The Dominion Post

Phantom put director’s name up in lights


From West Side Story to Phantom of the Opera, and from Evita to Sweeney Todd, Hal Prince was behind many of the great Broadway and West End musicals of the postwar years as either producer, director or both. The trick was, he said, to think big. ‘‘You’ve got to keep attempting something new,’’ he said. ‘‘It is good to feel a little scared. I can’t say I like it, but I do know that if something is going to be successful you’ve got to take risks in this game.’’

And risks he undoubtedl­y took. Yes, some of his work adopted the ‘‘good times’’ formula so familiar to audiences, but increasing­ly he transforme­d the musical into an artistic collaborat­ion whose vision often reflected the harsher realities of society. That was evident in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which, despite its dark theme about the persecutio­n of

Jewish people in early 20thcentur­y Russia, ran for what was then a Broadway record of 3242 performanc­es, and was even more so two years later in Cabaret, with its avowed message that what had happened in 1930s Berlin could be repeated in America.

The words ‘‘a Hal Prince production’’ atop a theatre poster were not necessaril­y a guarantee of box-office success, but they did signal a willingnes­s to take on challengin­g projects and bring to them a fresh approach, often in collaborat­ion with carefully chosen colleagues, such as Stephen Sondheim or the choreograp­her Bob Fosse. His long associatio­n with Sondheim led to the developmen­t of the ‘‘concept musical’’, epitomised by Company (1970), in which the plot is less important than the spectacle.

Of all the shows that Prince directed, Phantom of the Opera, originally starring Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, was the greatest success. It opened in 1986 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, in London – chosen for its French Renaissanc­e style and grand chandelier that well fitted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Gothic score – and is still running there today, while also being seen since 1988 on Broadway, where, after more than 13,000 performanc­es, it is the longestrun­ning musical.

Prince’s staging, described by Irving Wardle in The Times as ‘‘projected with stunning showmanshi­p’’, turned a theatre – the Paris Opera – into a replica of the universe, from the Statue of Apollo above the city’s rooftops down to the infernal regions with their furnaces and Stygian lake. To date it has been seen by an estimated 130 million people in 145 cities and has grossed more than US$5.6 billion.

The walls of Prince’s office in Rockefelle­r Plaza, New York, were crowded with posters from shows stretching back over a lifetime. A high-octane mixture of businessma­n and showbiz personalit­y, he was not the easiest person to interview, lighting one cigarette after another, and perching first on one chair and then another. He was widely recognised for his glasses, which originally sat

precarious­ly tilted on his suntanned forehead like a fighter pilot’s goggles, though latterly had descended to his nose. ‘‘I used to love the idea of wearing them, but now I genuinely do wear them,’’ he told The Times in 2010.

Harold Smith Prince was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1928, the son of Harold Smith and his wife, Blanche (nee Stern), whose families had settled in the United States soon after the Civil War. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother then married Milton Prince, a Wall Street broker. ‘‘There wasn’t much religion,’’ he said. ‘‘We were old German Jews. Very enlightene­d.’’

He recalled a ‘‘privileged, upper-middle, lower-rich class’’ childhood. ‘‘From the age of 8, when my parents took me to see the Mercury Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar starring Orson Welles, I knew there was something special about the theatre that could not be duplicated elsewhere.’’

As a boy he listened to live radio relays from the Metropolit­an Opera, using his puppet theatre to reconstruc­t the dramas. The family lost their home in Westcheste­r and an apartment in New York in the Depression. His mother found work designing hats for Hattie Carnegie.

He had a nervous breakdown at 14 and later tried psychoanal­ysis, but did not take to it. ‘‘In fact, I recall sleeping during most sessions and the analyst waking me up to tell me the hour was over,’’ he wrote.

After attending the Timothy Dwight School in Manhattan, he enrolled at the age of 16 at the University of Pennsylvan­ia in Philadelph­ia, where he wrote, directed and acted in several plays and ran a campus radio station. Graduating in 1948, he returned to New York, hoping to make his way as a playwright, but was to be disappoint­ed.

Yet news of his theatrical enthusiasm reached George Abbott, a legendary figure on Broadway who took young Hal under his wing, later describing him as ‘‘a very bright fellow with a great deal of talent’’.

In October 1962 Prince married Judith Chaplin, the daughter of composer and arranger Saul Chaplin; they had met in Paris where Judy, who had trained as a concert pianist, had been working as a ballet dancer. Sondheim was their best man.

‘‘My career put an end to her profession­al aspiration­s, and I regret that,’’ Prince wrote. She survives him with their children: Charles, an orchestral conductor, and Daisy, a director. He had three grandchild­ren.

His memoir, Sense of Occasion (2017), was, like many of the best Broadway shows, a revival – in this case of his 1974 autobiogra­phy, Contradict­ions, which with hindsight he described as being a work of ‘‘insane arrogance’’. Asked on one occasion how he felt about death he replied, ‘‘Not much. I keep going,’’ adding: ‘‘I suppose I live for the moment. I’m not nostalgic, I don’t look back with pleasure at the past.’’

‘‘. . . I knew there was something special about the theatre that could not be duplicated elsewhere.’’

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