The Prince of Broadway. Hal Prince comes back with hit musical `Phantom'

Hal Prince, one of Broadway's best and brashest, the man who virtually invented the modern American musical, is in rehearsal. Phone jammed to his ear, something-on-rye at his elbow, talking simultaneously to an actress (``I'm the only one who gives performance notes around here'') and a reporter (``I told you this would be boring'') over the on-stage chorus's steady dee-dee-dum-dum, Mr. Prince is in his element.

As director of ``The Phantom of the Opera,'' composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash London musical that opens tonight here in New York after months of media-driven superlatives, Prince is captain of Broadway's biggest ship of state, the head coach of the hands-down winningest team in theater.

During 35 years in the business, his name has been synonymous with many of the seminal works in American musical theater - ``West Side Story,'' ``Cabaret,'' ``Company,'' ``Evita.'' Now Prince is back on Broadway with his first unqualified hit in nearly a decade.

Under the flashing strobes that the lighting boys are popping overhead in the Majestic Theatre, Prince flashes a grin when asked about making theater history. Again.

``I don't like it,'' he says with a flicker of irony lacing his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet delivery. ``No, seriously, there is so much media brouhaha about all this. It's like the show's become Donald Trump or something.''

Definitely ``or something.'' The latest blockbuster from the Midas-touch composer of ``Cats'' and ``Starlight Express,'' ``Phantom'' has become Broadway's - no, the planet's - biggest production ever: a record-setting $8 million musical that has snapped up a record-breaking $16 million advance, $4 million more than the previous contender, ``Les Mis'erables.'' Boffo box office in the extreme. Good seats still available - after Labor Day.

Even the show's offstage drama has been the stuff of headlines: The New York production was nearly scrapped because of a union regulation; one creative partnership, between Lloyd Webber and longtime producing associate Cameron Mackintosh, has been strained almost to the breaking point, while another - a new venture between Lloyd Webber and Prince - has been formed.

As for the critics, they are ballyhooing this musical adaptation of Gaston Leroux's horror novel as a most auspicious collaboration - the first between the composer and director since their masterly ``Evita'' - one that carves out new artistic territory somewhere between opera and musical theater.

However, if ``Phantom'' can be considered as pushing the envelope on Lloyd Webber's meteoric career - he will have three hits running simultaneously in London and New York - it is nothing short of a comeback for Prince.

Lloyd Webber, after all, has spent the last 15 years churning out critic-proof smashes (begin with ``Jesus Christ Superstar'' in 1971, and go on from there); Prince, however, has had nothing but box-office flops since the early 1980s (begin with the lampooned ``Merrily We Roll Along'' in 1981 and don't stop until this season's short-lived ``Roza''). The man who was considered to be among Broadway's most powerful producers during the '60s and was at the forefront of a new breed of independent artistic directors during the '70s has spent much of the '80s hiding out in opera houses, directing such mainstream works as ``Madama Butterfly.''

``I've never been away. I just closed my producing office a few years ago,'' says Prince with a dismissive wave. ``But I've never stopped working.''

Prince has had few rivals on Broadway. Hailed as a Boy Wonder at age 26 when, as George Abbott's prot'eg'e, he earned a Tony with his very first show, ``The Pajama Game,'' Prince went on to produce twice as many Tony winners as his nearest rival - eight in all. He has another slew of the awards for directing such landmark productions as Kander and Ebb's ``Cabaret'' (revived earlier this season on Broadway) and most of Stephen Sondheim's early musicals, including ``Sweeney Todd.''

``There's no question there is a lot of glamour in creating new musical theater,'' Prince said during a more reflective moment in his Rockefeller Plaza office. ``For me it was a challenge. I was educated into it with George Abbott and Jerome Robbins. ... At this point in my life it would be very difficult to go out and do, say, an ``Uncle Vanya.'''

Not that Chekhov has ever been Prince's style. A haughtily independent producer (``I consider that a compliment!'') who began to run afoul of Broadway's changing economics, Prince is still considered one of the theater's few authentic visionaries - a director who possesses an uncanny ability to merge difficult stories with entertaining visuals.

``I have a good eye. Why not use it?'' Prince says. ``That's where my head is at. You know, I just love that, defining in visual terms what makes the theater different from the other mediums.''

And in ``Phantom,'' Prince relies once again on that vision. Unlike such recent Prince failures as ``Roza'' and ``Grind,'' where theme and staging never quite meshed, ``Phantom'' succeeds through a judicious blend of subject and style. ``What's blowing people away here are Hal's visuals,'' says one ``Phantom'' production member. ``A piece of music means nothing without the right staging.''

Staging is what Prince does best. He was never considered an ``actor's director'' with the talent to tinker with a production's innards. ``When there are dramaturgical problems within the scenes, Hal gets lost,'' says one observer. ``Phantom'' lead actor Michael Crawford adds, ``With some directors, you are bound and gagged, but Hal let me explore the character on my own.''

Indeed, Prince flies highest when commanding top-flight collaborators - from the actors on down. And in ``Phantom,'' Prince is working with some of the best in the business - to produce some of the most impressive work of his career.

Eschewing the laser beams, video screens, or other high-tech paraphernalia that characterize Lloyd Webber's other recent productions, Prince and respected opera designer Maria Bjornson have opted for furs, velvets, brocade curtains, and special effects in keeping with the period - a plummeting chandelier, flickering lamps and trapdoor exits - devices that not only evoke turn-of-the-century Paris but exploit theater's inherent possibilities within a narrative structure.

``What I yearned for here was a romantic musical,'' says Prince. ``And I think that's tapping into something that people desperately need - a need to be taken away from the hard-nosed banality of our computerized time; to look at something beautiful and to feel big emotions about love. I think this show provides that.''

If Prince is sanguine about ``Phantom's'' success, he is less sure about the state of Broadway overall. ``We live in a time when all anyone can talk about is $16 million advance sales. But that's not what theater's about. ... Too many people today are gun-shy because they don't want those terrible reviews in the Times and the show to close overnight. Well, neither do I! I don't feel like the Boy Wonder anymore, but I don't suppose I could be gun-shy again, either. No one is going to take my career away from me.''

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