There is no GPS, or guidance system, for where your passions will lead from childhood. It stems mostly from imagination being inflamed by the written word, the audio sound, or the visual image. For myself, my charted course in life in writing about film came from my six-year-old eyes gazing upon my father watching crazy images of black and white and garish color emanating from what had to be a magic box of some kind. I was entranced and would beg him to let me watch along. It took some time (not sure if it was weeks, months or years as it is all a bit of a blur at this point thanks to aging’s mental cloudiness) but I became gradually aware of more specific aspect targets of my fascinations with cinema. Specifically the acting side of things. People who, through the power and pull of verbal conviction and affectation, were able to become another character entirely on screen. Being a keen advocate of play acting and the art of pretend myself, I fanned the flash thought in my head so greatly that I could become the great actor of them all, I created my own path as a child to reach this goal. Oddly, it led to pursuing a life treading the boards as it were. The live stage and everything from drama to comedy to musical theatre. Well, it started after the intervention of grade school happened. A baby obsession for the stage burst from the coupling of cinema and the mind sponge of a fan. Not the Mama Rose route to Broadway fame but it was what it was. It was also how I came to knowing the name, reputation, and impact of one of the maestros of the sawdust, grease paint and crowd-roaring milieu, Harold Smith “Hal” Prince. Prince, a legendary theatrical producer and director known for bringing some of the most iconic and enduring Broadway musicals of the 20th century to life, died on July 31, 2019 in Reykjavik, Iceland at the age of 91 after a brief illness.
It was while I was in the performing arts program at Abraham Lincoln Senior High School in my home city of San Jose, California that I really took an interest in Prince. Rather funny, in a way, as his forte was musical theatre and I soon found out that I was tone deaf and could not sing a lick. Just ask the teachers, directors and fellow actors whose ears I tormented! Still I was drawn to some of the projects that Prince would oversee at various career stages (Cabaret, Follies, A Little Night Music and even 1981’s Merrily We Roll Along, one of his few failures at 16 total performances). What I discovered is what I perceived to be an almost cinematic eye utilized by Prince in his mounting of the production and stage-blocking of the action. Maybe I was viewing through celluloid-tinged glasses in a way but he had the flair for the visual, the kinetic and the emotional. This is exemplified, in a sense, through one of my favorite quotes from the artist: “I’ve always loved Victorian melodrama. And I’ve always liked larger-than-life theater, providing it’s truthful and honest. I like what the theater can provide in energy and bombast – I enjoy it when it’s large, and by that I don’t mean in size, I mean in emotions. Shakespeare did that.”
Energy and bombast tend to bring to me connotations of Cecil B. DeMille, Raoul Walsh, even P.T. Barnum. Prince seemed ever the showman, equally adept at putting on the colorful and splashy (The Pajama Game, which he co-produced in 1955 with George Abbott and won the Tony award for Best Musical), the epic opera (I’d recently caught his 1983 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot on blu-ray and it is a masterwork to behold), or something full-blooded yet with an edge of the horrific (the 1988 production of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, opening at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988 and still going strong). Webber, himself, recalled to Variety on August 2nd, 2019 Prince’s flair for the visual. “I’ll always remember something he said to me. He told me, ‘You’ve got to remember Andrew, this isn’t radio. You can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.’ The design of his shows always had to be right. That was one thing he always brought to every production. His productions always moved so seamlessly. They always seemed so effortless even though they required a great deal of effort.”
His pursuit of just the right production design seemed to echo the inner character traits of the man himself. It may’ve been some push to simply be better, to create without restriction or just a boredom toward sameness but Prince did not relegate his skills merely to the stage. Ever the adventurer in the arts, he branched out into film as well. Well, for all of two productions anyway. The first was a rather delectable little black comedy from 1970 called Something for Everyone, starring Angela Lansbury and Michael York and filmed entirely on location in Austria. The second was the critically mixed 1977 effort A Little Night Music, with music by Stephen Sondheim and inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. While some critics focused on star Elizabeth Taylor’s changing weight, the film has a lush production look to it and did garner an Academy Award for Jonathan Tunick for Best Music, Original Song Score, and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score. I’d wondered why Prince never did more film, with his frequently visceral style. Perhaps it was the headaches, unpredictability and just various problems of the movie set that dissuaded him from ever returning. He, himself, admitted once to not being a fan of chaos. “don’t like abrasion while I’m working. I don’t thrive on chaos. I enjoy what I’m doing, and it seems to work better when I am enjoying it.” Certainly, there is an amount of chaos even in live theatre but it is project that a director would have much more control over. At least creatively. At the very least, the director of a play has a greater chance of getting his or her vision to the final stage whereas bean counters and post-production editors often have more of an impact in the end result of a film. In short, it appeared Prince felt most at home on the Great White Way than he ever did in a movie studio soundstage.
His reluctance to return to film may also have something to do with his experiences working with or seeing actors he felt were more suitably trained for film and less for live theatre fail at such skills as projection. In an audience Q&A/interview in March 2010 with Rose Malague, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Theatre Arts Program, Prince described his frustration with some film stars when it came to using their voices more strongly. “I also made a movie with Elizabeth Taylor, and I could never hear her, and I’d have to say to the cameraman, “Did she do it? Did she say it?” Because the technique had become whispery, and I found it frustrating and I didn’t care to do it anymore. Julia Roberts sold out on Broadway. She’s wonderful on film, but she couldn’t be heard and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, and how to move.” Though film, with the reliance on post-production dubbing, is not generally the best arena for an actor to need to belt out dialogue, strong vocals would be nice if only to prevent directors from the headache of guessing if dialogue is being spoken!
What may be most interesting about Prince was his ability to recognize his own limitations (few though he had, in my opinion). The number of productions that he has turned down would seem to rival that of what he did helm. David Merrick asked him to do 42nd Street at one point. “I thought, “How flattering!” But I said, “I couldn’t do that; I don’t know how to do that.” Merrick also asked him to do Hello, Dolly! due to Prince having directed a version of The Matchmaker just prior to hitting Broadway. He turned it down. Most famously, he declined a request by Webber for him to direct Cats after the pair had success in 1979 with Evita!. “After I did Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber asked me to come to the apartment to play his next score—to hear his next score—and it was Cats. And I heard it, and I said, “Andrew, I’m the wrong guy to direct this. It’s very English, right? Grizabella is Queen Victoria and [Munkustrap] must be Gladstone, and another one must be Disraeli.” And he just took the longest sigh in the world, and said, “Hal, it’s just about cats.” So I would have ruined it.”
In an age where many talented types boldly venture out of their comfort zone and try something new, and crash and burn as a result (visions of John Wayne as Townsend Harris, the U.S. Consul to Japan in the 1958 The Barbarian and the Geisha spring frighteningly to mind), it is refreshing to see when someone is keenly aware of their strengths and tries to stick with them as fervently as possible. Perhaps the desire to avoid chaos and maintain control creatively went beyond the type of projects Prince chose and permeated the career path decisions he made.
Prince remained the busy theatre creator up to just a few years prior to his death. In 2015 he directed his last production. Fittingly, it was a musical revue of his own producing career called Prince of Broadway. How about that? The subject of the show gets a chance to shape a version of his own This is Your Life for audiences to see. The perfect career ending for the guy who thrived on using a steel grip to keep his vision and ended up with 21 Tony Awards to show for it. It is next to impossible to completely encapsulate the totality of the legacy Hal Prince left in the theatre arts world. Too many master class works that each deserve individual highlight. I think his imprint on the industry can be summed up simply in his forward-thinking process. He was the envelope-pusher, looking for new ways to astonish patrons. “I would like to see more new productions of new material by new composers/lyricists/book writers. I would like to see people take more chances. I think because everything costs so much they’re not taking the chances they used to.” I get the feeling Barnum, DeMille and Walsh would be clapping at that philosophy right about now. From those of us who delight in seeing our stories staged on treaded wood, we thank you, Hal Prince, for being our guide and taking us along on your journey.