A Conversation with Hal Prince
December 9, 1998
Lincoln Center Theater's Platform series presents conversations with artists working at LCT before an audience of interested theatergoers. Admission is free and open to all. Platforms are held in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The following is a transcript, edited for clarity, of the December 9, 1998 Platform with Hal Prince:
THOMAS COTT: Good evening, I'm Thomas Cott from Lincoln Center Theater. I want to welcome you tonight and tell you briefly about the Platform Series. For those of you who have not come to one of these events before, we began doing them this summer as a way of reaching out to our audience, to include you "behind-the-scenes" of the plays we do. And they were a great success, so we're continuing them through the winter. The Platforms are sponsored by a generous grant from the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, to whom we're very grateful.
Tonight, we have with us...really, I don't know how to properly describe this man. "Legend" seems too minimal - let me just read you these titles: She Loves Me. Cabaret. Company. Follies. A Little Night Music. Candide. Sweeney Todd. Evita. Phantom of the Opera. Kiss of the Spider Woman. Showboat. Name nearly any great musical of the 20th century, and Harold Prince has somehow been involved with it. We're so glad to have him here tonight - interviewed by Ira Weitzman, the associate producer of Parade - please welcome Hal Prince. [audience applauds]
IRA WEITZMAN: Thank you, I'm Ira Weitzman and this is Hal Prince [audience laughter], as I think you know. Please think of some questions - this is for you, and about you. So I'm going to start us off. I looked over the same list [Thomas] read, except with a lot more plays and musicals on it, and realized there's so much one could ask. I want to start by specifically talking aboutParade, because that's the show that we're doing now. And let's start with the obvious: Where did the idea come from? Parade's a true story, but where did the idea come from to turn it into a musical?
HAROLD PRINCE: First of all, let me apologize for my voice. I hope it holds out. I woke up this morning without a voice, and I went to the sort of doctor that I send our cast to, and he makes miracles. They sing that night. And I can barely talk [laughter]. So I guess it's not important to him that I recover. [more laughter]
Anyway, the idea was Alfred's. I've known Alfred for a long time. He worked in the musical form for a long time, he had a couple of big hits. But we never worked together. And he called me one day and I actually said to him that somebody had been needling me about doing a musical about Sammy Davis Jr. I said I can't imagine why they asked me, or why they think it's a good idea. And then I thought, "Well, maybe the good idea of it is that you don't know anything about Sammy Davis Jr." I knew him rather well, but that's very complicated. Simultaneously I thought, "Nobody wants to see that musical about Sammy Davis Jr. They want to see the one they know about Sammy Davis Jr." So it seemed like a lousy idea.
So I mentioned all this to Alfred, and he said, "I have a good idea, I think, for a musical." And he mentioned Leo Frank's story. The story he then explained was about this young, 29-year-old Jewish boy from New York, but really part of a Southern family. He'd lived in New York. Came down to run a pencil factory, married a Southern belle and was accused of raping and murdering a young girl. He was innocent. And they railroaded him. But the governor of the state was so wise and courageous that he knew he was innocent, and commuted the sentence, and ultimately would have pardoned him.
But there was such incendiary backlash that the governor escaped the state and stayed away for many many years. He was ultimately a hero, but long after his golden days. And Leo was spirited out of a minimum security farm prison...and lynched. [pause] And that seemed like a great musical idea to me! [audience laughter]
But if you listen to my credits, which also include as a producer West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, you'll see that that's what I think musicals can be, if not should be. I'm not here to proselytize, but as a young man I always wanted to be in the theater, but I disliked musicals. Except for Porgy and Bess. And South Pacific. And Carousel. They're all of a piece. So many others seemed demented to me.
So when I did go into the theater, I was lucky enough to get an office boy's job in a producing office, where both the producer and the director (the same man, George Abbott), was doing musicals, I was not fool enough to walk away. I learned how to do musicals, the craft of it. But then - I guess the word is advertently, I made them the way I wanted musicals to be. Sounds much more complicated than it is. You really just serve yourself when you work in the theater. Or you'd better.
IW: What was the first theater you saw?
HP: I saw Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar. That means I was 8 and he was 21. I think your first show, you never forget. It was thrilling. So essentially, from that moment on I went to see dramas. My parents - it seems cuckoo - they'd take me on Saturday afternoon to see Eva LeGalliene and Helen Hayes, all the great performers. The Lunts. Upper-middle-class Jewish families went to theater religiously. They didn't go to temple religiously [laughter], but they went to theater religiously.
And when I was old enough to go by myself - I was about 11 or 12 - I went every Saturday. When [my parents] wouldn't go, I'd go. There was a cut-rate ticket booth on 42nd Street. And it was in the basement of a drugstore. And you went down, and there was a guy on a stepladder and a large blackboard, and on that blackboard were printed all the names of all the shows running on Broadway. That meant 60 plays and 30 musicals, I would guess. And you went there, and as the performance time approached, he erased the price of the tickets 'til you got to curtain time and then you could get in for 55 cents. Then I would buy the ticket, and I would run to the theater. And for ten years of my life, I would miss the curtain going up on two-thirds of the shows I saw, because they were uptown somewhere, and I was running from 42nd Street. I fell in love with the theater.
IW: Was it inevitable then that you would work in the theater, or was there a moment?...
HP: No, it was always inevitable. I am a conventionally unstable person. [laughter] There are two staffs that prop me up. One is theater. And the other is family. A little late I realized how much more that meant to me. If I was going to survive. Survival is where I'm going. I suspected that, if I didn't make a life in the theater, I wouldn't have a life. Literally! And rather early on, I had a life in the theater. I was very lucky. Luck is the biggest factor - certainly equal to talent and drive.
IW: And the luckiest thing that first happened to you, that catapulted you into the theater?
HP: To come out of college, and send some scripts - I was too terrified to ask for interviews - to this office, the George Abbott office, and have somebody say "These scripts stink, but come by. You're interesting."
IW: Scripts that you wrote?
HP: Scripts that I wrote. And they took me on at no salary for six months. Which is luck. Because my family could afford to give me a bedroom and twenty-five bucks a week. Then Abbott took a liking to me, and made an enormous investment in me. The biggest investment was to tell me I was a director. That I was right. And when you tell a kid in his twenties that he can do something, it's everything, particularly if the source is someone he admires.
IW: Did it come as a surprise to you that he ...
HP: Was generous?
IW: No, that he saw in you a director. Or did you aspire to that ...
HP: No, I aspired to it. I aspired to be a playwright and a director. And I wrote plays, and I even had one optioned for Broadway once. A murder mystery for two people who were then Broadway stars called the Hartmans. Paul and Grace Hartman. It's a murder mystery called A Perfect Scream. Clever! [laughter]
And I worked for Abbott as an office boy - he let me write television shows that he had been contracted to write. He loathed television, so he said "You write it." And then he was contracted to direct them. I was twenty! And he said "You direct it." So at twenty I wrote and directed a show on NBC on Sunday night called "The Hugh Martin Show." And then I went back to being the office boy! [laughter] Filled the water cooler, opened the windows, stamped the letters, and directed the Sunday night television show!
He knew that I didn't want to be there, that I wanted to be in the theater. And he did a revue by Walter and Jean Kerr called Touch and Go that they had written at Catholic University in Washington, where they were both on the faculty. This show brought them to New York. And he didn't like his assistant stage manager, so he said "I'm getting rid of him anyway. You're it." And I went to the Broadhurst Theatre. His production stage manager, a fellow named Bobby Griffith, was enormously generous and instructive, supportive and became my partner. Bobby gave me a little list: "You've never been backstage. So all you need to do the first week is go up and down the stairs, knocking on the doors, saying 'half hour...15 minutes...curtain.' " There was no sound system in those days. So in a large theater, by the time you got to half hour it was 25 minutes. You were always five minutes behind. (laughter) My first night on Broadway, I was so excited I lost my voice. (more laughter)
IW: Like tonight...
HP: I was Bobby Griffith's assistant for a number of years. Five. And, well to be a little more honest, there was a hiatus in the army, we had the Korean conflict and I was drafted for two years. But over a five year period, I watched what was going on and I saw producers of a big hit killing the goose that laid the golden egg. My partner and I looked at each other in the wings and said, "Let's produce. And let's produce for Abbott!" But first we had to find a show.
And one day he called me and said, "Read a review in The New York Times. If you like it ..." (he was then working as well during the day on the Ford 50th Anniversary television show, a very prestigious show) "... get the rights." And I was then 24. How the hell do you get the rights? But as I pointed out to you, I was so neurotically ambitious that I figured it out.
It was a book called 7 1/2 Cents, and it became The Pajama Game. And Bobby joined me at the agent's office, and the agent said, looking at a man 52 and a kid 24, "Why should I give you the rights? Leland Hayward wants the rights. The Theater Guild wants the rights." And so on. And we said, "Because we're hungry. [audience laughter] And it'll be a hit." And he gave us the rights! Which is a very curious and courageous thing. And it turned into an enormous hit.
IW: And Hal, was part of your job as producer at that time putting together the team that ultimately wrote, and the creative staff ...
HP: Well, yes. Especially the design team. Abbott ended up writing the book with the original novelist of The Pajama Game. But Frank Loesser, who we asked to do the score, said, "I won't, but I have two kids who have never done a Broadway show named Adler and Ross. And they're good." And we went and heard three or four songs from them, and then we asked them to write three or four numbers on spec, before we would give them the job. They did brilliantly. They wrote "Hernando's Hideaway" on spec. And "Hey, There" on spec.
And then we tried to get Agnes de Mille to choreograph it, and she wouldn't do it. And a wonderful dancer named Joan McCracken, who was a star on Broadway, said to Abbott, "My husband is a great choreographer, but no one knows it." So Abbott said, "Joanie says Bob Fosse's a great choreographer." [laughter] So we hired him! [more laughter]
I chose Lem Ayers for the scenery and costumes, because I always had a lot of confidence in my judgment of things visual. And Abbott didn't care. He didn't even care what scenery looked like. All he would ever ask was, "Where are the tables? Where are the doors? Where are the chairs?" Because he knew he had to stage the scenes. Parenthetically, in the shows I do, there are rarely any doors. Not all that many tables. But there were lots in those days. So even from that moment on, for the next...through Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was '61, I chose the scenery and costumes, and he directed the shows.
IW: You're talking about being a real impresario, in the true sense of it. Let's flash forward to today, in the theater scene today, where my impression is there aren't quite as many people of that creative impresario persona anymore. What is your take on today's scene?
HP: I would rather call it "creative producing". Which you people do. But I would say you do it without the extra burden of 10 million dollars for a musical and 4 million dollars for a drama. That burden erases most of the contenders for the creative producing game. That's all I was, I didn't know how to raise money. And neither did Bobby Griffith. We just passed the hat. In rooms this size.
IW: So how much, just for comparison's sake, how much did Pajama Game cost?
HP: $162,000. [crowd murmurs]
IW: Can you imagine? Versus, maybe four or five million dollars that Parade cost, here in the non-profit theater.
HP: Parade would be ten million on Broadway. And so would The Pajama Game. And I'll tell you something: When I said "pass the hat" I mean pass the hat. The composers sang the score, and I told the story. We had a couple of bottles of scotch, and Bobby poured the drinks and soda, and passed the potato chips. And I would say our average investor - we raised $250,000, we spent $162,000 - gave us probably fifteen hundred, a thousand to fifteen hundred. Lots gave us five hundred. And a few gave us five thousand. Again, we assumed that we'd better hit it big the first time around. Nobody knew who we were. But that we'd also better make money for everybody, along with doing a show which had quality.
We penny-pinched like crazy, but it was creative penny-pinching. Lem Ayers was not a cheap designer. I gave him what he wanted. But then I said, "Where are you going to get the fabrics for the pajamas?" And he said, "I'll have them made." I said, "If I can get them made for nothing..." "Go for it." So I got in touch with The Sleep - what was it called? Not "Sleep-Tight," that was the one in the show, I can't remember - Pajama Factory, in the midwest. And they not only gave us all our sewing machines (and we needed twenty or thirty in the opening scene), but all our fabrics, so we promoted everything.
The show was a hit from go in Boston. New Haven and Boston. We came to New York, and we thought, "What's the most audacious thing we can do?" And we ran up checks for $75,000 on the original investment, which remember was only $250,000. And we sent them out the night of the opening. So that when you woke up in the morning, with what we figured would be the good reviews (and they all were), there was a check for a substantial return on your investment. And then we paid the whole show off in, uh, twelve weeks.
HP: Different theater.
IW: Before we run out of time, I want to give you all a chance to ask questions. Anybody have anything they'd like to ask?
AUDIENCE MEMBER #1: [Asks question, inaudible on tape.]
IW: The gentleman is asking about how Jason Robert Brown came to be the composer and lyricist of Parade, since apparently Stephen Sondheim had been approached to do it.
HP: Steve and I have been wanting to work together for a long time. Again. We took a long hiatus, close to twenty years, but we have been wanting to. So I told him about this. And he said, "I love it. I'll do it." And then, close to six months later he said, "I can't. It's too serious coming after Passion." And I said, "I understand."
So Alfred said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I want you to listen to this young man." I knew this young man, thanks to my daughter, who is a director in her own right, and a singer, and knows the next generation: Adam Guettel, Jason, Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa, John Bucchino... I can name them all. And I know them all. I would love to work with each of them. I jumped.
You walk around at my age with a debt to the next generation. You don't pay it back once. Hopefully you pay it back a number of times. But Abbott did it for me. And the least I could do - it's no sacrifice, Jason's a great composer - and now I get to know that, for the rest of my life and some, I'll be connected with his first Broadway show! It's wonderful.
IW: It's interesting. I think that is one of your trademarks, because every few years I feel like you do a show that debuts an important writing team. I mean, I think of doing early work with Kander and Ebb ...
HP: I did Kander and Ebb's first show. And Bock and Harnick's second show. And Steve [Sondheim]'s. But Steve and I have been friends forever. So that was an easy decision. It's exciting.
And there's one thing that goes back to your question about creative producing. Theater is diagnosed improperly by commercial producers. They discern that revivals are what you do. Revivals don't do very well. By and large, they're not the meat-and-potatoes of successful theater. Stars...that you have to have a star. Stars don't assure much in the theater. Never have! Go back to West Side Story. They don't! These are all erroneous impressions. And who wrote the show. Nobody cares. It's a good thing to know. But 45 years ago, producers didn't know it and they still don't.
IW: I was going to say, things have maybe not changed!
AM #2: I was privileged to see Parade last week, and I'm seeing it again tonight, and I wonder why you didn't consider calling it an opera or operetta rather than a musical?
HP: Because I hate those definitions anyway. And because operas are attended by operaphiles, and musicals reach a larger audience. And ever since West Side Story, it's ceased to be an important definition. And I don't approve of it. It's a musical. It's also got a lot of great text, and very few operas deal with a lot of spoken word.
AM #3: Are you an Aries?
AM #3: That's not my question. [laughter]
HP: Good! [laughter]
AM #3: Um, I've written a musical about Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, which I just did in Mexico, and I hear now that there is someone with a musical called Zapata!, which is another part of the Mexican Revolution. Will that help or hinder me?
HP: I think that it would be better if you got on first. And the other thing I would ask is did you know that there's a wonderful musical that didn't make it to Broadway called Viva Villa, that had Bob Preston in it? Quite a marvelous score.
AM #4: That was in 1964!
HP: Years ago!
AM #4: But it didn't get to Broadway!
HP: I just said that.
AM #4: That's right. It didn't get to Broadway. But they said it was too "girly-girly".
HP: It was not remotely girly-girly. It's one of my favorite shows. [laughter] It just didn't happen.
AM #4: Why, do you know?
HP: Long story.
AM #5: [inaudible on tape]
IW: The gentleman is asking about Grandchild of Kings, Hal. Will there be a second part?
HP: It's such a generous question. I wrote it...
IW: Please tell everyone what that is. I don't know if everyone's familiar with it.
HP: Grandchild of Kings is a play that I adapted from the Sean O'Casey autobiographies. And the Irish Rep put it on, and it worked to my happy astonishment. Got nominated for best Off-Broadway play. To my astonishment. I loved doing it. I did the second part when I did the first part. I've since looked back on it, and I think I was lucky the first time. [audience laughter]
AM #6: When someone comes to you with an idea, do you immediately, intuitively know that it's a good one, or do you mull it over and...
HP: I immediately know if I think it's a good one. I could be dead wrong, as my record proves. But I'm a very enthusiastic fellow. Very rarely has anyone ever talked me into anything. If ever.
AM #7: When doing a historical piece, do you feel it's important to be historically accurate, or would you feel that something could be altered in order to give sort of dramatic license ...
HP: You have to take dramatic license. I learned a long time ago - I produced a show called Fiorello, which Abbott directed and got the Pulitzer Prize, and we couldn't figure out how to tell that story. Because he was a curiously inappropriate romantic figure. We fudged. In real life, he got married, his wife died in childbirth, years went by, then he married his secretary. We told the story with the two women omnipresent the whole time, so that you had the secretary looking at him longingly, and he looking through her. And then in the second act, after his wife died, he saw her for the first time. Good storytelling.
With Leo and Lucille [in Parade], we've taken some liberties. The love letters they wrote each other (well, "love letters" in 1913 terms), were much more accessible than the scenes they play in the beginning of the show. But you must have a trajectory. If you have a man saying, "My dearest honey" in the beginning of the show, there's no place to go with the story. So I think they're valid choices.
AM #8: I know that George Abbott is your mentor, and hopefully you'll be astounding us for years to come, but is there anybody that right now you think you consider yourself a mentor to, that we should keep an eye on in the future?
HP: Well...Jason. Also, because of Abbott, I have interns on every show I do. And the tragic truth is the most successful of them, young directors, are in television. Doing "Home Improvement." "Spin City" and so on. That's where they get the work. They, too, know the value of making a structure. Having a family, having kids. Making some money. It's difficult in the theater.
IW: Let's - again getting back to Parade and how Parade came to be, this show had some workshops done in Toronto ... and I think just in terms of your whole career, this strikes me as being something that might be new for you. Or a different way of approaching it.
HP: The process.
IW: The process.
IW: And I'm curious if you want to speak to that a little bit.
HP: Steve Sondheim says that I've been doing readings all my life. I've been the one that's read the show. And he's played the piano. And simultaneously we've listened with the book writer. Every once in a while, infrequently, I would ask a group of actors to read. Hugh Wheeler wrote A Little Night Music as a play. Steve didn't write a note of music. I got a group of wonderful actors to come and read it. Steve and I thought it was so sensational that it didn't have to be a musical. Steve was thrilled about that.
IW: Yeah, I'm sure! [laughter]
HP: And my wife scolded him, saying "It's a musical. Write a musical." That's how that happened. [laughter] Sweeney Todd.... Hugh and Steve wrote Act I. And then Hugh wrote Act II. And I asked Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou to read it for us. And we went into the basement of a theater, and a bunch of actors read it. And it was so relentlessly dark and grim, that it told us everything we needed to know, which was Angie's character had to be made comic, and her material had to give you the variety you needed.
But I never did what we do now. Now it's done because these shows cost so much. And everyone's gun-shy. I understand that. I can make that adjustment. What it does is add years to the life of creating a show. I could have been here with you guys doing this show two years ago, and we would have made the same journey that we've made. But we had to take the two years to do readings and workshops. I don't particularly care for workshops. But if they're imposed on me, I'll do them.
AM #9: Do you prefer to go out of town with a show?
HP: Ten years ago I would've told you, I regret terribly not going out of town. Miss the isolation. Now everybody comes when you're out of town. Every wire service and jackass magazine with photographs comes out of town. So why go out of town? There is no out of town.
IW: Hal, what about the difference between the non-profit theater and the commercial theater today. Any insights into that, from your point of view?
HP: Sure. [laughter]
IW: I bet!
HP: I think the commercial theater is... I'm not sure it's permanent, but certainly temporarily, it's in a place where the thinking is investment-obsessed. And that's no good for an art form! The not-for-profit theater has different priorities. I used to be on the National Council of the Arts for six years, from '76 to '82, which for some of you who don't know is the governing board of the N.E.A., and I think I was the first person from the commercial theater ever invited to serve on that council.
It was a great shock to them when I predicted the ultimate would be the marriage of not-for-profit theater and commercial support. My initial production of Candide at the Brooklyn Academy was precisely that. And Chorus Line was precisely that. And slowly, ever so slowly, people are beginning to realize that that's a very good marriage, cause it keeps an artistic stability that's very hard to find, when you're worrying about demographics, what will this critic think, how do we build up an 18 million dollar advance sale, and all this nonsense that gets between you and the end result.
I want to close with this, because it touches on all of this. One's life in the theater is a series of markers. Street signs. And what's wonderful about it is, those street signs are rarely the shows that paid off, that were commercially lucrative. They're the shows that made a deeper kind of history. I would not be sitting with you tonight if my reputation was based on - and believe me I'm grateful for it - Phantom of the Opera. It was a swell job, I'm very proud of it, and I'm very proud of what my collaborators and I did, but I'm here because of Cabaret. And Follies and Company. And hopefully Parade will be one of those markers. I hope so anyway.
IW: Well thank you so much, you're an inspiration ... [applause]
HP: Thank you!