THEATER : Prince at the Helm : Taking on his first revival in a remarkable career on Broadway, director Hal Prince has rebuilt the 1927 “Show Boat” to ‘90s standards and reinvented an American masterpiece.

Director Harold Prince
Director Harold Prince during the press day preview of ‘Prince of Broadway’ at SIR Studio in New York City.
(Walter McBride/Getty Images)
<i> Barbara Isenberg is a Times staff writer. </i>

When choreographer Susan Stroman got a call from director Harold Prince asking her if she’d be interested in working on his new production of “Show Boat,” she was certain she heard him wrong.

“I thought I misunderstood the name of the show,” Stroman says. “Everybody else does Harold Prince revivals.”

But she heard him right. Prince, the man who produced the likes of “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” and directed such shows as “Evita,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” had decided to revive a classic, not create one.

Aside from his 25th-anniversary re-creation of his own show “Cabaret,” “Show Boat” is, in fact, Prince’s first musical revival. Or sort-of revival. Weaving chunks of “Show Boat’s” many stage and film versions together with his own vision, Prince has come up with a show that is quite different from what Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern sent to Broadway in 1927.


With its serious themes of black-white relations, family and, well, show business, “Show Boat” is generally considered the first contemporary musical. Its memorable score is loaded with songs like “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Ol’ Man River” and “Why Do I Love You?”

But for Prince, it was also a personal link to the past. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for ‘Show Boat,’ ” the director says. “The kind of theater I chose to be involved in is completely a direct reflection of what ‘Show Boat’ made possible.”

That kind of theater includes 40 years’ worth of musicals, from “The Pajama Game” in 1954 to last year’s Tony winner, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” His stage pictures, which have influenced everyone from the late Michael Bennett to Peter Sellars, have brought the flow of cinema to the stage and made casts of dozens look like casts of thousands.

His Rockefeller Center offices chronicle a life in the theater. His 19 Tony Awards are crammed together on top of one cabinet, adjacent to a wall full of photographs of Prince with composers, Presidents and royalty. Other walls are covered with framed telegrams, musical scores, set designs and other mementos of a theatrical legend who, at 66, shows no signs at all of slowing down.

Now comes “Show Boat,” an $8.5-million extravaganza with a cast of 73 and a top ticket price of $75, a Broadway record. After a year in Toronto, where another production is still running, “Show Boat” last Sunday joined Prince’s “Phantom” and “Kiss” on Broadway. And among the excellent reviews was the New York Times’ commentary that Prince is “still the undisputed master of the Broadway musical.”

Prince, a warm, thoughtful man whose casual dress belies his seriousness, admits to feeling “mellower,” and why shouldn’t he? Things are going very well. He just learned he will receive a Kennedy Center Honor, he’s soon off to Buenos Aires to direct “Madama Butterfly,” he’s directing the new musical “The Petrified Prince” Off-Broadway in December and his beloved “Show Boat” is finally playing New York.

But the commercial theater is not what it used to be, and Prince’s lingering message is that few other people in the theater enjoy such luxuries of production time and money. With “Show Boat,” he hooked up at the right time with Toronto impresario Garth Drabinsky, chairman of Live Entertainment of Canada, and the man who also saved Prince’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” from oblivion.

“ ‘Show Boat’ is a very large and very expensive investment,” says Prince. “But nothing artistically has been compromised.”

It is the day before previews start, rehearsals are under way and Prince is sitting on the aisle in the nearly-empty Gershwin Theatre. Leaning back in his seat, he looks pleased, almost relaxed. For about 40 seconds.

Everybody wants his attention, from choreographer Stroman to producer Drabinsky to stage managers, actors and lighting people. “It’s the home stretch,” he apologizes before rushing off.

Most of the cast, including all of the principals, played in the Toronto production of the show, but there are 18 new people in the New York cast and a brand-new set. There are 500 costumes, and so many people backstage changing clothes at any given time that they have to use the freight elevator as a dressing room.

Prince is everywhere. A blond wig doesn’t look right. Moving a major prop requires some new staging. And, he tells an assistant, “I’m sorry to make a lot of trouble, but that’s a conventional little signboard (onstage) when we had something wonderful before.”

You can be sure there was a better signboard onstage that night. “When Hal leaps up out of his chair, everybody stops in his tracks,” Stroman says later. “There’s an incredible want to please him. Hal is walking history, and he’s a star in the theater community.”

Prince has been a theatrical star nearly all his life. Brought up in New York, the child of German Jewish parents, Prince talks vividly of stage performances he saw when he was 8. He wrote novels and plays while at the University of Pennsylvania, and after finishing college at 19, used his plays as bait to attract potential theatrical employers.

He offered to work for free for legendary producer-director George Abbott and was doing just that by the time he was 20. Two weeks later, Prince was making $25 a week. And 46 years later, he and Abbott, who is now 107 years old, still share office space. (Abbott hasn’t been in lately, but as Prince assistant Jonathan Arak puts it, “as long as there is a Mr. Abbott, there is an office for Mr. Abbott.”)

The first musical Prince co-produced was “Pajama Game” in 1954, and it was also his first hit. He was 26 years old.

More hits followed--”Damn Yankees,” “West Side Story,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The last show he produced and didn’t direct was “Flora, the Red Menace” in 1965. “Flora” fared poorly but, in addition to making Liza Minnelli a star, it launched Prince’s long, fruitful relationship with composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb.

“Hal is responsible for a great many careers, including mine,” Ebb says. “He gave me my first break. And if he hadn’t given me a show after ‘Flora,’ I might not have been offered another show.”

They were still on the road with “Flora” en route to Broadway when Prince approached Ebb one day during rehearsals. “He said that the day after ‘Flora’ opened, no matter how we did critically, he would like to start a musical version of (Christopher Isherwood’s) ‘I Am a Camera,’ ” recalls the Tony-winning lyricist. “It was a demonstration of his faith in us.”

The show was “Cabaret.” And Ebb, who later worked with Prince on “Zorba” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” speaks of the director as “a loyal, organized, forceful and assured leader. You’re never confused when you work with Hal about what his vision is.”

Prince’s creative life in the ‘70s centered largely on works by composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a man he first met the night “South Pacific” opened in 1949. (Prince was there with Richard Rodgers, and Sondheim was there with Oscar Hammerstein.) Prince produced and/or directed such landmark shows as “Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd.”

With “Merrily We Roll Along,” Prince’s sixth directorial collaboration with Sondheim, things changed. That 1981 show was the first of several box-office and critical failures, including the musicals “A Doll’s Life” and “Grind.” It was to be the only truly dark time in Prince’s career.

For six years, says Prince, “no matter what I did, it could not please critics or audiences. (Those) years were very fallow--I did eight shows and not one of them happened. If you take six years over a 40-year career lifetime, it really isn’t all that dramatic. But during that period, I thought maybe I’d ceased to be able to create something that people want to see.”

What brought him back to Broadway--indirectly--was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Prince had cabled the composer too late about wanting to direct “Jesus Christ Superstar”--”I was heartbroken,” Lloyd Webber recalls--but got in early on “Evita.” Just before the “Evita” album was released, preceding the show, Lloyd Webber played the album for Prince. He liked it but wasn’t available for 18 months. “We did the right thing,” says Lloyd Webber. “We waited.”

They didn’t have to wait the next time around. When Lloyd Webber told Prince about his idea for “Phantom of the Opera,” Prince was ready.” ’Phantom’ seemed absolutely right,” says Prince. “I said ‘yes,’ and that was the end of it.”

Or the start, really, of Prince’s leap back atop the Broadway mountain. “Phantom” opened in London in 1986, and by the end of June, 1994, its worldwide grosses topped $1.5 billion. Its Broadway incarnation starts its seventh year in January, and there are currently 12 productions of the show playing worldwide.

Lloyd Webber recalls Prince telling him once that “you can’t listen to a musical if it doesn’t look right. . . . The thing about Hal is he is incredibly visual. There is always a style, a look. On ‘Phantom,’ he was absolutely bull’s-eye.”

But even the success of “Phantom” didn’t erase the lesson of the ‘80s for Prince that big investments too often meant big compromises. It was particularly painful for him with “Grind,” a 1985 musical about burlesque he’d hoped would also explore the subject of violence from various perspectives.

Prince’s decision to work away from Broadway may have come after “Grind,” says that show’s playwright, writer-producer Fay Kanin, “but he had been talking about it long before. He had several setbacks on things he loved and no chance to work on them in a less than hysterical atmosphere. Which Broadway has become.”

In 1986, senior statesman Prince attended a meeting of several young New York producers who were railing against the system. The next day he called Marty Bell, who had chaired the meeting, and they met for drinks.

“He said in this environment, he could never have gotten ‘Company’ or ‘Follies’ produced,” says Bell, now vice president of creative affairs for Live Entertainment of Canada. “Money wasn’t available for shows that adventurous. And that depressed the hell out of both of us.”

So the two men started talking about a way to get new shows going without the financial and critical pressures of Broadway. They looked into various locations, and four years after they started talking, got a program going at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus, about 45 minutes from New York.

Their first show was “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” based on the Manuel Puig novel that had also inspired the 1985 film. It opened in May, 1990, was reviewed unfavorably by the New York Times’ then drama critic, Frank Rich, and others, and the entire SUNY New Musicals program died in less than a year.

“Kiss,” however, survived. Drabinsky, whom Prince first met when the impresario produced “Phantom” in Toronto, had been involved in financing the film version and knew of Prince’s interest in the property.

When Prince went to Vancouver to open a production of “Phantom” there in 1991, he showed Drabinsky a reworked “Kiss” script. Author Terrence McNally, Prince and other collaborators refocused the “Kiss” plot on cellmates Molina, a gay window dresser, and Valentin, a political prisoner, and re-conceived Molina’s movie-musical fantasies of the Spider Woman.

The revised “Kiss” opened at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre in June, 1992. A success there, it opened in London that October and on Broadway in 1993, picking up awards and very nice grosses all along the way. Even critic Rich called its reworking “a much improved version” and praised director Prince.

“The SUNY experiment was destroyed but we proved our point,” says Prince. “The show is flourishing.”

When it came time to open his new, $48-million North York Performing Arts Centre in Toronto, Drabinsky again turned to Prince.

After seeing a production of “Show Boat” abroad, Drabinsky decided it was the perfect show to launch his new theater. It took him seven months to negotiate the worldwide rights, he says, “and as soon as the ink had dried on the agreements, I ran down to Rockefeller Center and told Hal, ‘I want you to direct a re-creation of what may be the greatest musical ever written.’ ”

Bridging 40 years, “Show Boat” traces the Hawks family and others from their early days on the Cotton Blossom theater-boat in 1887 Natchez to Chicago in the ‘20s. Blacks and whites do not rest together easily, love does not conquer all and, despite the gorgeous songs, “Show Boat” is not a lighthearted musical.

The challenge appealed to Prince. He’d been asked to do revivals before, but nothing interested him the way “Show Boat” did.

“I thought it was the best score ever written and a wonderful, wonderful story,” says Prince. “ ‘Show Boat’ contains also one of the best book scenes a director could ever ask for, which is the miscegenation scene (where entertainer Julie is fired for being black and having a white husband). It’s perfect and couldn’t be improved upon today.”

Prince concedes that William Hammerstein, the lyricist’s son and an old friend, told him candidly that he was very nervous about tampering with “Show Boat.” He worried, for instance, about Prince putting back the song “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” which the original authors had taken out because it was too dark. And he worried about Prince’s new notions to open the second act.

To assuage those fears, Prince first reworked the show’s book for a year, then hosted a reading in New York for Hammerstein and others. “It went wonderfully,” says Prince. “I needed to reassure them and reassure me. It gave me the courage to follow my mind and (them) some security to let me go.”

Few stories have been so mined as Edna Ferber’s novel, adapted first by Hammerstein and Kern, then reworked in several other stage and film versions. Universal’s 1936 film, for instance, was one of the director’s primary sources on the show’s reworking.

The resulting show is enormous in both scale and aspiration, one reason producer Drabinsky gives for its unprecedented $75 top ticket. “On opening night, at the curtain call, we invited everybody involved with the show onstage, and 200 people came out, including cast, orchestra and backstage crew.”

Prince scrapped a World’s Fair sequence that opened the second act, calling it a “diversion,” and came up with two new montages that use dance, fashion, newspaper headlines and other devices to clarify the show’s often confusing passage of time. The second montage spans 21 years, providing what Stroman calls “a wonderful vehicle” to show such things as the fact that blacks invented the Charleston.

Prince has also tried to craft a story that exalts the family. “The idea that I have to be on the same side of the fence as Dan Quayle is cruelly depressing to me,” he says at one point, “but the truth is, I believe in family values. The show celebrates its love affair with two major parallel lines in the life of Mr. Hammerstein and certainly in mine: family and theater.”

Family for Prince, however, sweeps in far more people than just his wife, Judy, daughter Daisy and son Charley. Many of the director’s shows have carried heavy-duty messages, and he considers “Show Boat” consistent with the muse for more overtly political shows such as “Cabaret” or “Kiss.” “The fact that I’m doing this now seemed to surprise people,” he smiles. “But I think once you see it, you see that I’m on the same course I was always on.”

This is a serious man. When Lloyd Webber first played the score of “Cats” for Prince, “I looked at him curiously and said, ‘Andrew, I don’t understand. Is this about English politics? (Are) those cats Queen Victoria, Gladstone and Disraeli?’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind, and after the longest pause said, ‘Hal, this is just about cats.’ ”

Prince is concerned about the future of his industry. “I’m not fooling myself,” he says.” ’Show Boat’ comes up every 10 years or whatever, and it’s well received or encouraged. But brand-new musicals are where the future of the musical theater lies.

“You can’t just keep recycling revivals. And you can’t keep betting on the efforts of guys like me who’ve been around. You have to take the next step and bet on the next generation.

“I would submit that audiences don’t care where the material comes from, whether it’s from a famous composer, director or librettist. They only care about whether the show is going to please, stimulate, surprise (and) astonish them. Not merely trivially entertain them. Audiences are quite happy to be astonished and they don’t care who does that astonishing.”

Prince does his own part in spotting and encouraging new talent, an activity reflected in his next show, “The Petrified Prince,” a musical based on an unproduced Ingmar Bergman screenplay. Its creators include Michael John LaChiusa, a young composer-librettist Sondheim recommended (and whom Prince boasts that he hired before LaChiusa hit it big earlier this year with his musical “Hello Again” at Lincoln Center) and playwright Edward Gallardo, whose play “Simpson Street” Prince saw when the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre produced it in New York several years ago.

Drabinsky has added “enhancement money” for “The Petrified Prince’s” production at the Public later this year. And should the show fare well there, says Drabinsky, he expects to take it to Broadway “within 12 months” after its opening downtown.

Prince has directed only two films, both in the ‘70s, but many operas. In early 1992, he directed 22 members of New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre Company in “Grandchild of Kings,” his own adaptation of two of the six volumes of playwright Sean O’Casey’s autobiography. “The Irish Rep keeps asking when we’re going to do (another O’Casey adaptation),” he says. “I keep saying, ‘When I get through with what I’m doing now.’ ”

It could be a long wait. Besides “Madama Butterfly” for Argentina’s Teatro Colon, “Candide” at the Chicago Lyric Opera and “The Petrified Prince” at the Public, he launches a U.S. touring production of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in November. Then there’s another production of “Phantom” to open, this time in Singapore, followed by a trip to the Far East. Actually, he concedes, “I can’t do every little bit of everything. I don’t have the patience. Elaine Stritch (who co-stars in “Show Boat”) said something that I really like, so I’ll quote it. She said she gets up every morning for rehearsal thinking, ‘I’ve got to go in there and entertain Hal Prince because his patience threshold is so low.’

“I don’t fall asleep, but my mind wanders. I have a short attention span.”