“Who wants to live in New York?” goes a lyric in one of Hal Prince’s most famous productions. The line is soon followed by “I do.”
And I do, because I’ve now been three times to The Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts to see the extraordinary exhibition entitled IN THE COMPANY OF HAROLD PRINCE.
The most whimsical item is unquestionably the Wheel of Fortune that used to sit behind the receptionist in Prince’s Rockefeller Center office. Instead of numbers on each panel, there are names of shows: PARADE is under FLORA (as in THE RED MENACE) on one; DAMN YANKEES, PAJAMA GAME and SWEENEY TODD nestle together on another.
The meaning behind the wheel, of course, is that you never know which shows are going to yield fortunes and which will be busts. Your judgment and ability are as reliable as a game of chance.
That said, twenty-three of Prince’s fifty-two productions are represented. Prince would have had to order one more wheel if he’d wanted to include the name of each show he directed and/or produced during his illustrious career.
It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. Here’s a contract for JUST DAVID, an early Prince assignment from May, 1948 at the Ogunquit Playhouse. The twenty-year old was making $125 a week then.
We then see that a mere seventeen years later, Prince was among those pictured on the cover of the Dec. 3, 1965 issue of Time magazine that celebrated “Millionaires under Forty.” Six are pictured, but in the center square, if you will, is Prince. That may be because by that time FIDDLER had been running for fourteen months and was already a cultural touchstone.
There’s an enormous financial ledger open to two pages that detail where money came and went during the last months of 1966. We see from painstaking handwritten accuracy that the Prince office had $131,077.98 in the bank as 1967 began. That’s $1,006,859.41 in today’s money.
Prince’s producing (with partners Robert E. Griffith and Frederick Brisson) started with THE PAJAMA GAME, and a framed sheet shows the list of possibilities who’d create its music. Harold Arlen was first choice to compose, followed by Leonard Bernstein, Harry Warren and Frederick Loewe.
Another list shows that the three co-producers believed they could entice Hollywood names to don pajamas on Broadway. For Sid, they wanted Van Johnson or Gene Kelly and for Babe, Jane Russell. Janis Paige got the latter role, but Prince would work with Russell some years later when she took over for Elaine Stritch in COMPANY. Everybody rise!
A few lists of appointments dot the walls. Most intriguing is the one with Gwen Verdon on March 17, 1964. With the words BAKER STREET following her name, Prince apparently wanted her to play Irene Adler – the woman with whom Sherlock Holmes kinda-sorta fell in love.
An educated guess might suggest that Verdon said that she and husband Bob Fosse were too busy developing a musical that they then were calling THE SMALL WORLD OF CHARITY.
(Need I give you the eventual title?)
Don’t neglect the little plaques on which informative explanations are embossed. One says “Although many now refer to their collaborators as ‘Sondheim musicals,’ Sondheim himself has regularly said that he follows the lead of his collaborators.” And yet, another plaque proclaims that SWEENEY TODD is “the crowning achievement of the Sondheim-Prince collaborations.” Considering the first plaque – and the very nature of the exhibit — you’d think that Prince would get top billing here.
Music is constantly playing in the background. If you ever wondered if Sheldon Harnick went first when writing the lyrics to FIDDLER ON THE ROOF or if Jerry Bock handed him tapes of his melodies, at least one selection suggests the latter. For there’s Sheldon singing “Da-da-da-da-da-da” to the song we now know as “Now I Have Everything.”
(The “Da-da-da-da-da-das” are not to be confused with “digga-digga-dums” from another FIDDLER song.)
Did you know that Daisy and Charles Prince apparently called their father “Daddy Heshy”? That’s the implication, at least, from the sheet music of a song written by no less than Stephen Sondheim for one of Prince’s birthdays.
There are the actual twin beds that Molina and Valentin occupied in KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. For Tevye and Golde’s twin beds, you’ll have to settle for set designer Boris Aronson’s model.
Three framed window cards nestling next to each other remind us that the Imperial Theatre was a lucky house for Prince: FIDDLER and CABARET resided there for at least some of their original runs and ZORBA stayed put there for its entire stint.
If you ever really doubted that Leonard Bernstein originally received credit for co-writing the lyrics to WEST SIDE STORY, here’s proof from a window card: “Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.” If it were a National Theatre window card from Washington, that’d be one thing, but this one is from the Winter Garden. That more strongly suggests that Bernstein’s decision to give Sondheim sole credit came very late in the game.
There’s a blow-up of the contact sheet for MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG. Jason Alexander was then living at 307 Amsterdam Avenue. To reiterate how young the original cast was, there’s Lonny Price’s 8th Street address when he was still living with his parents. Price had an answering service (212-924-5451) so if you called and he wasn’t in, his service would explain.
Prince’s typewritten 1962 letter about his upcoming musical that was then simply called TEVYE starts “Dear Jerry.” Considering that it’s full of dramaturgical criticism, you might assume that the “Jerry” to whom it’s addressed would seem to be to Jerome Robbins, its director-choreographer. No: Jerry Bock, the show’s composer. How do we know? At letter’s end, Prince asks Jerry to give his love to his wife.
In the missive, Prince says that the musical should open with Tevye and his horse. Well, Tevye would be there when the curtain rose on the show, but he was equus-free. So Prince got one out of two, which, when you think of it, is a low batting average for the man who had many more successes than failures.
Prince followed this suggestion with paragraphs of other complaints dealing with what Joseph Stein had written. Fearing that he’d revealed too much, Prince ended the letter with the line “Jesus, don’t read this to Joe.”
We learn from another letter that much of the set of SWEENEY TODD wasn’t designer Eugene Lee’s idea. Bookwriter Hugh Wheeler wrote Prince to say that “I have experimented with major action taking place on two levels: the barbershop on the floor above the pie shop with an outdoor staircase connecting them.”
Another letter about the progress of PARADE starts “It was a very positive reading yesterday” but a subsequent paragraph says “HOWEVER” – and indeed that word is entirely in capital letters. It resides next to a plaque that says “PARADE was the last musical with an entirely new score that he brought to Broadway.”
That was already more than twenty years ago. Well, we have our memories. IN THE COMPANY OF HAROLD PRINCE runs through March 31, 2020. That actual date will be the fifty-fourth anniversary of the opening of IT’S A BIRD … IT’S A PLANE … IT’S SUPERMAN. It wasn’t a hit, and yet there’s more here on this show than you might think.
Would you expect to see the health club membership card of Bob Holiday, who played The Man of Steel? Whether the Prince office paid the bill to get him in shape – or keep him in shape – is not disclosed. His measurements, however, are: 45-33-37.
A letter from York Advertising says that for $450 it’ll have a plane fly over Atlantic beaches on the Fourth of July weekend with a banner that would urge “See SUPERMAN – Broadway’s funniest musical.”
York Advertising also demanded ten pairs of $12 tickets – which was then the highest priced ricket on Broadway. Today ticket prices zoom up by dozens of dollars, but how much higher did Prince raise the stakes?
Ten cents. The previous top ticket had been set five months earlier: $11.90 for Friday and Saturday night performances of ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER.
York Advertising also demanded that these ten pairs be for a performance after June 28. (Did the executives get to see the show? It closed only seventeen days later.)
A newspaper ad for SUPERMAN stressed the word “Fun” that occurred in no fewer than thirty-two critics’ reviews. “Fun” was put in much larger bold-faced letters. One quotation, however, instead of “fun” used “Absolutment hilarante” from a critic surnamed Delaunoy in a French newspaper.
A question here: David Merrick, Prince’s long-time rival, opened CACTUS FLOWER four months before SUPERMAN debuted. During the run, he took out an ad for that comedy that stressed “‘Funny’ is the word for CACTUS FLOWER.” It quoted critics who’d included the word in their reviews – but used “Droll” when citing the review from The New Yorker.
Did Prince take a leaf out of David Merrick’s book or was it the other way around? Alas, an Internet search cannot tell me when Merrick ran the ad. Maybe we’ll find out when The Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts does an exhibition called HELLO, DAVID MERRICK!
(Not a bad idea, friends …)