HAROLD PRINCE: ON THE 20TH AND 21ST CENTURIES By Peter Filichia
Now it’s too late.
For years, I’d been itching to ask Harold Prince “Considering that you chose Lila Kedrova to play Fraulein Schneider in your London production of CABARET in 1968 – just before you were readying your Broadway production of ZORBA – why didn’t you choose her to be Madame Hortense?
“After all, she’d played the role in the film ZORBA THE GREEK and had won an Oscar for it. And you knew she could sing well enough, for she had four songs in CABARET. What’s more, time proved that she could do it, for when ZORBA was revived on Broadway in 1983, she played the role and won a Tony for it.”
About two months ago, when I was walking home from a performance at the 59E59 Theater, I passed the Paris Cinema near the Plaza Hotel. Coming out of its lobby were Hal and Judy Prince. He and I locked eyes, and I could have asked him the question. But you know how it is. The I-Hate-to-Bother-Him syndrome took over.
Oh, well. Another time.
Now it’s too late.
Much has been written in praise of this theatrical giant. Emotions have flowed and stories have been told about his generosity with young just-starting-outers and his skill at fixing shows.
I have seen around a hundred musicals play their out-of-town tryouts, but I can say that COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and PACIFIC OVERTURES – all of which I saw in Boston – proved that Prince (and, yes, Sondheim) made the fewest changes of the tryouts I saw but made the changes count the most.
But let’s take a look at the numbers to really appreciate Harold S. Prince’s contributions to Broadway.
We’ll start on April 27, 1950, when something called TICKETS, PLEASE! opened. Its Playbill carried the name Harold Prince Smith as Assistant Stage Manager.
The show lasted until Nov. 25, but Prince had left by that time to perform the same duty on CALL ME MADAM. He was no dummy; he knew that few were buying tickets to TICKETS and that MADAM with Merman would be a smash. Besides, he’d be working with George Abbott who in those days was often called “Mr. Broadway.”
So, including MADAM’S out-of-town engagements, Prince’s name was on a Playbill for 736 consecutive days.
Two hundred and sixty days would pass until his next Playbill entry on January 19, 1953 when WONDERFUL TOWN began its tryout in New Haven. Abbott had hired Prince not only to be the show’s stage manager but also – get this – understudy to Frank Lippincott, one of the men interested in Ruth’s sister Eileen.
His name would continue to be on Playbills for the next 2,294 consecutive days but never again as a stage manage or understudy. Prince co-produced THE PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, NEW GIRL IN TOWN and WEST SIDE STORY, which kept him in Playbills until June 27, 1959 when the last-named show closed. The first two shows each won a Tony for Best Musical while the latter two were Best Musical Tony-nominated in the same year – making Prince and partner Robert E. Griffith the first people to achieve that feat.
A 113-day drought was broken on Oct. 19, 1959 by the New Haven tryout of Griffith-and-Prince’s FIORELLO! That Tony-winning hit kept him in print for 739 consecutive days, until Oct. 23, 1961. Only thirty-three days would pass until the New Haven tryout of TAKE HER, SHE’S MINE – a rare Prince-produced play (without Griffith, who’d died earlier that year), but a hit nevertheless. That kept Prince on one title page for nearly a year.
By then, something significant had happened: Prince was offered to take over the direction of A FAMILY AFFAIR, which had music by John Kander (who wasn’t yet partnered with Fred Ebb). Although Prince saw problems with the show, he took it on for he wanted directorial experience.
This is where he saw his future – and what a future it would be …
He continued producing, though, and A FUNNY THING HAPPENED saw that he’d be in a Playbill until August 29, 1964. By then, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF had begun its Detroit tryout, and Prince didn’t have to worry about not being in a Playbill for nearly the next eight years.
In the interim, that directorial career had flourished with CABARET, COMPANY and FOLLIES. To be fair, though, there’d been directorial flops: BAKER STREET, SUPERMAN and SHE LOVES ME (which, according to everyone I know who saw it, was extraordinarily directed).
Prince alluded to those four failed directorial efforts when he won the 1966-67 Tony for Best Director of a Musical for CABARET. After his name was announced, the audience applauded for literally twenty-five seconds. The handclapping would have gone on longer if Prince hadn’t tapped his watch as if to say “Let’s keep the show moving.”
And moving in another sense was Prince’s acceptance speech: “I’d like to thank so many people but I’ll confine myself for thanking my two producers for I don’t know who else would have hired me.”
One of those two producers – the lead one, in fact, was Harold Prince.
After FIDDLER closed on July 2, 1972, 155 days passed before Prince was Playbilled as one of the artistic directors of The New Phoenix Repertory Company. During its run, he produced and directed A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which was still running when Prince’s revisal of CANDIDE opened, which came to a close just as PACIFIC OVERTURES was playing previews in late 1975.
It would only last 193 performances, after which came a 182-day dry spell that would remain in place until Dec. 27, 1976 when a revival of FIDDLER opened. Granted, it was under the aegis of many other impresarios, but the Playbill announced “Originally produced by Harold Prince,” so it counts in our survey.
In between came the Prince-produced SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM which overlapped with Prince-directed ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY which overlapped with the Prince-directed SWEENEY TODD which overlapped with the Prince-directed EVITA. That takes us to June 23, 1983 and 2,372 consecutive days in Playbills.
A hundred Playbill-less days later, the 1983 revival of ZORBA opened. Although that too could only offer “Originally produced by Harold Prince,” it got his name in the Playbill until Sept. 2, 1984.
In between, Prince directed two plays that flopped quite quickly. Into every life a little rain must fall, and Prince experienced a tsunami.
Seven straight flops during and after EVITA resulted in three years when he was listed as director in Broadway Playbills for a mere eighty-nine days (via GRIND) and off-Broadway 104 (through DIAMONDS). By this point, longtime Broadway observers either assumed or said that Prince was washed up.
Following that drought ROZA opened, and although it was hardly a hit, it ran from Sept. 14, 1987 through Oct. 11 – four days after Prince’s (admittedly directorially lackluster) revival of CABARET began performances. In its thirteenth week, another Prince-directed show opened: THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
So, since Sept. 14, 1987, as of today’s writing – August 13, 2019 — Prince has continually had his name in Playbills for 11,548 consecutive days — and counting. If you’re reading after that date, add in the number of days since.
Then do the math and you’ll see that for the last sixty-nine-plus years, Harold S. Prince’s name has been in a Playbill for more than 90% of the time – which is an “A” no matter what school you attended.
In 1974, when Prince published CONTRADICTIONS, his first memoir, he stated “I don’t think a show will run longer than FIDDLER’s 3,242 performances.” Little did he know that he would direct a show that would run more than four times as long – and counting.
Would that he could have been around to see it run five times as long – and be there to answer my question for me.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. He can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com.