Theater's Prince, crowned yet again


Producer/director Hal Prince will receive the fourth annual Sondheim Award from Signature Theatre. (Melanie Burford/Prime Collective/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Lest you imagine the career’s a wrap for 85-year-old Harold Prince, imagine again. Not only is he working on a retrospective musical, “The Prince of Broadway,” based on his own illustrious résumé, one that includes “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” He is also beginning preparations to direct a wholly new one, adapted from the 2007 indie film “The Band’s Visit,” to premiere at Hartford Stage in Connecticut next year.

“I’m still tampering with the title,” Prince says of the latter project, which he explains will bring to the stage the story of the Alexandria, Egypt, police band, invited to perform at an Israeli arts center, that turns up lost in an unsuspecting Jewish settlement. And what of “The Prince of Broadway,” twice announced for the Great White Way and twice canceled?

“It’s just fine!” declares the producer-director with 21 Tony Awards — and, clearly, still counting. “They had trouble raising the money. I understand that,” he adds, revealing that the show will now be produced first in Tokyo, at Umeda Arts Theater, owned by the Japanese conglomerate Hankyu Corp., with the idea of Broadway after. Thanks to the global success of “Phantom” and before that, a U.S. bicentennial gift to Japan of a film of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Prince-directed “Pacific Overtures,” he has a lively following there.

“I’m going to get the production I want,” says Prince, and given his record, you have no right to question the assertion. In a navy blazer and sea-blue sweater, his face framed by the well-groomed beard that appears in every photograph of him over the decades in the company of Broadway royalty — from Bob Fosse to Sondheim, Angela Lansbury to Michael Bennett, Zero Mostel to Kander and Ebb —Prince looks as chipper as a guy half his age.

Which is how he feels. “I hate it when I see ‘85,’ ” he says. “Because, come on, I’m 40.”

Still, he’s reached that venerated stage when the accolades slow simply because there are so few left to give him. His Kennedy Center Honors is ancient history, having had it bestowed on him in 1994, during the first Clinton Administration. So here is Arlington’s own Signature Theatre to fill the void: it named Prince this year’s recipient of its Stephen Sondheim Award, which previously went to Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone. The award, given in consultation with its namesake composer-lyricist to honor contributions to the musical theater, will be presented to Prince on Monday night, at a gala Signature benefit at the Embassy of Italy. He says he's thrilled to be receiving it.

Prince’s suite of offices in Rockefeller Center, adorned with posters of the dozens of shows he’s produced or directed or produced and directed, even now has the energy of a factory rather than a museum. Assistants hustle in and out of his sunlit office, as Prince reaches for the phone again and again, peppering those at the outer desks with requests for statistics and other details to fill out his stories. So allergic to the concept of retirement is he that he wants it made absolutely clear that “Prince of Broadway” is in no manner a valedictory, the way that 1989’s “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway” was taken to be for that late, great director and choreographer. It is to be seen, like the forthcoming musical about the Egyptian band, as just another step on a very long ladder.

One would have to say, though, that if anyone working on Broadway these days had earned a right to a beach umbrella and a hammock, it would be Prince. Although he hasn’t had a truly seismic hit since the revelatory revival of “Show Boat” he staged in 1994 that ran for nearly 1,000 performances, his directorial work has been seen on Broadway as recently as 2007 with the inventive “Lovemusik” at Manhattan Theatre Club set to the melodies of Kurt Weill.

It’s no cliche to say the Broadway musical would not have been the same without him. “I still remember ‘Sweeney Todd,’ going to that on Broadway when I was in high school and sitting there with my jaw dropped,” recalls Eric Schaeffer, Signature’s artistic director, who directed a Broadway revival of a show that Prince first directed with Bennett: Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 “Follies.” “You never saw anything like that,” Schaeffer adds of his encounter with “Sweeney.” “It just feels every show he did always broke the mold. And that’s just inspiring.”

What becomes a legend most? Work. Between 1954 and 1961, Prince was a lead producer of a string of hit musicals, among them “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “West Side Story” and “Fiorello!,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. By the early ’60s, he was the sole — yes, only — producer of huge shows such as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fiddler.” (Consider that today, the credits for even the sorriest musicals list dozens of people above the title who call themselves “producers.”)

In 1963, he produced and directed the original Broadway production of “She Loves Me!” and performed similar double duty in 1966 for Fred Kander and John Ebb’s “Cabaret” as well as throughout the richest period of Sondheim’s career, encompassing “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures” and “Sweeney Todd.” (By then, Ruth Mitchell had become his go-to associate producer.) He and Sondheim parted artistic ways in 1981 after the failure of “Merrily We Roll Along,” but mythology to the contrary, there was never a personal falling-out between them, Prince says. They reunited for the 2003 premiere of Sondheim and Weidman’s “Bounce,” later retitled “Road Show” under new director John Doyle. The musical made it to New York’s Public Theater, but never to Broadway.

Oh, right. Prince also directed Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita.” And for 10,480 performances, his direction of “Phantom” has been on display. The show has run on Broadway longer than Adele has been on the Earth.

This breadth of experience accords Prince a certain authority on the condition of Broadway today, and he’s eager to share his concerns. Fearful of sounding as if he’s sitting in judgment, he chooses his words carefully. But it’s also clear that he perceives some of the same things as some of those paid to reflect on the state of what he calls theater’s “store window to the whole world”: that an artistic narrowing has occurred on Broadway that has to be corrected.

“There are some swell shows to see,” he says, singling out the Tony-winning musical “Once” as one of the few adventurous shows to do well there. “But there’s not a menu, not a spectrum.”

Prince is certainly not the only old hand to notice that the selection of works on Broadway has migrated markedly toward star-driven revivals and new musicals built on movie brands, and away from challenging material; the respected producer Emanuel Azenberg has been remarking on the shift for years. Prince’s voice, though, amplifies the chorus. And in suggesting that hits of the past, like “Cabaret” or “A Little Night Music,” might not have made it to Broadway if the current producing climate existed back then, he is underlining what others have noted: an unfortunate blurring of what it means to be a producer — the person who historically raised the money, put the artistic teams together and supplied wisdom and vision.

“Usually, it’s too damn many,” Prince says of the multitudinous individuals and corporations now often listed above the titles of Broadway shows. (To take one example: “Kinky Boots,” the new musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, includes the names of 31 people and companies as above-the-title producers of the show.) It’s an open secret on Broadway that many of those now receiving producers’ billing are not producers, merely investors, who by virtue of their money are in essence buying the title and the right to trot up to the stage on Tony night when their show wins.

The input into a production’s development that these investor-producers often demand, Prince says, is diluting the ranks of truly creative producers. “I’m saying that where they’re getting the capitalization is from people who think they know more than they know,” he explains. “I know it’s cutting down on the versatility of what we can present, the variety.”

“For many years I had patronage in the form of investors, 175 of them,” Prince explains, adding that they were not financiers or deep-pocketed individuals, but “wardrobe mistresses and stage managers.” Often they made money: the original “Fiddler,” for example, has paid back 3,884 percent on the original investment, and is still issuing payouts, he says.

“But when you do something like ‘Pacific Overtures’ — Sondheim’s cerebral, short-lived 1976 musical about foreign powers in 19th-century Japan — “your investors didn’t expect a financial return. They expected a return in satisfaction, in pride.”

Prince believes the slackening of this bond has not been helpful. He himself backed away from producing many years ago, daunted by the multi-million-dollar sums required to mount a show. The lavish original “Follies,” he remarks, was produced for a mere $800,000; the Kennedy Center’s 2011 revival on Broadway had a price tag 10 times that amount.

So even though he worries about the business’s artistic health — “There’s a great deal of money to finance revivals; why are they not putting their money in young people?” — Prince has not lost faith. He still talks about his next gig there, a “Prince of Broadway” or the musical about the police band in Israel, and the hope that as the theater’s one monumental staging ground, it won’t be dismissed as irrelevant, or inhospitable to a whole range of artistic possibilities.

The world waits, too, to see what he’s got to show. Because Hal Prince still sets a standard. As Schaeffer put it, “Who doesn’t grow up in the theater and say, ‘I want to be like Hal Prince?’ “

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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