Harold Prince, 87, is back in the director's chair for Prince of Broadway, the new production that features words and music from his many shows and premieres in Tokyo, Japan, this month. Before heading out of the country with a cast he has handpicked specially for the show (Emily Skinner, Tony Yazbeck, Shuler Hensley, Ramin Karimloo and Nancy Opel, among others), Playbill.com stopped by rehearsal to check out the revue and talk with Prince about his latest project.
Helping Prince craft Prince of Broadway, which he assured is Broadway-bound following its Tokyo run, are two-time Tony Award nominee David Thompson (book), five-time Tony winner Susan Stroman (co-direction and choreography) and three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (musical supervision and arrangements). And, although they know his work all too well, Prince said he's forgotten the directorial choices he's made in the past and is looking at the iconic songs and scenes with fresh eyes. Read more about Prince's other upcoming project, David Yazbek's The Band's Visit, Off-Broadway.
We saw so many snippets from Prince of Broadway today [in the below video]. Where did you begin to handpick material for this? Was that the toughest part?
Hal Prince: It's almost been four years, and you have no idea how probably half of what we originally chose is not here [and was] replaced by other stuff. It's a very delicate process and, for example, even routining it… I didn't want it chronological — that bores the hell out of me… That Broadway section, which you saw about a third of — at the end of it, all the lights go out on Broadway, and one little marquee is still lit, and it says Merrily We Roll Along, and then Emily [Skinner] comes out and sings "Now You Know." The whole purpose of that chunk is to say, "There's a failure in your future — not one, but many, if you work a long time." And, it's not a "failure"; it's a flop. There's a big difference between "hit" and "flop" and "success" and "failure." There's the difference between "quality" and "good fortune."
Tell me about how you structured the show. Are there anecdotes interspersed between musical numbers?
HP: I cut down on the talk, big time, because there doesn't need to be much talk. What we aimed for and finally, I believe, came up with was 60 years of American musicals and how they changed and how they developed… So, it's got a story. It's subtle, but it's got a story, and you follow the story very clearly. Popular music [used to be] Broadway music. Lady, Be Good; Oklahoma! — all that stuff — but then it ceased to be. The last hugely popular song was [from] A Little Night Music: "Send in the Clowns." That's a long time ago. So now, because popular music isn't Broadway music, you were encouraged to find different subjects to deal with [and] more serious material because you didn't have to accommodate happy-go-lucky songs, and that's how Broadway changed so significantly.
Do you think show tunes and Broadway music could ever be popular music again?
HP: No. Anything can happen, but I don't think so, no. When you see where music is going — popular music — there's an awful lot of it I don't get. One good reason that I say no is [because] popular music does not accommodate lyrics. You don't tell a story, you don't develop a character, and these songs are extremely popular. They're big-time popular, but they're not useful to tell a story.
Tell me why you're going to Tokyo first. There are plans in place to bring Prince of Broadway to Broadway, yes?
HP: Oh, sure. What happened was we had producers here, and they couldn't come up with the financing, but the Umeda [Arts Theater] Japanese company had been investors from the get-go, so the minute this show got dropped, they picked it up within 48 hours, and they said, "The only thing is you've got to come and open in Tokyo." For me, that's a pleasure. I opened a lot in Tokyo; I worked a lot in Japan, and it's been very happy. They're extremely sophisticated. The audiences adore musical theatre, and they know a lot! They'll know most of the material. They travel everywhere, so they see all this stuff.
Tell me about hand-picking this cast of stars.
HP: It's the best cast in the world. There's never been a more complete cast in my long history of working. Usually, there's always some place where you're…problematical — let's put it that way. Everyone here is my idea of a star, and they should all be stars.
What excites you about getting to look back at all of your work and see it with fresh eyes — with a new cast and new arrangements — but be able to see so much that you've done?
HP: I'll tell you what… I look back, but I don't remember a thing. I have the worst memory in the world, so instead of trying to recreate what I did originally, I took all the material as if it were brand new, and I restaged it the way I would do it now. I think there will be similarities, but they'll be many more differences if you look archivally [at] how I staged something originally and how I staged it this time. And, the orchestrations are brand new!
See Ramin Karimloo, Emily Skinner, Nancy Opel, Shuler Hensley Offer a Dramatic Sneak Peek at Prince of Broadway!
Well, Jason Robert Brown… He's…!
HP: He's great! And, that's very deliberate that he should be the end of the show [with his new song "Wait 'Til You See What's Next"] because a huge concern is the future. You don't spend 60 years of your life loving an art form without being concerned about where it's headed, and thank God this is a year where things are very encouraging.
Can you speak to me about the future of musical theatre? Where do you think it's heading? Do you think it looks bright?
HP: Well, Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and his gang have created a work of art [with Hamilton], and Tommy Kail is a terrific director, so that's part of it. And, we all are influenced by each other — there's no question.
I'm hoping that we could hear Hamilton on the radio some day… I think, with music like that, show tunes have the potential to be considered popular music.
HP: Well, I hope you're right. I'm doubtful, but I hope you're right.
I love that you talk about "luck" playing a significant part in one's life at the beginning of this show. Can you speak to that and how luck has influenced your life?
HP: Probably the most important sentence in the whole show is something that I said and that I believe, which is, "All you need is one person to tell you you could do something — if they're qualified… One talented, credited person to tell you, 'You're right, you could do this, do it.'" Because there are a thousand people who tell you you can't. You've got to disregard that thousand.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)