get elsewhere in Greece of great whitewashed wetted-down streets. The people are different too. They are farmers, not sailors. Their sophistication (interesting word “sophistication”’) seems more basic—a conglomerate of dignity, fire, and a deep acceptance of what life is about… Also the architecture is special. In Crete it’s matriarchal. (Greek architecture is phallic—straight up and down like those swell new buildings on Park Avenue.) Here it’s all round and soft and curved— “enveloping” is perhaps the right word. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright rather than Mies van der Rohe.

April 26 (Crete): Going up into the mountains today, Judy and I drove through a plateau where 1,000 windmills were all going at once. Gorgeous!

April 27 (Crete): We came today to Kritsas, the town in which they made the movie of Kazantzakis’ He Who Must Die. It’s a perfect town and in my mind it has already become the model for the town in Zorba… The buildings are all built on the side of a hill and piled on each other. At the base they are of brown stones, which become brown or white stucco halfway up. The roofs are of bleached red tile. Inside a typical house there is usually one room divided into two areas. In the sleeping area is a bed with a brightly colored hand-woven spread and pillows covered in embroidered linen. In one corner is a small shelf with a cross, a candle, and a picture of the Virgin Mary. If there are other pictures on the wall they are generally unframed, pink, tintype photographs of members of the family or contemporary advertisements clipped from magazines. The other section of the house has s a fireplace hung with cooking pots, two short-backed, very straight, wooden chairs with cane seats; a few low three-legged stools; and a ledge against the wall covered with a rug, which will seat three or four people. Floors are beaten earth.

April 28 (Irepetra, Crete): The most marvelous church bells work us up this morning. Very gay and lunatic… ding, ding, ding, dong, dong, dong They sounded like life… funny we keep calling it death, when we are really talking about life. I wonder if we might open our show with the sound of those bells.

April 29 (Anoghia, Crete): During the War, Anoghia was almost completely destroyed by the Nazis and a large percentage of its male population annihilated as an act of retaliation against the town for hiding two Englishmen, who had dared to kidnap a top German general out of Athens. The town is all new, so visually it has no relevance to our project…. But temperamentally, spiritually, it has great relevance.

April 30 (Crete): Today is our last day. Tomorrow night at this time we will be on a flight to New York. All told, I think it has been a wonderfully successful trip. In additional to talking to a lot of small city officials, drinking a lot of ouzo, gorging ourselves on that marvelous ice cream they make from goat’s milk, I think I’ve assimilated something of the mood and energy of this place. That must be a part of Zorba if it is to work… I’ve taken copious notes and photographed everything in sight and all of the detail will be helpful when we go into rehearsal. But I’m convinced that the really important thing is what has happened to me—inside. I think that this trip had made it easier for me to direct Zorba with a gut-level certainty about what is right and appropriate to these people and what is wrong.

May 3 (New York): The casting is going well. There was never any question, of course, that Herschel Bernardi and Maria Karnilova and John Cunningham would play the principal roles. Today we signed Carmen Alvarez for the part of the widow and I’m delighted about that. The chorus too is shaping up. They are all sizes, shades, and nationalities, and I really believe they will look as if they belong is a bouzouki parlor rather than like a bunch of Broadway kids impersonating Greeks.

May 7: I woke up this morning thinking about those crazy bells in Irepetra. I must wire Pat Zipprodt [costume designer], who is doing research in Crete, to make a tape recording of them for me.

May 12: A very funny letter from Pat Zipprodt concerning the miracle of the bells… “Deal Hal, On Thursday last, I arrived at Irepetra, which calls itself ‘Europe’s southernmost town’—that seems to me a fair assessment judging from the distance I traveled to get there. At any rate I did at last find the town, the church and the belfry—containing, so I was told, the best cast bells in Greece. (May I also say, they were cast in Russia.) I staked myself out in the courtyard, as nervous as on an opening night. Finally the hour arrived and the bell (notice, I said bell—singular) began to toll. Bong, bong, bong. Where was the three-bell aria I had come to the edge of the earth to hear? Where indeed! It seems that the great religious occasion that the bells were extoling was All Souls Day, the day of Mourning for the dead and in anybody’s country strictly a one-bell holy day. Dejected but undaunted, I made my way to the mayor on the chance I might be able to pay someone to play all three bells. ‘No, no, no!’ he said obviously alarmed. ‘If the people in the mountains hear the bells ringing, they will take it as a singular for some kind of attack or war or revolution and come down from the hills with guns.’ Finally a compromise was reached. The mayor himself would make a recording and send it to us... for ‘the Broadway’ on one condition… that in the Playbill for Zorba there will be a credit which reads as follows: Church bells recorded in Irapetra, Crete, Greece.


May 16: More news from Pat Z. She writes that she had unearthed a photograph of the real Madame Hortense, which she describes as “an aging photo of the world’s most unattractive scowl—a big triangle of a nose, sullen eyes, hair combed straight down, shoes as big as gunboats… Not by a long sight, a costume designer’s idea of a French courtesan.”

Sept. 2: We began rehearsals for Zorba today. It is my plan to rehearse this show in chronological order so that everyone in the company gets the feel of the story as it unfolds on the stage. The first scene is the bouzouki parlor and I think as soon as we have that right the mood will be set for the whole company. I tried to communicate to them the freedom of the bouzouki parlor… the indifferent (arrogant?) way they smoke, drink wine, look off into the wings, chew gum, pick their teeth… There should be a lot of living going on in the beginning of this show.

Sept. 10: Zorba is coming along. One of the nicest things is that the company seems to love working on it. I think it makes them feel like individuals and not just part of the scenery.

Nov. 10: I’ve scheduled four opening nights for Zorba instead of just one. I believe this will serve the following functions: (1) make the cast less nervous (2) satisfy the press, who like having a choice of dates (3) please my backers, who can now have the best seats any night during the first month, instead of being herded into the balcony for “the opening.”

Nov. 18: The verdict is in and there is general rejoicing. Even though The New York Times review is the most important and was so good, I was annoyed at the assumption that we were influenced by Quinn’s performance and the movie—the novel was always our inspiration… My favorite notice, I think, was Cecil Smith’s of the L.A. Times. He called the show—“a massive, sprawling, paean of living that boils out of the stage in a volcanic current of dancing, singing, brawling, murdering, love-making…”

Dec. 7: Heaven bless Mrs. Kazantzakis. We’ve had such a wonderful exchange of letters that I feel we are old friends though we still haven’t met. Last week I sent her all the reviews, most of them marvelous; but on top of the pile I put the exception, the really awful notice in Time Magazine, which calls me every name under the sun and accuses our Zorba of being more Jewish than Greek. Then in today’s mail, this advice from Mrs. K.—a fitting end for this journal, I think. “For God’s sake,” she writes, “don’t worry about the reviews. They are always excessive one way or the other. Of course, it’s stupid of some critics to compare the musical with the film and what if Zorba is ‘less American’ and more ‘Jewish’? Zorba belongs—or better is—everybody. He is as much Chinese as Indian, Negro, Greek or Jew Hasid from Poland. But aside from all this I am sure he leans to the Greek. The best retaliation is that your Zorba lives and laughs and sings many months or years in Broadway…”

Production Photos: Zorba on Broadway in 1968

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