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COFFEE WITH HAL PRINCE // Whither the beat of Broadway?

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Does the American musical have a future?

If anyone can answer that perennial question, it is probably Hal Prince, the most decorated Broadway director of our time, perhaps of any time. Prince has done it all in the musical theater, from his first producing credit, The Pajama Game in 1954, to directing The Phantom of the Opera and his acclaimed revival of Show Boat.

Recently, I met Prince for coffee and carrot cake in a cafe on Miami Beach, where he and his wife, Judy, have a winter home. The director, assuming a characteristic pose _ eyeglasses propped atop his balding, sunburnt head _ listened with a slight smile while I tried out a theory on him.

His career is a testament to the idea that a musical can be about the most improbable things, such as a London barber who murders his customers to be baked into pies (Sweeney Todd) or a South American dictatorship (Evita).

Broadway has come a long way since the 1940s when Prince was a newly minted University of Pennsylvania graduate working as a stage manager for legendary producer George Abbott on lightweight shows like Touch and Go and Tickets, Please.

Can a musical be about anything?

"Well, I don't think absolutely anything," Prince said. "There are subjects that simply can't sing. Every once in a while somebody mentions one of those to me and I know right away it's not a subject that sings."

Prince, 68, can do anything he pleases nowadays. He was a multimillionaire even before he directed Phantom, the most lucrative show in history, and he has plenty of irons in the fire. He is supervising three companies of Show Boat around the country while also preparing to direct a new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Whistle Down the Wind (inspired by a 1961 movie with the same title starring Hayley Mills), which goes into production this year.

In 1997, he plans a new musical on another unlikely subject, the lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1913, called I Love a Parade.

Much of Prince's importance stems from his extraordinary partnership with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim that spawned Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and other shows in the 1970s and early '80s. All had relatively modest original runs on Broadway, but their influence has been profound. They turned the musical from its traditional function as popular entertainment _ boy meets girl, essentially _ into a sophisticated art form closer to opera than song and dance.

To some critics, however, the consequence of those shows was to take the musical down a dead end where its appeal has become increasingly elitist. For all the intellectual brilliance of Passion, Sondheim's latest show, nobody left the theater humming the tunes.

Prince has heard the theory many times, and he's a little impatient with it.

"I never planned an assault on the musical theater form," he said. "The problem with all analysis is that an art form has a life of its own. It runs into indifferent patches. Sometimes just by arbitrarily determining to reinvent itself, it goes into a place where it's hard for a lot of people to appreciate it. Nevertheless, it is an attempt to move on. It's not necessarily a conscious attempt. I know it wasn't a conscious attempt by Steve, or mine with him, to take the musical anywhere. It was just to express ourselves."

Prince, an only child, grew up going to Saturday matinees on Broadway with his mother and father, a Wall Street broker. When he recounts his youthful enthusiasms, he doesn't dwell on musicals _ "I didn't like them" _ but instead recalls Orson Welles in Julius Caesar, Robert Morley in the title role of Oscar Wilde and Ruth Gordon and Raymond Massey in Ethan Frome.

However, when Prince got into the theater, the audience for serious dramatic plays was on the wane, while the musical was headed into its 1950s golden age.

"If there's a diminishing audience for theater, as there was for non-musical theater, then it follows that if you want to make certain points, and you want to be serious, you have a better shot at reaching an audience if it's in a musical form," he said.

Exhibit A: Cabaret, a musical about Nazi Germany, adapted from I Am a Camera, the stage version of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories.

"Think of how many more people we reached with Cabaret and how we made a larger point that fascism could happen here," Prince said. "Joel Grey represented Germany, and there was no Joel Grey in I Am a Camera. It lacked that metaphor. You're able today to reach a wider audience on more serious subjects if you do it in musical form."

To people who gripe that musicals aren't like they used to be, Prince says: You wouldn't enjoy a new musical written like an old one.

"As much as people love to go to revivals of old-fashioned, mindless musicals, if you wrote one today, they wouldn't go near it," he said. "What pulls people in is something like Crazy for You, which is real fun precisely because it is a revival. If you gave them that book, that story line and all those unrelated songs in a modern musical, they wouldn't buy it."

Since his collaboration with Sondheim ended with the flop of Merrily We Roll Along, Prince has continued to choose arcane source material. Who would have dreamed Kiss of the Spider Woman, a novel about a window dresser and a Marxist revolutionary locked up in a prison cell, was the stuff of a hit musical?

And that is Prince's point.

"I've always felt there was an enormous advantage in surprising people," he said, harking back to the early days when he and his first partner, Robert Griffith, teamed up as producers. Their greatest show: West Side Story, whose subject matter _ teenage gang warfare _ was daring in the age of My Fair Lady and The Music Man.

"My partner and I did musicals on subjects that people didn't understand or anticipate," Prince said. "Meantime, somebody else would do a show that people expected great things from. They'd build up enormous advance sales. But, I would maintain, everybody buying seats in advance and anticipating great things would go into the theater with a show already in their own mind, whether it was Saratoga Trunk or Tovarich or whatever, and they'd be infernally disappointed because it didn't jibe with the show they'd written in their mind. Then they'd go into a show of ours saying "How can that be?' and we'd surprise them every time. It's a hell of an advantage."

For some time now, Broadway shows have fallen into roughly two categories. They are either high-tech money machines from London like Phantom, Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard, or revivals of all-American oldies like Show Boat and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Prince doesn't worry about the future of the blockbuster. "They will be there," he said. "As long as there is the kind of money in it that there is, somebody will see that it's there."

When he was a producer and a producer/director, Prince raised the money for his shows. He's glad now to concentrate on directing.

"When I was doing it, producers weren't necessarily people who could locate vast sums of money," he said. "Now you're talking about big money. I'm too embarrassed to ask anybody for that kind of money. When I was a producer, I asked 200 people for $1,000 each, and that was it. Nobody got hurt, and I wasn't embarrassed. Now you have to raise $10-million. You have to talk to the big guys. I don't know the big guys. I wouldn't know how to talk to them if I did know them. You know, if somebody gives you a thousand dollars, they don't expect to lean on you with their advice. But if somebody gives you a million dollars, he and his wife and his children and his mother-in-law all have opinions and they need to express them."

It's the smaller musical that Prince worries about. "The problem is to provide theater that isn't a gold mine," he said.

Follies, Sondheim's surreal treatment of a reunion of former Ziegfeld revue performers, was a small musical that lost money. "Follies was one of the best shows I was near, but it didn't make its investment back," Prince said. "It didn't matter. Back then, you could mix 'em up. Steve and I looked at each other and said, "Well, the next one better be more popular,' so we did A Little Night Music and paid off the investors."

It doesn't work like that in today's high-stakes, all-or-nothing Broadway market.

"We were lucky," Prince said. "I would hope that careers like mine and Steve's would fortify the notion that you can make a good life in the theater and still serve your muse."