Speaking with legendary producer-director Harold Prince is like talking to a favorite uncle or professor.
You might expect arrogance from a man who has been in the theatre business for over 46 years. The winner of 20 Tony Awards—including those for his direction of Show Boat, Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Candide, Follies and Company—he has made his mark on film, music theatre, drama and opera. So it is somewhat surprising to find a man who is still humble about his accomplishments, thoughtful in his responses, and passionate about his craft.
Prince is currently working on 3hree, an evening of three one-act musicals specifically written for the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. With three teams of musical theatre artists selected by Prince himself, the event features composers Laurence O'Keefe (Bat Boy: The Musical), cabaret songwriter John Bucchino (whose first album Grateful was released last year on RCA and includes such noteworthy vocalists as Liza Minnelli, Michael Feinstein, Andrea Marcovicci and Kristin Chenoweth), and Robert Lindsey-Nassif (Opal, Eliot Ness...In Cleveland, Honky-Tonk Highway); directors Scott Schwartz (York Theater's No Way to Treat a Lady and the upcoming Broadway musical of Jane Eyre) and Brad Rouse (who has served as assistant to Hal Prince since 1995); and choreographer Rob Ashford (Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Paper Mill Playhouse's Pippin).
Prince recently took a break from 3hree rehearsals in order to speak with Playbill On-Line. Throughout the conversation, he peppered his talk with enthusiasm, humor and—when necessary—admonition.
PBOL: Tell me about the Prince Music Theater. You're on their board of directors and the theatre is named after you. How did that come about?
Harold Prince: I don't know the mysteries of how they got the idea. I wasn't there in the beginning. They already had some big names like Stephen Sondheim. But I joined the board some years after they existed as the American Music Theater Festival. I watched from a distance to see what their priorities were and whether it was happening. And I said, "My god, it is happening!"
When they started to talk about finding a permanent space, they asked if they could come see me. They said, "We want to use your name." I said, "You're nuts! You should get someone to give you a million dollars and use their name." They said they didn't want to do that. I said, "That's noble, but may prove to be foolhardy." But I couldn't be more flattered and, of course, I allowed them to use my name. PBOL: This is the first show you've worked on for them, but not the first time you worked together.
HP: Before they had this theatre, I was preparing Parade. I said, "Look, if it's any help to you to have me in Philadelphia for a week, I'll do my workshop reading under your aegis." And I did. The money came from elsewhere for the reading, but the whole cast and I went there, along with the authors, and we spent a week at the wonderful Plays & Players theater, off Rittenhouse Square. The reading was coming along well, and I told them they could invite the board and anyone else to see the kind of work we were doing—and that was my initiation with them!
I've done other work with them. At least at one point, Marjorie [Samoff, producing director] talked me into attending one of their board meetings, to speak to them briefly and to work up enthusiasm, which isn't very hard to do. And at a dinner at Four Seasons, I spoke briefly.
As I see it, anybody who is out there, beating the bushes for new talent and giving them a stage, is giving musical theatre an enormous service. They are making up for the slack that Broadway has created.
All of my life—well, the larger portion of my life in the theatre—everyone started on Broadway. They have failed, picked themselves up and found success the second time around. But the nature of producing today is considerably different. Today it's about vast sums of money and being overly concerned about what will make money. I don't think anybody knows what that is. Sometimes shows make money and surprise you. Sometimes they don't make money and surprise you. Sometimes they make history. You never know. But all this time now spent to psych out what people want to see results in mediocrity.
PBOL: Patti LuPone has said that she will probably not do another musical because musical theatre is no longer the same. She said artistic decisions are forfeited for business decisions. Do you agree?
HP: She's absolutely right, except for her conclusion. If you abdicate, you also abdicate your right to complain. Patti is a huge star and incredibly talented. She's empowered to change things, but she probably doesn't know it. I do a lot of grousing, too, but finally I come to the same conclusion, which is you can change things. I just won't give up. And there's so much talent out there.
PBOL: Which brings us back to the Prince Music Theater and your new show.
HP: I thought 3hree would be a very speedy way of introducing a lot of talented people to an audience. To put on a new, full-length show takes a lot of time. To create a show that is 2 hours 20 minutes would take me three years. I'm a slow worker! Instead, I said why not find three one-act musicals. I would work on one, two other guys would take the other two, and we could do it in a year. And we have. I consider ourselves lucky. These are three one-act musicals, and they dovetail in a nice way—although I didn't plan it that way. I didn't put on too many restrictions. But I did say we won't do them on a unit set. Each show deserves its own vision and overture. And I wanted all nine [cast members] in all three of them.
PBOL: How did you choose the teams of artists working on this production? Have you worked with them before?
HP: A year ago this past summer I started to put the word out. I approached two men that I kind of mentored, Robert Lindsey-Nasiff and Peter Ulian, and said, "I'd like to work with you. Would you get an idea for a one-act musical?" And they did.
A wonderful new composer, John Bucchino, who is very popular, had written Urban Myths, which was a collection of eight one-act musicals. My daughter Daisy had said to me that there's one that would work really well in an evening of one-acts. That was Lavender Girl. [Coincidentally, LuPone gave Lavender Girl audiences a sneak preview when she recorded a number from it on Bucchino's Grateful album.] So we approached him and he did more re-writing, fleshed it out some and now it stands on its own.
We got many, many ideas presented. There were some ideas that I didn't think that highly of, but these [selected ones] are very strong. We spent last year developing them and held a reading at the Director's Company last May. The reading went awfully well, I think. Marjorie came to see it and said "Let's do it."
PBOL: The act that you are directing is The Flight of the Lawnchair Man. At the same time that your production is running in Philadelphia, the 78th Street Theatre Lab production of Man in the Flying Lawn Chair is playing in New York. How are they different?
HP: Isn't that hilarious? I hadn't heard about that until two minutes ago! But this isn't new, or even unusual. Quite a number of people have done this. There were four Phantom of the Operas being developed at the same time! In this case, theirs [78th Street Theatre Lab] is a historic one; ours is fictitious. [According to released press materials, both shows are based on the true story of a man who, denied a pilot's license because of poor vision, attached weather balloons to a lawn chair and soared thousands of feet into the sky. The 78th Street Theatre Lab production maintains historical accuracy, whereas the Prince production is inspired by the true story, but launches into a fictitious story.]
PBOL: Are there plans to take 3hree to other theatres?
HP: Not yet, but I suppose there's a very real possibility if someone likes it—I'd be really happy to have that, to see anything that perpetuates these new careers. That's the point of this.
PBOL: How has this show been conceived especially for the Prince Music Theater?
HP: For every show you do, you tailor it to the theatre. For instance, a lot of our best not-for-profit theaters in New York don't have fly space. So you accommodate that when you develop a show. Or you change things. For Phantom, we had to break into the Broadhurst Theatre in order to get more space! In this production, we'll focus on the theatre's fly space and depth of stage.
PBOL: You've been associated with the top names in the business, including leading composers like Bernstein, Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb, and up-and-coming artists like Michael John Lachuisa (The Petrified Prince) and Jason Robert Brown (Parade). Do you prefer working with established artists or upcoming ones?
HP: Actually I'm working with Steve [Sondheim] as we speak on— well, we've yet to decide on a title. It's Strike it Rich, momentarily. But I like to work with both [established and new artists]. And so I am doing both. I am in a very privileged position...so why not take advantage of my advantage? That's what it's all about. I have despaired about the lack of new composers and librettists in the commercial theatre. Their existence is there. I know them. But they don't get the chances to put on their work. And, of course, experience makes you better. Like I said earlier, Sondheim, Kander and Ebb—almost everyone that flopped in their first venture on Broadway got up and succeeded the second time around. But nowadays if you've flopped, you've lost somebody millions of dollars and the opportunity to do it again is lessened. I would like to make up that slack. And I'd like my peers to make up that slack.
[3hree will be performed at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, from Oct. 25 to Nov. 19.]
— M. Scott Mallinger