Feature Hal Prince

Hal Prince and Victoria Bailey, June 10, 2005


VICTORIA BAILEY: So, I thought we might start with how you know T. Edward Hambleton and how you first met him.

HAL PRINCE: I was aware of T. Edward Hambleton and his partner Norris Houghton from the Phoenix Theater productions which they produced. But in addition, when I was a kid I worshiped theater and theater people from the age of 8 or 9. I was a “groupie.” I knew the history of every famous actor. I haunted the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, going through the stacks, reading reviews of plays, reading the plays themselves, and looking at theater designs by Norman Bel Geddes and Stewart Craig.

I probably read a hundred plays in that period. And I lived in a kind of fantasy world which, amazingly enough, was peopled by all the people I ended up knowing fifteen years later.

Anyway, I remember seeing most of the plays at the Phoenix, and admiring their consistent high quality. Well before that, I saw GALLILEO GALLILEI on La Cienega in the late 40s, and I certainly knew that T. had put Charles Laughton and Brecht together and got a play out of them – a historic effort. In addition, the first play I ever saw was the Mercury Theater modern dress production of Julius Caesar with Orson Welles in a leading role. I was eight at the time and my parents took me to see it. Why, I’ll never know, but I guess it turned out to be a great idea.

So T. has always been visible on my screen, even though we did not meet until George Abbott directed ONCE UPON A MATTRESS.

But here’s the answer to your question: in 1961, T. called me and said “I hear you want to be a director.”

Me: “Yes I do”
He: “We have a contract with the New York State Arts Council to send a Phoenix production of THE MATCHMAKER on the road. Do you want to direct it?”
Me. “Yes.”
He: “Now come and cast it.”
We cast Sylvia Sydney as Dolly Levi, Sada Thompson as Mrs. Molloy (she was brilliant!) Ralph Dunn (who ran the pajama factory in THE PAJAMA GAME) as Horace Vandergelder. Ralph Williams was Barnaby, Joe Ponazecki, Cornelius.

So, that was my first directing job. I was courting Judy Chaplin at the time and we were married the next year. THE MATCHMAKER toured for however long, and the confidence that experience gave me (well, the actors didn’t run from me, and they actually occasionally did what I asked them to) set me up.

Later that year, came a bid to take over A FAMMILY AFFAIR in Philadelphia, a musical that John Kander and the Goldman brothers had written. I guess I did pretty well by it. In two weeks we threw out sixty percent of the script, reworked the scenery, and arrived in New York to pretty good reviews.

The word of mouth on the production of THE MATCHMAKER was apparently so good that I received a phone call from David Merrick, inviting me to direct a musical version of it on Broadway. It was then to be called DOLLY, A MOST AMAZING WOMAN. Jerry Herman came to my office, played the score, and I’m afraid I turned him down on the basis of one song, Hello Dolly!, which didn’t seem consistent with Mrs. Levi’s character. I guess I was wrong.

Instead, I chose to hire myself that same season for the musical SHE LOVES ME, which bore some resemblance to THE MATCHMAKER. Of course the rest is history. HELLO DOLLY! beat out SHE LOVES ME at the Tony Awards that year. But they were like two sides of a coin: one is my side and the other is Jerry Herman’s and Gower Champion’s.

VICTORIA BAILEY: But learning your craft from eight years of age doesn’t hurt.

HAL PRINCE: I agree. I’ve been obsessed with theater since I can remember. There are so many people out there who want to work in the theater, but haven’t the time to learn its literature, to acquire information and experience.

I suppose no one was in a bigger hurry than I. I got my first job with George Abbott as I turned 20. He asked me, “How old are you?” And I said, “Twenty-five.” And five years later, when we were doing THE PAJAMA GAME, he asked again, “How old are you?” And I said, “I’m the age I told you five years ago.”

Abbott was the second person to tell me I was a director. And I vetted everything he did carefully. When we were on the road with DAMN YANKEES, we were in trouble, and I would take the problems home and solve them my way. The next day, when he had solved them, the solutions were invariably different from mine, and for a time I accepted that he was right and I was wrong. And then one day I realized that we were different directors, and that there was more than one way to solve a problem. Then I began to respect my own solutions.

Remember, I only worked with two directors. One was George Abbott, the other was Jerome Robbins, and they could not be less alike. Jerry was a choreographer/director, and many of his solutions were attached to his feet. I learned from him what George didn’t know — dance patters as they can be translated into non-dancing movement in a musical. Moving people diagonally, moving people up and down stage. I move crowds well. Take City on Fire from SWEENEY TODD. It’s like a dance without any dance steps. I learned that from Jerry.

With SHE LOVES ME I established myself as a working director on Broadway. Interestingly enough, when it first opened, Abbott said to me, “It’s a gorgeous show, you’re wonderful, it’s terrific, and it won’t last more than this season. There’s not enough glitz for a Broadway audience.” I’m afraid he was right.

But in the meantime, I heard from Leonard Bernstein, from Richard Rodgers, from a number of my idols, welcoming me to the community. In time, I realized that I needed to express myself more independently. That my work would have to be more intrinsically mine, just as Jerry Robbins’ and Gower Champion’s and George Abbott’s were theirs.

CABARET in 1966 was the first show I directed which had my voice. By the time I got around to company in 1970, Abbott said, “I don’t know how the hell you did that, but it works”

VICTORIA BAILEY: And the thing that started it all was T. knowing to pick up the phone, because somewhere in his network someone knew you wanted to be a director.

HAL PRINCE: It’s creative producing. T. was the quintessential creative producer. He’s damn smart, damn knowledgeable. What he wasn’t, was a director. But the truth is, what nobody understands about producing, is that it can be and ought to be creative. I’ve always despised the word “product,” and everyone uses it now. And now, we have the word “branding.” So we brand everything in sight, and we worry more about branding and more about product. It works at the box office some of the time. Not all of the time. But it doesn’t work as well as a wonderful, bona fide artistic accomplishment on the stage.

VICTORIA BAILEY: Well the thing I always remember about T. is that he always responds to inquisitiveness. I met him when I was a freshman at Yale, and T. was one of the alums who would come back. We would go sit in a room at Yale, and this was 32 years ago, and he just wanted to see who was young and who was new. One day, he sat me down and he said, “Where’d you come from.” Because I was stage managing, he said, “Where’d you learn that? Who are you?” And I just thought, “this person, who has done everything he’s done, is interested in me.” He was viewing me as someone who had something to bring to the field. And that was so exciting.

HAL PRINCE: That’s quintessential. That’s T. It ennobles you. What T. did and what George did gave me gumption.

His support of Ellis Rabb and the Phoenix Theater represents the ultimate in creative producing. T. is stubborn and determined, and anything that bore his name was of the highest quality. The best actors in America came out of that Phoenix factory.

Creative producing often involves one person coming up with the idea for play or a musical, and then casting its authors, composers, the entire creative team. Of course, a play often comes to you, but casting its creative roles is something that should not be left solely to the playwright. And in the case of a musical, its unlikely that a finished product will cross your desk. Unlikely, and probably ill-advised.

Ninety percent of what emerged from my producing office started there, as did career changing shows for Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Sondheim, and most recently Jason Robert Brown. This is not unusual. This is the same way that Feuer and Martin, Kermit Bloomgarden, David Merrick, Leland Hayward, Irene Selznick, Alexander H. Cohen, Gilbert Miller and Max Gordon functioned. That is just a few of a seemingly endless list, and all easily identifiable by the shows they produced.

VICTORIA BAILEY: But something that is really important, and I think people don’t understand enough: you had an image and idea in your mind of something you wanted to see happen, which means you have to be trained well enough to identify a story that wants to be told and hasn’t be told. And you have to understand that a producer who’s doing his or her job right, has a right to say, “I have a vision. I would like to see this.”

HAL PRINCE: In my opinion that is the most important skill that is lacking now – creative producing. There are plenty of intelligent, young, directors, actors, designers, but the worst nightmare for them is to be offered something that isn’t of value but that they cannot afford to turndown.

VICTORIA BAILEY: Who do you think are ideal candidates for this program?

HAL PRINCE: Anybody who is sitting in a room somewhere today who will hear about this and say: “I was just about to go to Chicago as an apprentice to the Goodman or Victory Gardens, because how the hell else am I going to produce? Maybe I’ll have to run my own theater.”

I think I will recognize the potential in that person. Some years ago, I pinned to the bulletin board by my desk this legend: “FOR YEARS I HAD MY OWN SUBSIDIZED THEATER.” Let me explain it. I had my investors, and they were as proud of the box office failures as our success, providing those failures had quality. They were proud to have invested in FOLLIES and PACIFIC OVERTURES, and while I recognize, it was my job to see that periodically they got a return on their investments, I was equally aware that they were enthusiastic about the medium, and not just particularly for a financial return. Oddly enough, for many years the returns were excellent. Nevertheless, I would tell them not to invest in theater to make money.

For anyone who might be questioning the possibility of all this, anyone who thinks everything has changed in the last forty years, let me say, everything hasn’t changed. I began my career with three popular commercial successes in a row, all directed by George Abbott. The next musical, however, was WEST SIDE STORY, not directed by him. It had been dropped by its initial producer Cheryl Crawford, and nobody wanted a part of it. When we went into rehearsal, I was standing in front of what is now the Richard Rodgers Theater, when Leland Hayward, the most prestigious producer in our business passed on the street. “How are you, Hal? What are you doing” “I’m doing WEST SIDE STORY.” And his reply was, “Good for you young man, its time you had a failure.” He said it kindly, ironically perhaps, but he did say it. Well when WEST SIDE opened, though it was no THE MUSIC MAN at the box office, and won only one Tony, it did run a year and a half the first time around. And almost fifty years later it is more successful than THE MUSIC MAN, and something of a cash cow.

VICTORIA BAILEY: Also, from the point of view that some of what’s involved in being creative and producing, is understanding what work will move the theater forward.

HAL PRINCE: The artistic material that feeds you, will feed others, and ultimately, seed the artistic future of our art form. When I wanted to fly the entire company of WEST SIDE STORY to London for its run there, my co-producer and I negotiated with British Equity. They agreed that we’d bring the entire company for six months if, from the second week on, we started to replace one American at a time with a British performer. They also insisted that twice a week we offer free dance classes on the stage of Her Majesty’s to British Equity members, so they could learn the Robbins style. And if you check out London musicals now you’ll see the legacy of those dance classes.

VICTORIA BAILEY: Sounds like good innovative negotiating.

HAL PRINCE: When we became producers, Bobby Griffith and I, we knew we had to make an impression quickly in a business where excellent people were producing musicals. Feuer and Martin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Abbott himself. Who needs Griffith and Prince? At that time it cost between 250K and 350K to produce a musical. So we thought, If we raised 250K, but found a way to produce it for 150K, we could return our investment from the day our musical was reviewed. And that would cause talk. PAJAMA GAME cost 159K, DAMN YANKEES, 162K, and the morning after, for each show, our people found checks for ten or twenty percent of their original investment in the mail.

How did we save all that money? The first show took place in a pajama factory. I got in touch with a pajama manufacturer and offered to publicize his wares in our show and in our print advertising on a reciprocal basis. In addition, I asked for forty sewing machines, gratis, and all the fabric we needed for the show. They agreed and it happened.

The next show was DAMN YANKEES, which was about the New York Yankees losing the pennant to the Washington Red Sox. I contacted the Yankees and they provided all the baseball equipment and, again, reciprocal advertising. And then, for a bonus, they gave us a box over the dugout for the 1000 performances that the show ran!

You know, at the end of every season we read how much Broadway grossed that year. We never read how many shows actually paid back their investments. Today, there are too many shows that run for two or three years and never pay back.

Just last week we sent substantial distributions to our original investors for WEST SIDE STORY, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, and CABARET. WEST SIDE STORY goes back 48 years, FIDDLER 41 years, and CABARET, 39!
An unlikely candidate for commercial success would surely be SWEENEY TODD. It ran two years on Broadway, but it took eleven years to pay back its original investment. From now on, everything that comes in for that show is in the profit column. And I think it is indisputable that Sondheim and Wheeler wrote a work of art, with no mind on the box office.

VICTORIA BAILEY: You just have to be smart enough and brave enough and have enough taste to say this is really good. This is what I’m doing, and then you have to be able to get the right people to put it together. And then you have to believe in it and not think that it happens tomorrow. Because in the end, I think what you’re saying is that if you do it in a really creative way, you’re doing it to last. You’re doing it to be there. And because those projects were in fact works of art, they still have something to say 50 years later.

HAL PRINCE: If you erase the artistry from the equation, it becomes a different game. If we don’t feed an audience quality, we lose that audience.

I think the most difficult thing in the world for a creative producer is to pick the right person. He has to have confidence in his judgment. Two gentlemen found me. T. Edward and Abbott. And I didn’t need anybody else.

VICTORIA BAILEY: When someone like T. says, “Tell me where you came from…” and makes you an offer, it’s everything.

HAL PRINCE: It’s huge. Some years ago I began to think there was no hope for a career in the commercial theater, that the not-for-profit path was the only viable one. I’ve changed my mind. Probably because I know that the best of Broadway is the best there is. And by that I mean the original STREETCAR NAMED DESIER, the original FOLLIES, the original BRING IN DA’ NOISE, BRING IN DA’ FUNK.

Can you think of a single not-for-profit theater in the United States that can produce CABARET in ’66, ZORBA in ’68, COMPANY in ’70, FOLLIES in ’71, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in ’73, CANDIDE in ’74, PACIFIC OVERTURES in ’76? Does a single theater have those resources? I don’t think so.

VICTORIA BAILEY: And I think part of what the Fellowship is about is addressing the changes in where people train.

HAL PRINCE: Finding a different way. A new way to get it done.

There’s another aspect to creative producing. You need to know when to open your mouth. I used to make long lists from rehearsals to road tryouts of everything I thought a show needed to work. Then, each day watching rehearsal, the list would get smaller as the director or choreographer took care of each problem. By the time we got through most of our out-of-town run, my list would be very short indeed. And then, one by one, I’d proffer my suggestions.

Sensitivity, diplomacy, and respect are critical.