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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  Book Reviews

 
SENSE OF OCCASION

MUSICAL MAN
By MATT WINDMAN


Harold Prince: Broadway legend, master showman, visionary producer and director – and lazy autobiographer. 

I really did my homework over the summer to prepare for reviewing Prince of Broadway, the new revue on Broadway (currently playing a limited run at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, produced by Manhattan Theatre Club) celebrating Prince’s monumental six-decade career as a Broadway producer and director. I went so far as to track down one of the few remaining copies of Contradictions, Prince’s 1974 book of memoirs (made up of short chapters on each of the shows he had produced and/or directed up to that point, from The Pajama Game to his first Candide revival). I also finally read through my copy of Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre (which I received upon its rerelease in 2005), a thorough examination by Foster Hirsch of Prince’s shows through Bounce in 2003.

After I finally attended Prince of Broadway (which, although superficial, uneven and jam-packed, is mostly enjoyable and handsomely staged), I learned that Prince had a “new” book of memoirs coming out: Sense of Occasion, published by Applause. But it turns out that Sense of Occasion is really just a misguided attempt at expanding Contradictions into the present day, ending with Prince presenting his latest incarnation of Candide at New York City Opera and on the verge of finally bringing Prince of Broadway to Broadway.

Contradictions is a curious artifact. At that point, Prince had already worked in the commercial Broadway theater for more than 20 years, including a decade of producing many shows that went on to become classics (from The Pajama Game through Fiddler on the Roof) and a decade of establishing himself as a serious-minded director (culminating with Cabaret) – and he was only halfway through his game-changing six-musical collaboration with Stephen Sondheim. Contradictions ends with Prince, Sondheim and John Weidman still at work on Pacific Overtures.

Contradictions is a chatty and insubstantial (with short chapters that do not examine any of the shows in great detail) but unmissable read, providing a window into Prince’s professional mindset, tastes and ambitions. It comes from a time when creative-minded producers could bring challenging, game-changing shows to Broadway without the involvement of not-for-profit companies, or the need to put the names of dozens of producers (i.e. glorified investors) above the title of the show.  

Prince could not simply pick up Contradictions from where he left off in 1974, writing about the rest of his career from Pacific Overtures to Prince of Broadway – but that is essentially what Sense of Occasion attempts to do. In a new one-page introduction titled “2017,” Prince explains that the bulk of the book is made up of the original text of Contradictions (combined with short “reflections” from the present day after each of its chapters), followed by new chapters exploring the rest of his musicals, which vary in length. For instance, Prince groups his post-Merrily We Roll Along string of flops (A Doll’s Life, Diamonds, Grind) into a single chapter.

Prince fills out the end of the book with a transcript of a trade show speech he apparently gave in 2005 (although it includes multiple references to Hamilton) and a detailed list of all his productions, not unlike what can be found on ibdb.com.

Taking Sense of Occasion as a whole, you come away amazed at the sheer number of groundbreaking (or at least smart and ambitious) musicals that Prince has worked on (even if he has worked on far fewer of them in recent years) and the number of songwriters that he worked with (Kander and Ebb, Harnick and Bock, Comden and Green, Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, Jason Robert Brown, Larry Grossman), and grateful for the role he played in the continued artistic development of the Broadway musical. At one point, Prince suggests that without him, West Side Story (which he took over as producer) would not have come to Broadway. Would Fiddler on the Roof have happened without him? What would Sondheim have done without Prince?

The most valuable portions of the book are where Prince explains the metaphor-tinged visual concepts of his productions (i.e. the factory of Sweeney Todd, the mirror in Cabaret, the prison in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, the traveling sideshow in Candide) and other production details that you may have missed (like the numerous slide projections used in the background during Company). Most of his anecdotes he tells are familiar (such as getting fired and rehired during the development of The Phantom of the Opera or the chaotic previews of Merrily We Roll Along).

There is an unmistakable crabbiness in a lot of the writing, directed at professional unions (giving examples of times they would not make concessions for Prince) and revivals of his musicals, which he notes usually omit his visual metaphors. He notes that the 2012 Broadway revival of Evita was a misfire (hardly an earthshattering view) and that he hopes his upcoming remounting of his original 1979 production (to be seen internationally) will eventually come to Broadway.

Prince approves of Scott Ellis (who has directed numerous revivals of Prince’s musicals through the Roundabout Theatre Company) – at least because of the deference Ellis has shown to Prince. According to Prince, during curtain call of Ellis’ revival of On the Twentieth Century, Ellis declared to the audience that any revival is essentially a recreation of the original production and asked Prince to take a bow. Doyle mentions John Doyle (who has directed scaled-down, actor-musician productions of Sweeney Todd, Company and Merrily We Roll Along) only to note that Doyle eventually took over Bounce (which became Road Show), and that Doyle’s production ended with the creepy, incestuous image of the two leading men together in a sleeping bag.

Sense of Occasion leaves an opportunity for another writer to write the definitive Prince biography – or at least a full and coherent one. I appreciate Hirsch’s book, but it is more about Prince’s shows in the context of musical theater history than Prince himself. Prince admits to having had a nervous breakdown at an early age, but Sense of Occasion provides few details about his personal life, other than the occasional shout-outs to his family.

This is what I propose: a multi-season television show that follows Prince’s entire history over an extended period of time (sort of like The Queen on Netflix), beginning with Prince working as an assistant to George Abbott and meeting Stephen Sondheim on opening night of South Pacific.

Otherwise, the best place to experience Prince and his work may be YouTube, where you can find plenty of extended interviews that he has given over the years, as well as professionally shot (Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd) and bootleg recordings of his productions. There are also the cast albums from his original productions. Even attending a revival of one of Prince’s shows leaves you with an impression of Prince – to the extent that the musical was shaped by his vision and ambition. Scott Ellis was right. Prince deserved a bow.

 


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