Zero Hour, Jim Brochu’s prize-winning portrait of Zero Mostel, ended its month’s return July 9, but almost all of the audience lingered for the post-show talkback featuring Harold Prince, who produced two of Mostel’s great, Tony-winning performances: Pseudolus in 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Tevye in 1964’s Fiddler on the Roof.
He was joined on stage by one of the producers of Zero Hour, Kurt Peterson, and later by Brochu after he had removed his stage makeup.
Peterson led with: What was it like to work with Mostel?
Prince, in his characteristic pensive pose (glasses on forehead), widened his eyes at the prospects that presented, then smiled and tossed a bouquet at Brochu’s roaring rant of a portrayal. “I think subliminally, subconsciously, you learn that from this show,” he said. “It’s a wonderful performance, largely very accurate. The thing that isn’t mentioned—but you have to believe it—is that Zero was so damned talented, so intelligent, that he bored easily. . . . That was the hardest part about him. He was almost too smart, too impatient, just to do the same damn thing night after night.”
The Mostel monotony was countered with occasional flights of on-stage mischief, he said. In Forum, this took the form of slipping anachronisms into the text, much to the annoyance of the show’s creators, who’d left no room for a Cadillac at the Coliseum.
Prince cut his teeth as a director (gnashed his teeth was more like it) doing backstage battle with Mostel because neither George Abbott, who directed Forum, nor Jerome Robbins, who directed Fiddler, looked back after their show opened.
“There was a successful national company of Fiddler that Jerry never saw at all. He came back once—the night we became the longest-running musical on Broadway.
“As a frustrated producer-wannabe-director, I knew how important it was that the director show up regularly. I think that’s why Phantom of the Opera has been running all these years.” (Prince famously returns to take out its “improvements.”)
On one particular re-inspection of Fiddler, Prince noticed that Mostel, during “If I Were a Rich Man,” allowed his jacket sleeve to flop into the milk containers. Then, he went out to the orchestra pit and rung it dry over the orchestra. “That’s when I thought he’d probably had enough of playing it. He only played the part a little less than a year, but he came back in revivals and so on, and was just terrific as always.”
The Shuberts were very much against Mostel leaving Fiddler and pressured Prince into renegotiating. “Not that I didn’t love what Zero did, but I didn’t think he’d continue to do it. I didn’t think he’d be patient, but I caved. We sat down and knocked out a contract. Then, I started to walk out, and the lawyer said, ‘Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you: Zero needs a car and chauffeur to and from the theatre. I said, ‘I’m taking the deal off the table. Thank you very much, gentlemen.’ I thought with what we were paying him, he could pay his way to and from the theatre.”
Instead, Prince cast Luther Adler as the second of many Tevyes. “The effort was to take it away from being The Zero Mostel Show because some day Zero Mostel would be leaving. This eminent Jewish theatre star would play it not remotely like Zero, and that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly, it became, finally, Fiddler on the Roof.”
Of course, Prince has himself to thank or blame for the Mostel Tevye. “Milton Berle absolutely was the first choice,” he recalled. “I don’t remember if Phil [Silvers] was in the running, but I do know that Red Buttons’ name was mentioned.”
Prince’s candidate for the part, always, was Mostel. “We’d had a terrific experience before with Forum, and he was such a larger-than-life personality. I talked him up when Uncle Miltie went away. Milton was, by the way, an adorable man—but something to handle. I came into my office one day, and he was on the phone, sitting with his feet on the desk. I thought, ‘This has got to stop. We’ve got to get Zero.’”
Forum was no stroll in the country. It got off to a stumbling start in Philadelphia and D.C. Prince still remembers The Washington Post headline—“Mr. Abbott: Close It.”
“We played the National Theatre never to more than three or four rows of audience, and never got a snicker from them during the entire show, but Zero and Jack Gilford and everybody else played it as if they were getting laughs all the time. I thought that was about as professional and extraordinary as you can get in the business.
“It was pretty glum around there. My job was cheerleader, saying ‘This is going to be a smash on Broadway.’” He based his optimism on the gypsy runthrough—sans scenery and costumes—that was given for chorus kids before the show hit the road. “They went nuts, so I lived on the memory of that and kept saying, ‘It’ll be fine.’”
The problem was that Forum had trouble identifying itself at the outset. “Steve Sondheim had written a swell opening number which Davey Burns sang, ‘Love Is in the Air.’ Actually—I didn’t know this until the other day—Steve had written yet an earlier number that would have served the show, but Abbott didn’t like it.”
A decade later, Sondheim used that reject, “Prologos, Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” to jump-start his other Burt Shevelove collaboration, The Frogs.
It is interesting that Forum’s secret savior would be the same man who directed and choreographed Mostel’s other massive hit, Fiddler. Jerome Robbins came up with an opener that immediately set the tone of things to come: “Comedy Tonight.”
“It really was about that opening,” said Prince. “The script was sensational. There were very few rewrites. It was cast brilliantly. That opening number didn’t go in until New York so we didn’t have a happy time until we got back to Broadway.”
The dicey thing about this uncredited collaboration was that Robbins and Mostel were bitter enemies on opposite sides of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Communist witch-hunts of the ‘50s. Sondheim knew from West Side Story that Robbins was the man for the job, but Prince refused to call him.
Eventually, they did broach the subject with Mostel. “Zero asked, ‘You haven’t asked me to have lunch with him?’ I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Well, then, send for him.’”
The night Prince made that crucial call, Robbins was in California getting the Oscar for West Side Story. He got on a plane the next morning and flew straight to Washington to begin work repairing Forum’s faulty start.
Brochu wondered if the rumor was true that, when Robbins did arrive, Mostel greeted him with, “Hi ya, Loose Lips.” Recognizing a good story, Prince said, “My memory’s not that good—but ‘Sure.’ I’ll tell you what I do remember, and it’s very much in character with the Zero that I knew and that you played. Zero made a deal to behave, and he behaved all the time when Jerry was there, but the minute Jerry left, he had a lot of stuff to say to the rest of the cast, so he got it out that way.”
Mostel represents twin peaks in Prince’s career, and he will have a definite place in Prince of Broadway, a musical look-back at the career of a theatrical legend. Previews begin August 3 for an August 24 opening at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman.
“If I Were a Rich Man” will be presented in a way that points up its universality. “The song worked in Japan—it’s worked all over the world,” Prince pointed out. “Here it’ll be sung by the great August Wilson actor, Chuck Cooper, a giant of a creature like Zero. I’ve been rehearsing the last two days, and it’s brilliant.”
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