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Give My Regards to Stephen, Remember Me to Harold Prince

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Whenever my good friend John McGlinn would jet off to New York City from Northwestern University for a few days to see Broadway shows and study songwriting with Stephen Sondheim (ah, the things you can do when your dad is vice president of Campbell Soup), I would sing the title of this column to him. The billing order is revelatory; I wanted to write musicals, not direct them. And in my college days I had still seen very little Broadway theatre, indeed not a lot of professional theatre of any kind, so I did not yet fully realize the importance of the director. I thought then that he (female directors on Broadway, alas, weren’t on my, or almost anyone’s, horizon at that time) was mostly responsible for realizing the writer’s vision, almost a servant, as it were. It was specifically Prince’s work on a string of new musicals with scores by Sondheim that changed my understanding of how great theatre is created, introducing me to the concept of a director’s vision and the collaborative relationship between author and stager.

My first encounter with a Prince staging was one he didn’t actually direct. In the summer of 1970, as I prepared to enter my senior year in high school in suburban Cleveland, the Kenley Players over in Warren, Ohio, did a production of Cabaret, which had debuted on Broadway only three-and-a-half years prior. Cleveland native Joel Grey was on hand to once again play his Tony-winning role as the M.C., but he also directed, and the theatre claimed in press coverage that he would be re-creating Prince’s Broadway work. I was a big fan of the musical, having read the published script and repeatedly listening to the OBCR, and I was determined to see this. I somehow convinced my older brother, then a cadet at the U.S. Naval Academy and largely uninterested in theatre, to drive me there and back, a little more than an hour each way on Interstate 80. While at 16 I don’t think I really grasped the concept of the comment songs taking place in a nonrealistic “limbo” (I just saw them as cabaret acts), as opposed to the realism of other scenes and songs, I loved the show, especially the energy with which it moved. Also, Anita Gillette, who had played it on Broadway, was an excellent Sally Bowles.

My next Prince experience was the national tour of Company, which I caught at Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre sometime in 1971 or 1972, headlined by a very effective George Chakiris as Bobby. I knew the backstory of how Prince had read George Furth’s collection of seven short plays and announced that they should be turned into a musical, so I understood that he had had an impact on the writing beyond just directing the show, but I wasn’t sure how much. Though a number of original cast members began the tour in Los Angeles, the only one left by the time the show hit Cleveland was Elaine Stritch, and it was exciting to see her sing “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Alas, Boris Aronson’s set had had to be simplified in order to tour, so the functioning elevators were gone. But, again, I was impressed by the fluidity and energy of the staging, as well as the way Prince and choreographer Michael Bennett treated Bobby’s set of friends as a single unit, a living organism unto itself. That, I figured, was a directorial touch. Still, for me, the great thing about Company was Sondheim’s score. Playing that OBCR for the first time changed my life.

I missed Prince’s masterwork, Follies, because I couldn’t get to New York and its national tour began and ended in Los Angeles. From everything I read about it, Prince’s work had been on the level of a co-author, but I had to take that on faith. I did catch a local amateur production in Berea, Ohio, directed by future Prince assistant director Fran Soeder, with one of my collaborators-to-come, composer Eric Stern (we didn’t meet until later, in New York City), at the piano leading the onstage band, and my very first composer, best friend Bill Sisson, playing viola in the pit. I thought it was wonderful, but it wasn’t the original.

I saw the national tour of A Little Night Music twice at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago in 1974 while attending Northwestern. It wasn’t to the very Midwestern audience’s taste, for the most part, and the response was tepid, which left me enraged. I was very taken with the use of the lieder singers, which I ascribed to Prince, as well as the complicated staging of “A Weekend in the Country” and Act II’s dinner table scene. However, Boris Aronson’s sliding Plexiglas panels of birch trees, which facilitated Prince’s use of screen dissolves as a stage device, were too loud and reflected too much light. I assumed that modifications had been necessary for touring. Overall, I was still ascribing more weight to the text and score than the direction.

That changed on Dec. 31, 1975, when I experienced the first Broadway preview of Pacific Overtures at the Winter Garden Theatre. It remains the most thrilling night I have ever spent in a theatre. Eye-poppingly beautiful, its every scene bristled with an uncompromising artistic vision and a blazing theatricality. Like Company, it came into being because Prince read a new play and decided that it should be a musical. And Sondheim himself had told interviewers that he had had to be convinced to write it. From that night on I was as fierce a fan of Prince as of Sondheim. Bill Sisson and I joined a small crowd at the stage door that had assembled despite the light rain. We applauded, whistled, and cheered as Prince and Sondheim exited the theatre.

I saw Pacific Overtures on my first visit to New York City in six years, a four-day jaunt during which Bill and I also caught Bob Fosse’s brilliant staging of Chicago at the 46th Street Theatre, with the full original cast, and Prince’s environmental production of Candide, which was closing that week at the Broadway Theatre after a run of 740 performances. (Alas, we couldn’t get tix to A Chorus Line and settled instead for Shenandoah, which was enjoyable and offered a wonderful performance by John Cullum but simply wasn’t in the league of the other three shows.) That hat trick cinched the deal for me. I finally understood what a great director could bring to the table.

The only Prince NYC stagings I have missed since then are the plays Some of My Best Friends (1977) and Play Memory (1984), both due to the brevity of their runs (seven and five performances, respectively). I did catch his work on Arthur Kopit’s 1984 End of the World (With Symposium to Follow), a Pirandellan black comedy about the threat of nuclear weapons to world survival. I liked it a lot and was greatly disappointed when it only ran for 33 performances despite terrific performances from Barnard Hughes, as a wealthy industrialist looking to commission a play on the subject; John Shea, as an idealistic playwright long on ambition but short on cash; and Linda Hunt, as super agent Audrey Wood. With what’s happening in the world today, some smart director ought to take a look at it.

I followed Prince off Broadway for Diamonds, a spotty 1984 musical revue about baseball that provided a platform for a host of talented young songwriters (listen to Craig Carnelia’s “What You’d Call a Dream,” sung by James Barbour on Broadway in Concert, and Jonathan Sheffer and Howard Ashman’s “Hundreds of Hats,” in an authors’ demo on YouTube); The Petrified Prince, a 1994 Candide-like musical fable that featured a fascinating score by Michael John LaChiusa (oh, for a recording of that one) but had book problems; and his own play, Grandchild of Kings, adapted from the autobiographies of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, in 1992 at the Irish Repertory Theatre. Prince gave it a marvelous environmental staging in a warehouse-like space on the Lower East Side, but he proved a better director than writer.

I had one professional interaction with him, in 1989. Composer Paul Schwartz and I were contemplating writing a musical together, and we did a test run on the collaboration by structuring the film Sunset Boulevard as a musical and writing about 20 minutes worth of it, including an opening number and the closing scene and song of Act 1. As Paul was conducting The Phantom of the Opera at the time, he asked Mr. Prince to look at our work. He graciously invited us to his office for feedback, and his remarks were shrewd and to the point. On the basis of this (and he was by no means uncritical of the work), Paul and I were offered the opportunity to develop and write a show for Prince’s new venture, a producing organization called New Musicals that intended to mount initial incarnations of musicals away from the eyes of the critics on the campus of SUNY Purchase in front of paying audiences. Of course, the company famously foundered when New York Times scribe Frank Rich insisted on reviewing its first offering—a musical version of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman by Terence McNally (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics), directed by Prince—despite not being invited. He panned the show, which admittedly was not in very good shape, and that ended New Musicals (though not Spider Woman, which after major rewrites went on to success in Toronto, London, and on Broadway). I will, however, always be grateful for the opportunity, and I especially admire the way Prince has consistently supported young talent.

As with any director of longstanding, Prince has had a career dotted with highs and lows. For every Sweeney Todd, Evita, and Show Boat there is a Grind, A Doll’s Life, and Whistle Down the Wind (Prince’s production closed pre-Broadway in Washington, D.C. when he and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber disagreed about rewrites; he had no connection with the subsequent London version). I saw them all, and I never regretted a single moment spent doing so. Indeed, I always learned something, hit or not. What I do regret are the ones I missed because I grew up in Cleveland, especially 1963’s She Loves Me, whose double LP OBCR practically lived on my turntable once I was able to track a copy down (it had gone out of print), and 1966’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which I listened to regularly at the Cleveland Public Library (it was also out of print). Oh, for a time machine!

I’d like to end by discussing Prince’s 2007 Broadway musical, LoveMusik. I heard about the project, a biographical show about the relationship between composer Kurt Weill and his wife, actress and singer Lotte Lenya, early on, as my good friend Kristen Blodgette was to be its musical director. Kristen asked me to suggest rare Weill material that might be used in the piece. I usually loathe jukebox musicals, so I was highly skeptical. Still, Harold Prince was doing this one. I suggested some songs and that was that.

I attended the show’s fifth preview with considerable anxiety. Fortunately, it became almost immediately apparent that Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry had solved the jukebox problem. The songs were used in near-Brechtian fashion, framing the action, commenting on it, sometimes heightening it in stylized ways. They were rarely employed as direct expressions of feeling or character, though when they were used that way, they worked. Prince, who has not always been seen as an actor’s director, had elicited four absolutely first-rate performances from Donna Murphy, as Lenya; Michael Cerveris, as Weill; David Pittu, as Bertolt Brecht; and John Scherer, as gay impresario George Davis (only Scherer missed a Tony nomination, no doubt because his character didn’t appear until midway in Act 2).

Prince provided moments of greatly effective theatrical simplicity: a proletarian Brecht snarling “Moritat” at a party celebrating Weill and Lenya’s newfound bourgeois status thanks to the success of The Threepenny Opera; Weill’s death indicated by the dropping of a packed suitcase, which spills its contents, followed by a grieving Lenya slowly repacking it; Lenya, under Davis’ stern gaze, silently getting into costume and makeup while terrified of returning to the stage as Jenny in an off-Broadway revival of Threepenny more than 20 years after it premiered in Berlin; and especially the throat-catching curtain, in which Lenya strides upstage into the glare of lights with her back to us, strikes a pose and points while declaiming: “Look! There goes Mack the Knife.” Prince could have ended it much more sentimentally, with Murphy doing a blazing rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” but that wouldn’t have been nearly as moving as stopping just at the moment of rebirth, which he framed perfectly.

It was a jewel of a show, and it told a story that I’d never seen in a Broadway musical: how two people navigate the shoals of an open marriage. That wasn’t all it was about, but it was a large part of it. Fifty-seven years after he debuted on Broadway as an assistant stage manager, and 45 years after he directed his first Broadway musical, 1962’s A Family Affair, Prince was still breaking ground artistically, addressing contemporary culture, and working at the top of his game. And now, another 10 years later, we get a new show: Prince of Broadway, a consideration of his career. I’ll be there, hoping to learn something new.

 


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