It is said that he still haunts the theatre regularly, preserving and perpetuating his vision, lowering the boom — if not the chandelier, thank God! — on those who'd shortchange it.
Twenty-time Tony winner Harold Prince (that's right: two oh) has, understandably, had a pretty tough time topping his own act, but this month he crowns all of his considerable accomplishments by becoming the director of Broadway's all-time longest-running show.
On January 9 — eighteen years to the day from when he first started previewing The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic — the musical achieves this distinction with its 7,486th performance, one more than Cats — a case of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber mud-wrestling himself to the top of the heap, his "Music of the Night" finally KO-ing his "Memory." (Equaling that one-two punch, Cameron Mackintosh produced both and imported them from London.)
Prince's work on the show did not end at the Tony podium. He has stayed on as a kind of creative custodian, and whenever his continuing career permits, he revisits the scene of his longest-running crime, gives notes, rehearses if need be and, in general, "maintains." Since his office is a few blocks away, he can strike the Majestic any time. His visits to Her Majesty's Theatre in London, where it all began, are limited to one every six months. During his treks to midtown, from his own table at Angus McIndoe's restaurant, he can see the fruits of his labor forming in front of the Majestic across the street, queuing up as if they'd been cued, two or three deep in both directions from the theatre. "It's inexplicable to me why people choose to queue up," he cheerfully confesses. "It's their choice to stand in that line. Nobody told them to. They absolutely want to stand. And I think to myself, 'Why?'"
Tevye could tell him why. Tradition. Fans now think that it is standard operating procedure to stand up for a hit. "One of the things I miss about the theatre in the years I've been working in it" — he began producing on Broadway, unhyphenated, 52 years ago — "is a sense of occasion. But I would be hard put to say that about Phantom. When the house lights dim, the audience automatically starts to applaud, and the show hasn't even started yet. They rarely wait to the end of 'Music of the Night' before they start clapping. It's the kind of electricity I've always associated with a sense of occasion."
The spark that ignited the Phantom phenomenon Prince can track to an off-the-cuff remark that Andrew Lloyd Webber made to him over dinner one night. Evita had already rained Tonys on them, and they were looking to get wet again. "He asked me, 'What do you think of Phantom of the Opera?' And I said, 'Let's do it — that's what I think of it.'
I did it for the same reason Andrew did it: We wanted to put a romantic musical on the stage. The last really romantic musical I remember was My Fair Lady, and that ended with the guy saying, 'Bring me my slippers.' That's about as close as they got. Before that came one of the best musicals — Andrew's favorite musical, I suspect, but it's for him to say — it's certainly one of mine: South Pacific. Now that was romantic, and it was at the Majestic. We saw Phantom as a highly romantic musical that's physically beautiful. You could lose yourself in another world and leave the outside out there on the street somewhere.
I suspect, in a larger sense, that's why it's popular. The audience responds to what makes theatre different from everything else — and there is something that makes theatre different from everything else: It's an empty space, and you fill in the blanks. You can't do that on film. There can't be blanks. It all has to be there. Onstage, Phantom is a black enamel box with things happening and a beautiful gold proscenium. You put things in, and the audience fills in the rest. They don't even know they're doing it. There's an office onstage. What's an office? One desk and one swivel chair. They fill in the wallpaper."
So it turns out that, in addition to all of those hits (and, admittedly, some punctuating, puncturing misses along the way), Hal Prince has been directing our imagination, but the burden doesn't seem to have burdened him. He's preparing a pair of new shows for Broadway — LoveMusik (the love story of Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, written by Alfred Uhry and using Weill's music) for next season, and Paradise Lost (adapted by Richard Nelson from Joseph Roth's The Tale of the 1002nd Night, with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh and music by Johann Strauss II and Jonathan Tunick) for the season after that — and still he exudes that boyish energy of old. Truth to tell, he turns 78 on Jan. 30, four days after Phantom officially turns 18.
The opening-night bash was a black-tie affair held at the Beacon, an Upper West Side theatre a tad past its prime (perfect!) and gamely draped in black-and-white crepe. "I have a little problem with crowds — so what the hell am I doing in the theatre? — but it was a great party. The atmosphere was just wonderful. I do vividly remember coming into the theatre, going under the marquee and having David Merrick come over. He was wearing gloves. I guess it was chilly. He took them off and shook my hand and seemed genuinely delighted. I liked that. We started the same year — 1954 — across the street from each other. I was in the St. James with The Pajama Game, and he was in the Majestic with Fanny."
And how does the old hitmeister feel about at last hitting his hit of hits? "Wonderful!" Prince trills. "I am so grateful it is happening at this point in my life. I've been able to create a diversified career. There's lots of other material out there that represents me — material that succeeded and material that failed — and that's important to me. I wouldn't want to be just pigeonholed as an extravagant director. That's one thing. Two: Thank God this didn't happen in 1954. It would have scared the hell out of me."