Looking back on his astonishing seven-decade career, Harold Prince sums it up in nine words: "Putting unlikely shows on Broadway that ultimately made history."
Why should he be modest? The man who produced "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof" and then directed "Cabaret" and six game-changing Stephen Sondheim shows can be justifiably proud of the leading role he played in making the contemporary musical more adult and more ambitious. "Prince of Broadway," which runs through Oct. 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in New York, celebrates the scope of his achievement in a revue containing dozens of numbers from his iconic productions.
If you can't catch that show, don't despair. Prince's new memoir, "Sense of Occasion," ranges even more widely, covering virtually every show Prince has done since his apprenticeship under George Abbott in the 1950s. To accomplish that, he takes the unconventional step of incorporating into this book the entire text of his 1974 memoir, "Contradictions."
It's a good idea, actually. Written in the heady middle of his historic collaboration with Sondheim, "Contradictions" is worth reprinting simply for its vivid behind-the-scenes portrait of the creation of "Company," "Follies" and "A Little Night Music." What makes it an indispensable prelude to the 19 new chapters on Prince's career since 1974, however, is the producer/director's savvy assessment of the challenges of doing artistically meaningful work in the commercial theater. Those challenges have grown exponentially greater, Prince reminds us in the present-day "reflections" that he appends to each chapter from "Contradictions."
For instance, Chapter 2, on the first two shows he produced, is followed by this rueful elaboration: "The Pajama Game cost $169,000, and Damn Yankees cost $162,000. This is somewhere in the neighborhood of the budget for shoes and wigs on a current Broadway production."
Those higher stakes are evident as the new material in "Sense of Occasion" begins with "Pacific Overtures," the fourth Prince-Sondheim collaboration. It lost its entire capitalization. But Prince's warm recollections of that musical about Western imperialism reveals no diminution in his appetite for risk-taking. He does, however, reveal a weariness with Broadway's increasingly insane economics, which eventually prompted him to give up his dual role as producer/director. The loyal investors who had stuck with Prince since "The Pajama Game" were just not capable of covering the $3.5 million budget of "Sweeney Todd." ("Pacific Overtures," only three years earlier, cost $650,000.) He decided just to direct and leave the money-raising to a team of five producers, who had to wait 11 years to recoup the cost of the greatest of the Sondheim-Prince shows.
The painful failure of "Merrily We Roll Along" in 1981 ended his partnership with Sondheim, and Prince describes his reaction in characteristically terse terms: "Of course I still miss the creative sessions," he writes. "We both went alternative routes successfully; still. . . . " He's not one for delving into his or anyone else's personal emotions, and readers looking for juicy gossip will have to look elsewhere. A mildly critical account of Madeline Kahn's unprofessional behavior in "On the Twentieth Century" is as catty as he gets.
Instead, he offers a show-by-show narrative that devotes as much attention to short-lived pieces like "Parade" and "LoveMusik" as to commercial hits such as "Evita," "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and the international mega-smash "The Phantom of the Opera." At the same time, although he focuses on his work as a director, he seldom fails to mention how long the show ran and whether it had subsequent productions. Prince has never chosen projects with their profitability in mind, but he understands that in the commercial theater you can't make art if you don't make a profit at least some of the time.
Prince's accomplishments as a director are well served by his cogent snapshots of the creative process, in particular his intriguing discussion of "metaphor as the spine of a musical book" and his appreciative tributes to his designers and choreographers. But it's telling that his most passionate statement of faith, in the book's closing pages, is directed at the corporate investors and producers who now dominate Broadway, whom he urges to "think in terms of art" as a winning business strategy. The record-smashing success of "Hamilton," with its hip-hop-inflected score and multiracial cast, would seem to bear out Prince's assertion that "there are greater profits to be realized in courageous, ground-breaking projects." But the endless procession of jukebox musicals and revamped Disney movies suggests that there's plenty of money to be made in cloning yesterday's hits as well. Broadway continues to view innovation with a wary eye, and its economic bloat has left no room for producer/directors of the sort Prince once was.
"Sense of Occasion" is a determinedly un-nostalgic book. On the eve of his 90th birthday, Prince is still planning new productions. Nonetheless, his forthright account of a lifetime spent defying theatrical odds will leave longtime theatergoers wistful for the days when individual taste, guts and faith in a personal vision were occasionally enough to get a show to Broadway.
Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."
By Harold Prince
Applause. 343 pp. $29.99