In early 2017, staff at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts started work on In The Company Of Harold Prince: Broadway Producer, Director, Collaborator, that officially opened September 17 at Lincoln Center. Over the past couple of years, I met with Prince several times to discuss my ideas for the space. He was excited, if a little abashed, that so much work was being done to celebrate his career. I am sad that he was not able to see the final version, but I am truly grateful to be able to celebrate the life and work of this amazing artist.
The Library’s collections are rich with material from Prince’s shows, and selecting a reasonable number of items from such a long and prolific career was difficult and nearly impossible to further narrow down my selections to the “greatest hits” of this exhibition. Come see the full exhibit at the NYPL through March 31, 2020. From an examples of Prince’s daily schedule to letters between him and his collaborators, from annotated script pages to video interviews throughout his decades-long career in theatre, everyone will find something new to marvel at in the world of Prince.
For those who can’t make it to New York, here a few of the pieces that thrill me no matter how many times I walk through the space:
1. Hal’s Office
In 1954, Harold Prince and Robert E. Griffith, two stage managers in the offices of the prolific producer, director, and playwright George Abbott, decided to try producing musicals themselves. Their first production, The Pajama Game, was a hit, and they went on to produce many of the most important musicals of the 1950s including Damn Yankees, West Side Story, and Fiorello!. Griffith and Prince were extremely savvy businessmen, and paperwork preserved in the Prince papers at the Library documents demonstrate how they kept costs low by arranging promotional deals with businesses like pajama and sewing machine manufacturers to both fund their productions and acquire the materials and equipment they needed. The first room in the exhibition reproduces the office of Griffith and Prince with facsimiles of this paperwork on a period desk. If the phone on the desk rings while you’re visiting, be sure to answer it!
2. Animations from Baker Street, Cabaret, Flora the Red Menace, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
The photography studio of Friedman-Abeles documented many of Prince’s shows in the 1960s. The Library acquired their full collection in 1992, including images that were never printed from the original negatives. As part of this exhibition, the Library digitized all of the negatives from Friedman-Abeles shoots of four shows: Baker Street; Cabaret; Flora, the Red Menace; and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Visitors can read stage manager Ruth Mitchell’s prompt books and see photographs documenting each moment on the page. In some cases, sequences of photographs could be joined together to create animated GIFs, including the scenes above and below.
3. The Roulette Wheel
For most of his career, Prince had a large roulette wheel in his office with the names of his shows on each section. The wheel, which we believe was a gift from Mitchell to Prince, is a metaphor for the gamble producers take with each new show. Not even the most promising property is a sure bet. The wheel is now too fragile to spin, and too large to be easily brought to the reading room for researchers. For this exhibition, though, it has been touched up by our conservators and brought back into the limelight.
4. The Company set with slides
While Prince was shooting the film Something for Everyone in Germany, he wrote to book writer George Furth about a version of Company that still seems to have featured a female lead. He also writes that he had just seen Boris Aronson’s scenic designs for their musical Company. He then mentions that he hopes to hear songs from Sondheim the following weekend. For Prince, the set design often preceded the songs or the script. The exhibition celebrates the work of Aronson with many renderings and set models (some on display for the first time since they were acquired by the Library). Additionally, the Library team discovered that the set model for Company seems to have been designed to be lit by the slides used in the original production. We have recreated this effect for the exhibition.
5. Beowulf Borrit’s recreation of Eugene and Franne Lee’s set for Sweeney Todd
The 2017 revue, Prince of Broadway, included Beowulf Boritt’s recreations of many of the original sets from Prince’s musicals. Producer Kumiko Yoshii lent several of these sets to the Library for the exhibition, including the prison from Kiss of the Spider Woman and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop from Sweeney Todd. Borrit cleverly hid the names of the original designers in his sets, and visitors may notice “Eugene Lee Tea” on the shelf.
6. Phantom’s masquerade mannequins
In the opening of the second act of The Phantom of the Opera, what appears to be a huge number of partygoers sing and dance on the steps of the lobby of the Paris Opera. It was not financially reasonable to hire such a large cast for such a small moment in the show, so many of the masked characters are mannequins. Along with the boat and the organ from the Phantom’s lair, visitors to the exhibition can see eight of these masquerading mannequins up close.
7. Costumes from Show Boat
Prince directed only one Broadway revival of a piece originally directed by someone other than himself: the 1994 Livent revival of Show Boat. The show, which spans many decades at the turn of the 20th century, required costumes appropriate to many different eras. Frequent Prince collaborator (and partner of Mitchell) Florence Klotz took on the challenge and won a Tony Award for her work. Klotz’s renderings as well as two actual costumes (borrowed from Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut) are on display in the exhibition.
8. Come to the Cabaret
The audience is the final collaborator in any production, and so we invite visitors to join the Hal Prince story on a recreation of Boris Aronson’s set for Cabaret. Visitors can tell a story, or play and sing a song using the keyboard provided in the space. Tag yourself with the hashtag #HalPrinceNYPL!
Doug Reside is the Lewis and Dorothy Cullman Curator for the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Check out a previous exhibit at The New York Public Library below: