HAL PRINCE: HE HAD SO MANY HIT SHOWS, THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO USE By Peter Filichia
Cabaret; Company; Damn Yankees; Evita; Fiddler on the Roof; Flora, the Red Menace; Follies; A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum; It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman; Kiss of the Spider Woman; A Little Night Music; Merrily We Roll Along; On the Twentieth Century; The Pajama Game; Parade; The Phantom of the Opera: She Loves Me; Show Boat; Sweeney Todd; West Side Story; Zorba.
Yes, each is a musical that had Hal Prince’s name attached to its original production – except for Show Boat’s, which he couldn’t have done; the Ziegfeld spectacular opened thirty-four days before Harold Smith Prince was born.
But he did steer the ship for the 1994 revival that ran the longest of any of Show Boat’s five Broadway airings.
That Kern-Hammerstein work and the other twenty musicals listed are the backdrop of the display ad for Prince of Broadway, the current revue now in previews at the Friedman Theatre. It celebrates the astonishing career of the director-producer (which, I suspect, is the order in which Prince prefers to be labeled).
Here’s the thing, though: Hal Prince has even more illustrious musical theater titles than this ad trumpets.
You’d think that anyone who produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical – after all, there have only been nine – would trumpet that fact. But Fiorello! goes missing from the list, which is even stranger, considering that it’s the only Prince show to win that honor.
But what else could have been on the Prince of Broadway list that isn’t?
At 431 performances, New Girl in Town ran longer than Superman, Flora, Merrily and Parade put together. It’s an ambitious work, for Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie – about a prostitute who is trying to put her past behind her – wasn’t logical musical material in 1957.
Good of Prince (and his then partner, Robert E. Griffith), too, to take a chance on a property that had been developed for but then dumped by Hollywood. The two producers could have seen it as damaged goods and could have worried about the show’s songwriter: Bob Merrill. Yes, he’d enjoyed great success in the pop world, but considering that his oeuvre was most noted for “If I Knew You Were Comin’, I’d’ve Baked a Cake” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” those songs on a budding Broadway songsmith’s resume might seem to be liabilities rather than assets.
But Prince and Griffith didn’t hold those novelty songs against him. Instead, they judged him on the merits of his score, which were considerable. Critics and audiences agreed and Prince and Griffith had their third hit in a row.
This is the only musical in which two top-billed women in the same show each won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony. Most musicals at best offer you five, six or seven songs by the winner of that prize; here you get eight split between Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter.
Candide ran a notoriously slim seventy-three performances when first mounted in 1956. Another attempt failed in 1972, but the following year, Prince (admittedly with help from Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim) co-produced and directed it as a freewheeling circus. The result was a revisal that ran more than ten times longer than the original.
Since then, Candide has been widely produced and better appreciated. Although the two-CD cast album can’t show what Prince did, it does convey his assertion that the production should have looked “as if it cost a nickel” right from the overture. The “ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha” section of “Glitter and Be Gay” sounds as if a gypsy violinist is strolling by your table. And don’t miss those marvelous new Sondheim lyrics, especially on “Life Is Happiness Indeed.”
Speaking of Sondheim, the Prince of Broadway ad could have included Side by Side by Sondheim, which played for nearly a year. True, he picked it up from London, but we’re grateful he did. The cast album allowed us to hear “I Never Do Anything Twice,” criminally cut short in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in its entirety.
For my money, though, Prince’s greatest achievement – and one that should be included in the ad – is Pacific Overtures, and not simply because he’d splendidly directed it. Producing West Side Story, Company and Follies was very daring, but none of those three was as uncommercial and caviar-to-the-general as this 1976 masterpiece. A show about the Japanese which eschewed an ostensible love story in favor of a history lesson? Amazing that Prince said “Let’s do it!” and was able to keep it around for nearly half a year.
Shall we include Call Me Madam and Wonderful Town as among the missing? Prince was assistant stage manager on the former and promoted to stage manager for the latter – for which he was also understudy to Frank Lippencott, the soda jerk who questions a customer’s wanting a banana split. (Did he ever go on?)
Toiling on both shows meant that he had to deal with two superstars – Ethel Merman and Rosalind Russell – as well as some blue-chip songwriters: Irving Berlin first, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green second; the latter two would have him as their director on A Doll’s Life twenty-nine years hence. Could they have ever imagined that in 1953?
Of the forty current Broadway theaters, Prince’s name hasn’t been seen on a mere eight. Two of them – the Lyric and the reborn New Amsterdam – came into existence as Prince was entering his seventies, so he can be pardoned for not being represented there.
The other six theaters – Ambassador, Booth, Golden, Hayes, Schoenfeld and Wilson – are among Broadway’s smallest and have far more often housed straight plays; Prince usually does big musicals.
In a way, Prince has appeared at the Wilson, when it was the ANTA, for in 1958, it hosted Say, Darling. There Robert Morse played a thinly-veiled Prince, renamed Ted Snow, the young producer of The Girl from Indiana. (The show is a fictionalized take on the creation of The Pajama Game.)
Far more impressive is this statistic. Since April 27, 1950 – when Prince’s name first appeared in a Playbill (as assistant stage manager for a revue called Tickets, Please!) – his name has continued to be in a Playbill for 3,111 weeks out of 3,441 – more than ninety percent of the time.
That’s an “A” where I went to school.
Oh, sometimes Prince’s name was only cited for Broadway revivals in which he had no hand – Fiddler (four), Cabaret, Company, Follies, Forum, Pajama Game, She Loves Me, Sweeney and West Side (two), Damn Yankees, Evita, Night Music and Zorba (one). Nevertheless, the Playbills still were required to say “Originally produced by Harold Prince.” Credit where it’s due, friends.
What’s more, the percentage of non-Prince Playbills gets smaller each week because The Phantom of the Opera, which Prince directed, continues to endure as Broadway’s longest-running show. Even if it closed tomorrow, Chicago, its nearest competitor, would need to play nearly nine more years to surpass it.
This is all the more remarkable when one considers what a terrible ‘80s Prince was having before Phantom. The six new shows he’d directed – four musicals, two plays – averaged fewer than twenty-four performances each. So of those 300 Playbill-less weeks, 108 were in that pre-Phantom decade. Longtime Broadway observers were either starting to write off – or even had written off – the sexagenarian Prince as all washed up. Little did they – or he – know that his biggest hit was in the offing.
In 1974 when Prince wrote Contradictions, his first memoir, he ruminated on what was his biggest hit to that time “I don’t think a show will run longer than Fiddler’s 3,242 performances on Broadway.” Phantom has already run three-and-four-fifths times longer than Fiddler, and the closing notice isn’t going up any time soon.
We’ll have to see if he addresses this issue in Sense of Occasion, his second memoir. It will be released by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books on September 5th. (May there be many more!)
As of now, we have no idea if Prince of Broadway will run as modestly as his five-performance A Doll’s Life or be around for years. The Friedman has another show scheduled to start previews on Thanksgiving weekend. Don’t bet against Prince of Broadway moving to another theater – but do bet against its landing at the Majestic.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.