The Commercial Appeal [Memphis, TN]
What makes a good musical?
“Quality material, quality interpretation, taste and talent,” answers Harold `Hal’ Prince, who should know.
Over the past four decades, Prince’s name has become synonymous with the Broadway stage, including 55 musicals. Since 1962, the veteran theatrical director and producer has been behind such popular shows as Fiddler On the Roof, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, West Side Story, Damn Yankees, and The Pajama Game.
And the list goes on, with such heavy-hitting productions as Show Boat, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Candide, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Follies, Company, Cabaret, and She Loves Me.
“Taste comes from all the collaborators,” says Prince, speaking by phone recently from his office in New York City. “It can also come from the audience. When the audience expresses good taste – by demanding substance from the material – that’s wonderful, too. But they don’t always.
“I don’t want to sound like a scold,” the director continues, “but I’m grateful when the material, the production, and the audience really meet on a level that you can be proud of. It happens.” Happily, it happens in Prince’s latest effort, Parade. It is based on the true story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager in Atlanta who in 1913 was wrongly convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan.
The courtroom drama-cum-romantic musical, which won two 1999 Tony Awards for Jason Robert Brown’s musical score and Alfred Uhry’s musical book, is a murder mystery that also spotlights the loyalties and love between Leo and his wife, Lucille. Another undercurrent running through the musical is that of changing attitudes about such issues as race and social status in the turn-of-the-century American South.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Uhry, author of Driving Miss Daisy, Parade is a celebrated musical that made a false start. Despite critical acclaim, the production closed within months due to reconstruction at the Lincoln Center Vivian Beaumont Theatre, where the musical had originally opened. Because of his strong belief in Parade, Prince, who had co-conceived the idea for the musical, committed himself to restaging the production.
And what better venue to reopen the musical than in Atlanta, where the story’s events took place nearly a century ago?
After its premiere in that city this month, the Broadway-bound touring production of Parade travels to the Orpheum in Memphis. Performances run from June 20-25. For ticket information, call the Orpheum at 525-3000 or Ticketmaster at 743-ARTS.
While those who saw the first version of Parade may notice some tweaking, Prince emphasizes that the differences are subtle. “I made some judicious cuts in the first act – cutting some things I loved but which I thought might be a bit indulgent,” he says.
Another serendipitous inspiration occurred in the revamp process. “In looking at the second act, I said to the authors, `My God! We have a second-act opening number, but we don’t get to it until 10 minutes into the second act!’ Everybody smiled,” Prince says, recalling others’ response to his brainstorm. “So we changed it and made it the opening of the second act.”
The results have paid off, judging by audience reaction. “We’ve had a series of invited run-throughs here in New York,” he says, “and they have resulted in a couple of performances. The numbers which before were OK, suddenly got a rousing reaction,” Prince explains. “I suppose it’s akin to what film directors do. It’s a very potent experience for someone who directs.”
Prince has directed two films: Something For Everyone and A Little Night Music.
For the stage, his directing credits have included The Visit, The Great God Brown and End of the World. Prince also penned the play Grandchild of Kings, which was staged off-Broadway. In addition, he has directed operatic productions with the world’s leading companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, The Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Vienna Staatsoper and the Theatre Colon in Buenos Aires. Prince is also currently connected with three North American productions of Show Boat, as well as 11 international productions of The Phantom of the Opera.
Not surprisingly, Prince has assembled a stable of actors and other colleagues with whom he regularly works.
“In this case, it’s a marvelous company,” he says of Parade. Its cast includes longtime colleagues Prince refers to as “old standbys in good, featured roles.” He mentions John Leslie Wolfe and John Vosburgh, two actors Prince has employed off and on for the past two decades. “I have a bunch of wonderful actors,” he says.
“The two leads are also quite amazing,” Prince adds.
The musical stars David Pittu and Andrea Burns as Leo and Lucille Frank. Pittu most recently appeared in a touring production of Titanic. His off-Broadway work includes Dangerous Corner, directed by David Mamet; Lanford Wilson’s Sympathetic Magic; The Lights at Lincoln Center; and Three Postcards at Circle Rep. He is a member of the Atlantic Theater company, where his work as a director includes Kaufman & Hart’s Once in a Lifetime.
Burns, meanwhile, has starred in touring productions of Evita, 1776, Company, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Recently, she appeared in the New York premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Saturday Night and also co-starred with Elaine Stritch in Noel Coward’s Sail Away at Carnegie Hall. Broadway roles include Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and off-Broadway she performed in Brown’s Songs for a New World at the WPA Theater.
Prince’s daughter, Daisy Chaplin, directed that show, and introduced her father to Brown. Prince was impressed with the 23-year-old. “He’s amazing. I brought him this show Alfred (Uhry) brought to me,” Prince says, referring to Parade. And he got a Tony for it.”
Prince believes in mentoring. “We have not done well in the commercial theater with the next generation of composers and librettists,” he says. “We have not nurtured them the way we were by our antecedents. It has been very much on my mind that we need to pass the torch, musically.”
Prince himself has won some 20 Tony Awards. He was also a 1994 recipient of the lifetime achievement Kennedy Center Honors in Washington. Born in New York, Prince is 72 years old. “I’m numerically 72, but it makes absolutely no sense to me,” he says with a laugh, “because I feel like much younger.”
Parade is representative of his overall career, he explains. “My reputation is largely based on musical theater that tells a story, which in this case I think is very fascinating,” he says of Parade. “It’s about a crisis period in American history, a period that we’ve put behind us and learned from. We should be very proud of where such events took us, and how much we’ve learned.
“It’s an amazing system, American democracy,” Prince continues. “I mean, everything about it – even with all its flaws – it is unparalleled.”
Prince’s upcoming projects include a not-yet-titled work that marks his first collaboration with Sondheim in 19 years, he says. Another friend, Carol Burnett, and her daughter Carrie Hamilton have co-written a play that Prince wants to direct. “It’s a drama with a lot of comedy in it,” Prince says, adding that the co-authors do not plan to star in the show.
Prince realizes that each show takes time, but the rewards are worth reaping.
“Getting a show on is a long journey,” he says. “There are signposts along the way. And I think Parade is one of my favorite shows. I knew this the other day. I knew again why – because . . . working and creating an art form is about the pleasure you get working in collaboration with . . . the authors (and) the actors. And this one is just
so satisfying. It reaffirms why I’ve spent my life doing what I’ve done.”