Forty years ago Harold Prince directed his first show for Broadway.
The play was A Family Affair, and, to a large but certainly not exclusive degree, family has been his operative word ever since, governing his choices in matters of work and play.
Family is warmly embraced in Hollywood Arms, his next Main Stem offering and one of his only straight plays for Broadway since Joanna M. Glass's unjustifiably short-lived Play Memory of 1984. This, too, is a play memory — coming from Carol Burnett's memoir, "One More Time," and covering much the same dysfunctional, booze-fueled turf where, this round, a beloved comedienne defensively took root.
Family is also why — on this end-of-summer day, while New York swelters — he is breathing in deeply the crystal-clear, 70-degree air of the French Alps as he does a phone interview. "As I'm speaking to you," he says, "I'm looking at Mont Blanc. It's a nice place to be, and the best part, of course, is that in the winter I can ski." Of course.
The man who has made it to the top of the Broadway mountain and taken home an unprecedented 20 Tonys fits convincingly into this postcard serenity. You'll find him here, far from the madding New York crowds, every July and August — as per an edict issued early on by his ever-lovin' Judy. "That's an agreement that goes back close to 40 years, since I got married. The idea was: 'You can be absolutely work-obsessed . . . but you have to have time for your family in the summer.' It's a wonderful idea, and I've stuck with it almost consistently for all these years. My family's here. My son and grandson and daughter-in-law are here, and we just left my daughter and her family. It's neat."
Even neater is the way he smuggles work in on the side. It comes to him, like mountains to Mohammed, over the Alps. "I sorta farm it in," he admits, sheepishly. "Eugene Lee was here for a few days, and we got some work done on the scenery for Gold!" This much-anticipated musical on the equally damned-and-praised Mizner brothers of the previous century begins rehearsal next May for a launching — a la Hollywood Arms — at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.
Gold! will be his first non-revival show with Stephen Sondheim in 20 years, when the two merrily rolled along in separate directions — and it, too, has a certain family element in it (albeit not as much as it did during its original workshop staging). "It's not much of a family musical anymore. It's a show, now, about America — how you can reinvent yourself, how there are just infinite possibilities and how, if you fail, you get another chance. When I came into it, it was a different show. That was the point: I was interested in a different show, and so were Steve and John [Weidman, the book writer]. I suppose if you asked us, we'd all say it's an old-fashioned musical — big, bold, colorful. It's just what we wanted to do."
Old-fashioned shows with a sense of family always had a pull for Prince. "I did Show Boat because I was obsessed with the family thing and how important it is. In a larger sense, theatre is family, so I may be a little hooked on family right now."
Hollywood Arms, which opened at the Cort Theatre on Halloween, seems to second that emotion, it being a light and loving look back at three generations of transplanted Texas women surviving a decade (1941-1951) in the low-rent hills of Hollywood — grandmother (Linda Lavin), mother (Michele Pawk) and embryonic star-to-be (Sara Niemietz, 8, in Act I and Donna Lynne Champlin, 18, in Act II).
Beyond this, Hollywood Arms envelops another generation: The idea of doing One More Time one more time — as a play — began with Burnett's daughter, Carrie Hamilton, who pursued it with her mother until her death of cancer last January at age 38. By then, casting was complete, the script was ready — and the grieving Burnett was compelled to take the show to its next stop (Chicago) alone.
"Every play requires rewrites, but we hadn't faced that until the end of the first week of rehearsals," says Prince. "Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, and then I suddenly came up against a stone wall, and I told Carol we needed a new scene. I could see her face just cloud up. She said, 'Oh, wow.' I knew what she was going through, but we discussed it, and she said, 'Look, it may take me three days to do this.' I said, 'Okay, take what it takes you,' thinking to myself, 'If it takes three days, I'm going to be in trouble' because we had a limited amount of time in rehearsals — five weeks — and there may be more rewriting — indeed, there was — so that night I went to bed, and, around midnight, I heard the scraping of pages coming under the door. I got up and, sure enough, there were six pages of a new scene, and that's the material that's in the show.
"Carol is an amazing, strong, resolute, non-self-pitying creature and a good friend. She is quite determined — and rightly — not to let this tragedy permeate the whole piece. It's not a downer at all. It's, in fact, a very funny look back at a family with its problems, but it's seen through a very affectionate, funny view. It's Carol."
Plus, Hollywood Arms plays into Prince's grander plan of family. "Family shapes itself differently in every case, but ultimately it's so important. This family survived on music and laughter. They were very musical, all of them, and they laughed all the time. That's the emotional response the audience gets from this play. I saw audiences responding to it all those weeks in Chicago, and that's the reason we went back into rehearsal. They were encouraging and responsive audiences."