Broadway's Prince Grooms Heirs
Tony-nominated director of 29 musicals joins effort to develop a new theatrical generation
NEW YORK — `NO one comes into this office with wonderful musicals. You have to make them." Leaning back in his chair, the lean gray-bearded gentleman explaining his views on the American musical theater speaks from experience.
Hal Prince has directed 28 musicals. His 29th, "Kiss of the Spider Woman," opened on Broadway last month and is likely to capture at least a few Tony Awards Sunday night (it is nominated for 11, including one for Mr. Prince as best director of a musical).
Today he's not talking about his own work, but the future of musical theater. He has lent his name and his time to a new project to train musical-theater directors - the generation that will follow him, Tommy Tune, and Jerry Zaks.
"The whole notion that there's a great difference between directing something for the first time and something that was done five years ago escapes young directors and escapes the business," Prince says. New material must be shaped, cut, nurtured, and sharpened, with those steps done in collaboration with the book writer, the lyricist, and the composer. That kind of experience remains hard to come by for young directors.
In a comedy or drama, the playwright and director work out problems between them. But musicals involve such elements as musical arrangements, choreography, storytelling in song, balance between music and spoken dialogue, and varied pacing.
Will musicals survive with the escalating costs needed to produce them? Mr. Prince says they can, "because there's money in musicals. When you read that `Phantom of the Opera' grossed $1 billion, you know yourself that that's more than any movie in the history of Hollywood." But training directors to find and develop new musicals will be a key element in the genre's survival.
That is where the Directors Company comes in. Founded as a laboratory for young directors of plays, the organization has for 10 years offered novice directors an opportunity to develop their craft, using studio, rehearsal, and office spaces near Broadway.
"What we realized was that this need also extended to the musical theater," says Victoria Chesshire, one of the founders. Backed by foundation grants and willing to provide its own resources, the Directors Company found an ally in Prince.
For three months last winter, the first Harold Prince Musical Theater Program provided four men and women the opportunity to experiment with this complicated craft. I visited the workshop Prince conducted Feb. 8.
"Cowardice will get you nowhere," Prince tells his students. "The very first show I directed from scratch, `She Loves Me' in 1963, had four stars - Barbara Baxley, Barbara Cook, Dan Massey, and Jack Cassidy - and not one of them would do what I told them to do without a fight," he says with a laugh.
These days, the director of shows ranging from "Cabaret" and "Evita" to "Company" and "Phantom of the Opera" carries more clout. But the message is clear: Directors need a firm grasp on the process to steer a project to a successful conclusion.
Prince worries that the new generation is "alarmingly stodgy. They think that emulating the work of somebody who was in his prime in the 1970s is `with it.' I would much rather see them find out what is theatrical: that `astonish me' syndrome." He tells students to learn all they can about the form, using everything from Bertolt Brecht, who wrote the book and lyrics for Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera," to old 78-rpm cast recordings, and urges them to master conventional stagecraft.
"You ought to know how to write, from the composer's point of view, a 32-bar song, and know how to write lyrics so they have inner rhymes," he says, encouraging students to accept and acknowledge different styles of music.
The first class included Jonathan Alan Arak, Nancy Hancock, Rod Kaats, (who has directed musicals in regional theater), and John Carrafa (previously an assistant choreographer to Twyla Tharpe). Each participant chose a new musical, and 20-minute segments from each were fashioned for them to work on.
The Directors Company guided them in casting, selecting musical directors, finding designers, and also provided space and resources. Prince, his associate Arthur Masella, and the Directors Company's Ms. Chesshire and Michael Parva offered notes, comments, and criticism as the rehearsals progressed.
"I was very interested in doing a musical about a subject that has not been explored before," explains Mr. Hancock, whose selection "Northstar," by Kirsten Childs and Laurie Uguccioni, deals with a ghetto teenager confronted by street crime who is teleported back to the days of slavery.
"My piece is about taking life by the horns instead of living a life run by outsiders," Mr. Arak says. "Johnny Pye and the Foolkiller," based on a Stephen Vincent Benet story, was created by Randy Courts and Mark St. Germain.
"I had tremendous difficulty staging one song because it was too long and too repetitive," Hancock says. "Another song was written only for the male voices, and the emotional life I wanted to tell about included the women. We collaborated on all these things."
"What I found most helpful was the preparatory work, like choosing a metaphor and making sure every moment rings true to that metaphor," Hancock says. "Hal Prince made the distinction for us between something on stage being predictable and being inevitable. There's such a difference."
The workshop culminated in a week-long presentation of the participants' efforts attended by guests from all parts of the theater community. The results were judged so successful that the program will become an annual event.
"The results exceeded my expectations," Chesshire says. "The production elements were handled beautifully," which she says gave the pieces their best possible environment. "Our goal was to see if this could be a viable program," Parva says. "We now know that it can do what it was supposed to do." The next round of workshops may begin as soon as November; a five-year plan is in development.
Hancock says that if economics prevent large projects from happening, "we'll have to develop smaller musicals to get people excited about musicals again. We have to be enthusiastic and dream our own dream."