Saturday, July 19, 2014

Learning from Harold Prince: A Director's Journey

Responding to Harold Prince: A Director's Journey by Carol Ilson (New York: Limelight editions, 2000).

[Photo: Prince & Sondheim rehearse Merrily We Roll Along, 1981

Directing a musical, even for a middle school teacher, feels like coordinating ships in a dance:  Songs, accompaniment, scenes, costumes, sets, props, sound, light, publicity -- all these things must fall into place at the same time.  Add supervision of ticket sales, contracts, budgets. What it must have been for Harold Prince from his years of apprenticeship in the early 1950s to 2000, I can sense from reading Carol Ilson's study Harold Prince: A Director's Journey. 

No matter what kind of reviews he had after opening night, Hal Prince kept a level head.  He made it his habit to meet with a creative team the next day to discuss the next project.  Without a project, he feels restless.

It's fitting that Harold Prince's last big Broadway show (as of this book's publication in 2000) is Showboat.  Written in 1928, it was the first "serious" musical.  Showboat covered social changes over decades of US history, with songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein III that included the anthem of black endurance, "Old Man River."   Thirty years later, people with short memories would say that about West Side Story, which Prince co-produced, and others he directed, including Cabaret, Zorba, Follies, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. 
Yet being "serious" was never his aim.  He has, however, insisted on finding some "real" in a show -- often something broadly political -- that he can latch onto.  His collaboration with Stephen Sondheim and George Furth on Company was "all about" his own decision to marry.  After Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler wrote the intimate thriller Sweeney Todd, Prince set it in a vast factory to emphasize the dehumanization of all its characters during the industrial revolutionPrince's supreme success, Phantom of the Opera, really took shape for him when he connected the misshapen Phantom to the expressions of erotic yearning in a documentary about people living with physical deformtities. 

But "real" and "realism" are not the same.  Prince wants to break scripts free of "realism."  He says that poetry is found in abstraction (315).  He learned this during a visit to a theatre in Russia, where V. Meyerhold's innovations were on display: cubes replaced furniture, curtains replaced walls, and light could isolate a portion of action on a busy stage (143).  Thus he transformed a prosaic murder mystery called The Girls Upstairs into a surreal clash of middle-aged couples with the ghosts of their pasts that we know as Follies.

Along the same lines, Prince abstracts a central metaphor in each production.  The cabaret itself became an image for the willful blindness of German society to the rise of the Nazis.  Prince implied a connection between that time and the show's time of  resistance to black civil rights in America.  For Company, the metaphor was Manhattan, an island where "you meet at parties through the friends of friends who you never know," as Sondheim put it in one of the songs that grew from the metaphor, "Another Hundred People."  Boris Aronson's set expressed the metaphor from another angle:  He saw cubism in the city's structure.

Everyone in the book who worked with Prince says the same few things:  He's so enthusiastic during rehearsals.  He never tells the actors what to think or feel, expecting them to do that work on their own.  He is clearly "winging it" during rehearsals, trying one idea after another, or occasionally giving up and leaving the direction to his assistants.  He expects people to conform to a vision he has, yet he also likes to be surprised by his actors and collaborators. 

That bit about Prince's "winging it" is a surprise.  I knew from other sources how many hours he spent with Sondheim and other collaborators discussing things, and I know how he had to watch his budgets.  There must have been tons of planning.  But the minute-by-minute progress of the show was free to develop within the larger framework.

I'm also struck by how many of the shows were flops.  Even some of the famous ones lost money, most notably Follies.

He exuded confidence for his collaborators, but he admits to feeling panic when rehearsal is about to begin.
Near the end, two negatives emerge.  Prince's innovations, such as his use of lighting and mobile scenery to achieve the film effects of close-ups and cross-fades, are now so common as to feel hackneyed.  Then, he rails against the system that has raised prices so high that there's no room for development of an idea.

Mostly, it's an inspirational story of Prince's developing principles that can guide all of us who work in theatre. 

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