Hal Prince at 90: ‘Musicals should be dangerous’ | Stage
He is the renowned American producer-director who staged some of the most famous musicals of the 20th century, including West Side Story, Cabaret and Fiddler on the Roof, winning more Tony awards than anyone else. Now, at the age of 90, Harold “Hal” Prince is embarking on two more musicals.
One is inspired by an award-winning documentary, How to Dance in Ohio, about a group of autistic children who find a way to realise their potential. The other, set in the 19th century, explores the roles and responsibilities of men and women – “an old-fashioned musical done in a new-fashioned way”, he says. “A very contemporary subject, and we’re trying to have a lot of fun with it.”
The roll-call of celebrated names with whom Prince has collaborated is extraordinary: “I did the first musical with Kander and Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, the first musical with Bock and Harnick, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof, and Steve Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story, so I’ve had great good fortune working with people who were very fresh.”
In Prince’s recent memoir, Sense of Occasion, he recalls picking up West Side Story after Sondheim told him that they had lost their producer and there was “absolutely no interest from anyone on Broadway in doing a show about gang warfare in Hell’s Kitchen”. Prince jumped at the chance: “Sondheim and Bernstein played the score, and soon I was singing along with them.”
On Jerome Robbins’s direction of West Side Story, Prince says: “During the rehearsal period of West Side, he related the cast thoroughly to their gangs. Half were Jets and half were Sharks. They travelled in packs away from the theatre. They were young and inexperienced, and identification improved their acting.”
Though he continues to work in the business, Prince has reservations about the world of the modern musical, where the stars sell the show, rather than the show creating the stars. An exception, he points out, was Hamilton, which wowed audiences and produced hits without relying on the household names beloved of investors.
The groundbreaking productions of the 70s and 80s, he says, were made possible by dozens of investors but could not be staged today because investors are no longer prepared to take risks. They now prefer to follow the template of previous hits, which can lead to pale imitations rather than “extending the danger and vision of theatre”.
The problem is that costs have spiralled. In 1971, Prince staged Follies, a smash hit, for nearly $800,000, then the most expensive musical ever produced, he says. Today it would cost up to $20m, as $800,000 covers little more than “a one-set play with two characters”.
The financial risks of backing such productions are stifling artistic risks. “There’s a temptation to copycat, but I don’t think it’s good for the future of the artform.” Classic productions such as Follies were “audacious” and “never designed to be primarily a commercial success”, he says. “Producers today are influenced by what they think audiences want, which is frequently ‘the same old thing’. That’s really what’s happened.
“Audiences are better than that. They’re quite willing to go where they’ve never been before. But producers are not willing to take them there. That’s because of the cost. It becomes too much of a business and too little of an artform. We are deluged with limited-engagement productions, usually revivals, featuring huge stars. They guarantee paying back their investments but with limited profit potential. And revivals, though important historically, are not new work. They do not represent the now or the future of the theatre.”
Back in the day, Prince’s investors took the original gamble of putting unlikely shows on Broadway that ended up making history. “We had a record of three successes before West Side Story, and our investors were willing to go with us. The same applied to Fiddler. Four or five successes later, we had such a good run of luck that my investors never asked any questions, never read a script, never wanted a read-through.”
A last piece of advice from the Prince of Broadway? Theatre producers should not compete with cinema through special effects: “We’ve just had 31 years in London and 30 years on Broadway with Phantom [of the Opera]. It’s a very minimalist theatrical experience with no projections and no fancy technology. It’s just a hell of a good story using what theatre is best at – inviting the audience to create right along with the creators.”
Ultimately, says Prince, live performance is about sparking imaginations: “That’s what’s exciting.”
Winner of more Tony awards than anyone else, Hal Prince (pictured winning for Show Boat in 1995) has worked with the theatre greats, including Kander and Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, Bock and Harnick, writers of Fiddler on the Roof, and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote lyrics for West Side Story.
In 1971 Prince staged Follies. At a cost of $800,000, it was then the most expensive musical ever produced.
He is responsible for numerous stage hits, including Cabaret (which he produced and directed in 1966), Evita (director, 1979) and The Phantom of the Opera (director, 1986).
Prince won a special Tony for lifetime achievement in theatre in 2006.