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His account of a lifetime
spent defying theatrical odds
will leave readers wistful
for the days when taste,
guts, and faith in a
personal vision were
occasionally enough to
get a show to Broadway.


The man who produced
West Side Story and
Fiddler on the Roof, then
directed Cabaret and six
Stephen Sondheim shows,
can be proud of the
leading role he played in
making the contemporary
musical more adult
and more ambitious.


The Prince of Broadway

by Wendy Smith

LOOKING BACK IN Sense of Occasion on his astonishing seven-decade career, Harold Prince sums it up in nine words: “Putting unlikely shows on Broadway that ultimately made history.” Why should he be modest? The man who produced West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, then directed Cabaret and six game-changing Stephen Sondheim shows can be justifiably proud of the leading role he played in making the contemporary musical more adult and more ambitious. Prince of Broadway recently ended its engagement at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater in New York, celebrating the scope of his achievements in a revue containing 36 numbers from 17 productions.

Sense of Occasion (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books) ranges even more widely, covering virtually every show Prince has done since his apprenticeship under George Abbott’s wing in the 1950s. To accomplish that, he takes the unconventional step of incorporating into this book the entire text of his long-out-of-print 1974 memoir, Contradictions.

It’s a good idea, actually. Written in the heady middle of his historic collaboration with Sondheim, Contradictions is worth reprinting simply for its vivid behind-the-scenes portrait of the creation of Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music. What makes it an indispensable prelude to the 19 new chapters on Prince’s career since 1974, however, is the producer/director’s sharp, savvy assessment of the challenges involved in trying to do artistically meaningful work in the commercial theater. Those challenges have grown exponentially greater, Prince frequently reminds us in the present-day ‘reflections’ he appends to each chapter from Contradictions. Chapter 2, on the first two shows he produced, is followed by the rueful elaboration, “The Pajama Game cost $169,000, and Damn Yankees cost $162,000. This is somewhere in the neighborhood of the budget for shoes and wigs on a current Broadway production.”

The higher stakes are already evident as the new material in Sense of Occasion beginning with Pacific Overtures, the fourth Prince-Sondheim collaboration—and the second (after Follies) to lose its entire capitalization. Prince’s warm recollections of his Kabuki-style interpretation of an aggressively conceptual musical about Western imperialism reveals no diminution in his appetite for risk-taking. It does reveal a weariness with Broadway’s increasingly insane economics that eventually prompted him to give up his dual role as producer/director. The loyal individual investors who had stuck with Prince since The Pajama Game, making it financially possible to take artistic risks, were just not sufficient to cover the $3.5 million budget of Sweeney Todd. (Pacific Overture, only three years earlier, cost $650,000.) He decided to direct it and leave the money-raising to a team of five producers who had to wait 11 years to recoup the cost of the greatest of the Sondheim-Prince shows.

The painful failure of Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 ended his partnership with Sondheim, and Prince describes his reaction in characteristically terse terms: “Of course I still miss the creative sessions,” he writes. “We both went alternative routes successfully; still…” He’s not one for delving into his or anyone else’s personal emotions, and readers looking for juicy gossip will have to look elsewhere; a mildly critical account of Madeline Kahn’s unprofessional behavior in On the Twentieth Century is as catty as he gets. Instead, he offers a show-by-show narrative that devotes as much attention to short-lived pieces like Parade and LoveMusik as to commercial hits such as Evita, Kiss of the Spiderwoman and the international mega-smash Phantom of the Opera. At the same time, although he focuses on his work as a director, he seldom fails to mention how long the show ran and whether it had subsequent productions. Prince has never chosen projects with their profitability in mind, but he understands that in the commercial theater you can’t make art if you don’t make a profit at least some of the time.

Prince’s accomplishments as a director are well served by his cogent snapshots of the creative process, in particular his intriguing discussion of “metaphor as the spine of a musical book” and his appreciative tributes to his designers and choreographers. But it’s telling that his most passionate statement of faith, in the book’s closing pages, is directed at the corporate investors and producers who now dominate Broadway, whom he urges to “think in terms of art” as a winning business strategy. The record-smashing success of Hamilton, with its hip-hop-inflected score and multi-racial cast, would seem to bear out Prince’s assertion that “there are greater profits to be realized in courageous, ground-breaking projects,” but the endless procession of jukebox musicals and revamped Disney movies suggests that there’s plenty of money to be made in cloning yesterday’s hits as well. Broadway continues to view innovation with a wary eye, and its economic bloat has left no room for producer/directors of the sort Prince once was.

Sense of Occasion is a determinedly un-nostalgic book; on the eve of his 90th birthday, Prince is still planning new productions. Nonetheless, his forthright account of a lifetime spent defying theatrical odds will leave longtime theatergoers wistful for the days when individual taste, guts, and faith in a personal vision were occasionally enough to get a show to Broadway. •

November-December 2017