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David Benedict: Hal Prince was a theatre visionary when a producer really produced

Hal Prince. Photo: Howard Sherman
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Long before the current row about the Society of London Theatre possibly limiting the number of producers eligible for Olivier award statuettes, the legendary Hal Prince had some views on the subject.

I was in his office at Rockefeller Center when he stopped the conversation to grab the phone. “Get me the list of Dr Zhivago producers.” His assistant came in and handed Prince a sheet of paper with the list of producers above the title of the then recent Broadway musical based on Boris Pasternak’s novel. He passed it to me. It had 41 names on it. His expression said everything.

It was very different in 1953 when assistant stage manager Prince and his pal Robert Griffith bought the rights to 7½ cents, a novel about a strike in a pyjama factory, a year later becoming the producers of the biggest hit in town, The Pajama Game. They had persuaded Rosalind Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson, to join them, so there were precisely three names above the title. By the time he was in his prime with Follies and A Little Night Music, it was solely his name.

But with the closing of the musical Grind in 1985 after 71 performances, he stopped producing. “Things got so expensive,” he told me. “I mean, finance for Follies was raised in one day. Company was raised in one day.” He simply sent his investors a letter. “No one ever read a script. No one ever heard a score.” Getting them to part with money was easier because chances of recoupment were so much higher. The Pajama Game recouped in just 14 weeks. These days, on a musical, that’s unimaginable. And, as he tartly pointed out, those investors “didn’t want to be called producers”.

Obituary: Hal Prince – 21-time Tony-winning director and producer who bestrode Broadway in the 20th century

Compare that with the London-to-Broadway transfer of a play I will not name which, as a harried New York PR told me, had so many over-entitled investors calling themselves producers on it that a spokesperson had to be hired to speak on their behalf.

Freed from the burden of producing, Prince could flex his directorial muscles more fully, as evidenced a year later by The Phantom of the Opera.

It went on to become the world’s most financially successful single entertainment entity and, at $5.6 billion and counting, that’s almost twice the earnings for movie champions
Avengers: Endgame and Avatar. From the artistic perspective, the scale of Prince’s achievement became even more evident when compared with its misbegotten sequel Love Never Dies, which Prince was nowhere near and signally lacked Maria Björnson’s designs, Cameron Mackintosh’s production and Prince’s still resonant theatrical vision.

Indeed, to see just how much of a theatre man he truly was, look at his two sadly stilted films, neither of which, he told me, he enjoyed making. Something For Everyone is a drawn-out black comedy only worth seeing for Angela Lansbury, while his A Little Night Music with Elizabeth Taylor – “That woman”, he growled – is legendarily torpid. “I’ve never been more unhappy working in my life.”

Richard Jordan: Capping producers’ Olivier statuettes could drive away theatre investors

Remarkably, his theatrical vision was forever freshly minted. Most directors make their names with revivals, since the fastest route to good reviews is reimagining a classic. But in a Broadway career spanning almost 70 shows, Prince directed or produced only five revivals. It was the excitement of the new that fired him up.

His ability to turn off-key ideas into musical theatre was unparalleled. No one was more surprised than Sondheim when Prince looked at a bunch of one-act plays by George Furth that Sondheim, his old pal, had sent him, and suggested they should become a musical. The result was the game-changing, plotless Company, the first of six daring Sondheim collaborations that changed Broadway forever, showing writers and audiences that, if you do it right, almost anything could be a musical.

But he’d been changing the landscape from almost the start of his directorial career. In 1963 he directed the first Broadway musical without a chorus: Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s deliciously intimate She Loves Me. (It was the first project he’d directed from scratch after stepping up to doctor a show struggling out of town: A Family Affair, written by roommates James and William Goldman and composer John Kander. Whatever happened to them?)

Prince was back producing for Bock and Harnick’s follow-up, which famously darkened what Broadway deemed acceptable in a musical: Fiddler on the Roof. Two years later he cemented that reputation with Cabaret.

At his death, aged 91, he was still fascinated by theatre, still working. The only thing he largely avoided was other people’s revivals of his shows. I suggested there wasn’t much for him to enjoy in seeing a show he’d created, with book, music and lyrics intact but everything that he’d done on the original removed and replaced. He nodded.

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at http://thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict

Howard Sherman: In memory of Hal Prince (1928-2019), a theatre legend

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