Like the character at the center of its plot, the play Hollywood Arms has suffered through a long, eventful, and sometimes anguished journey to maturity. The work's notoriety began with its pedigree. Hollywood Arms was written by Carol Burnett and her daughter, Carrie Hamilton, based on Burnett's memoir "One More Time," in which the comedienne told of growing up among a dysfunctional, nearly tragic family in postwar Los Angeles. Though neither author had much playwriting experience, their names were enough to attract director Harold Prince, actors Linda Lavin, Michelle Pawk and Frank Wood, and a berth at the Goodman Theater. Following its Chicago run, a Broadway transfer was a quickly announced, with Prince taking on the title of producer for the first time in nearly 20 years. Unfortunately, Hamilton died of cancer on Jan. 20, before the Goodman staging, before learning of the transfer, before her Broadway debut, set for Oct. 31. Burnett and Prince (directing his first Broadway play since 1984) soldiered on. The renowned director paused during previews of Hollywood Arms to talk to Playbill On Line's Robert Simonson about his return to Broadway, his return to producing and his imminent return to the Goodman Theater (where he will direct Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's new musical Gold! in 2003).
Playbill On-Line: The story Carol Burnett has told is she sent you the script for Hollywood Arms asking you to suggest a director.
Harold Prince: She sent me some names, actually, of good directors. I think Beverly Sills told her, "Why don't you ask Hal?" And she did. Then, I thought—I know this is going to sound disingenuous, but it really isn't—I thought I'd like to shepherd this with them. I'd like to work on it for the time it requires, which in this case took two years. Basically, I said I'd like to do it. But how do I say this? Maybe they wanted a younger director. Finally, I said "Look, it's a lovely play. It needs one or two more generations. Let's do it. I'm willing to do it with you if you like." There was a long silence, and Carol said, "Oh, God, would you really?" We went right to work.
PBOL: What attracted you to the script?
HP: It's a family story. Ultimately, it's a difficult journey in which someone triumphs. I like that. I'd read the [memoir]. [Carol] is an old friend. I thought it was well written. I know Carrie Hamilton as a writer as well as a performer. I've known her for years and I know she's a good writer. My first contribution was to tell them, "Give me two days and I'll call you and tell you what I think you need to do to make it a better play." I called them and said, "Look, I can't draw a straight line, but I have drawn a blueprint of what a single set would be, what we call today a studio apartment. Now you must put every single thing in your play inside this space."
PBOL: Originally is hadn't been a one-set play?
HP: Oh, lots of spaces! Lots of spaces! Lots!! Not too many if you're doing a movie, but too many if you're doing a play. I thought it should be confined. They took a big, deep breath and, moving chronologically, they started putting the play into this one set, which required getting rid of probably half the characters that were in the version they sent me and confining it to principal actors. It took us over two years, but three quarters of one of those years was about waiting to go to the Goodman in Chicago, which is where I wanted to do it. We waited, and it was hard on them, because when you've been working on a play a long time, to have someone say you've got to wait an extra year is hard. I told them then, based on my own experience, a year goes very quickly in the theatre.
PBOL: What made you think of the Goodman? You've never worked there before.
HP: I've wanted to work there forever. [Goodman executive director] Roche Schulfer, who runs it, is an old friend of mine. I never had a play or musical that would work on the old Goodman venue. It was a difficult space—no flies and not all that much wing space. I never had the project for them. The wish was always there.... [The new building] is a great space. The two theatres are wonderful—the lobby, it all flows. It's completely user friendly. PBOL: It's a good thing you like it since you're going to be spending a lot of time there, directing Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Gold!.
HP: Yeah. I also love Chicago. Always have. It's quintessential Americana.
PBOL: Is there news on Gold!?
HP: We're working hard. We've got the show 95 percent finished. It's a very bold, raw, invigorating experience, this show. It's very up, kind of a look those times in American history that were pioneer times, the Roaring '20s. There was such gutsiness and gusto in the way people lived. It all adds up ultimately to innocence. I'm dying to do it.
PBOL: Following the 1999 workshop in New York, when the show was called Wise Guys, what was it about it that made you say yes to the project, that made you decide to work with Sondheim again?
HP: I was sort of like somebody watching from a distance. At the time, I didn't know why it was being done or what it was about it that fascinated them all. When the workshop was over, Steve and John said, "Can we come and just talk about it. Maybe you'll have some insights." They came and we just talked about it, and in the course of talking a number of times, I found myself getting really interested in a show. Not the one they did, but a show. They very first thing I said was "Where are the girls, for God's sake?" I felt like Florenz Ziegfeld for the first time in my career. "Where's the sex?" That whole tumbling through America, which is not what that show was about, is very alluring. It's America, the pioneer place, where people reinvent themselves, where you stumble and get up, dust yourself off and go through another door. All of that stuff seemed so vital to me. None of that did I see in that version. It's a different show completely. They're willing to tear it up and start again.
PBOL: The score was said to be revue-like, a pastiche of vaudeville techniques.
HP: No, it's robust. Put it that way. There are a couple numbers in that score that are as good as anything Steve's ever written. We haven't thrown those out, you can be sure. The show is bold and broad. Most of it is new.
PBOL: Getting back to Hollywood Arms, the play is also your return to producing on Broadway. What made you make that decision?
HP: Well, my wife, Judy Prince, has been after me for years. She's angry I stopped. But I stopped for a very good reason. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I stopped on the grounds that I was sick of reading "Producer-Comma-Director." I wanted people to know I'm a director. It somehow seemed I was muddying the waters some. What's happened, of course, is that's not a problem anymore. So I'm perfectly willing to have "Director-Comma-Producer." I'm not a snob about producing. It's just that the directing is the core of my work. I went to see a show last winter. Good play. And there were 23 producers' names over the title. First I smiled and thought, Gee, I hope they win the Tony because I want to see that with my own eyes. And then I thought, what is that? What does that say about producing?
PBOL: It says producing shows is expensive.
HP: It says it's expensive, but, you know, people can invest in shows and they don't have to have their names over the title. The simple truth is you can't have producing by committee and we need creative producers. That is a breed that still exists, of course, but in smaller numbers than when there were single people and partners presenting plays. I would love to see a modicum of that in the business.
PBOL: I recall that one of the reasons that you stopped producing on Broadway is you were concerned about the rising costs and felt that that problem wasn't being addressed.
HP: I think that's what I was concerned about. I think I need go no further than that.
PBOL: Obviously, rising costs haven't been dealt with since then.
HP: Well, I don't want to be the one poking at that. But, that was why I left a long time ago. I left, I thought, quietly, and then got to read about it in the New York Times. They had some sleuth there who found the letter [I wrote]. But, I've noticed a number of plays have paid back their investments quickly this year. That is swell. That's as it should be.
PBOL: Are you still making changes in Hollywood Arms during previews?
HP: I did as late as last Friday. I think I'll freeze the show in the next few days.
PBOL: Has it been difficult to continue to mold the script now that you've lost one of the authors?
HP: No. It was difficult anticipating it, when we first got to Chicago. The first moment that was difficult was when I needed rewrites. We were into rehearsal about four days in Chicago and suddenly I needed a new scene. It was not something that Carol and I had discussed before then. It was standing in the wings—one of these days, you may have to rewrite the script. And then it did happen. And Carol was understandably apprehensive and said, "It may take me two or three days." I said, "OK." I didn't mean OK. I needed it right away, but I said "OK." I went to bed that night and around 1:30 in the morning, I heard paper being slipped underneath the door. It was the new scene. And since then, there have been many. The show has undergone a lot of work since Chicago. We used this past summer to do the rewrites and they're extensive, I think.
PBOL: You were at the recent Merrily We Roll Along reunion concert. What was your reaction to it?
HP: Oh, it was terrific. It was lovely to see how talented the original kids still are. It was wonderful to see they had had good lives since the show—not all of them in the theatre. One guy owns a construction firm. Sang great, though! I had a lot of guilts about that show, because I couldn't envision it. And they were all kids and I loved them a lot. My daughter was in it. She was the youngest in the company. I felt like I had let them down. That night did a great deal to remove that guilt. I was very grateful for that.
—By Robert Simonson