What's up with Hal Prince?
The legendary Broadway producer and director was the guest on the 200th episode of one of my favorite podcasts, the American Theatre Wing's Downstage Center program. I was really looking forward to hearing some great stories from the recipient of a record 21 Tony awards, but his answer to the first question kind of floored me.
Howard Sherman, executive director of the American Theatre Wing, noted that it's been 60 years since Prince started his career by going to work for another legendary producer, George Abbott. Sherman asked Prince to relate some of the most positive changes he's seen in Broadway and in the American theatre over the past six decades.
Well, Prince gave him an earful. What he said isn't surprising to anyone who spends time reading about the theatre, and a lot of it was completely valid. They're all points that I've heard before. Still, the tone was just so relentlessly negative, it was a little disconcerting. I felt like throwing myself over the side of the treadmill, then rushing home to tear up all of my Playbills. (Well, not really, but it was depressing).
"The theatre is not in as good a shape today as it was, not remotely," Prince said. "Most of the changes are negative." Then he went on to list all of those negatives - the "copycatness" of how Broadway operates today, the huge amount of money it takes to put on a show, the aversion to risk. Prince didn't list one single positive about theatre today.
While there are just as many talented composers, lyricists, librettists and playwrights, Prince said, they're not getting the same degree of encouragement. The drama especially has taken a terrible beating from the competition with television and film. (And Prince doesn't think that television or movies are as good as they used to be either). Decades ago, straight plays ran three, four or five years. Today, you get mostly limited runs of several months. Prince noted the comedy Life with Father, which ran on Broadway from 1939 to 1947.
As for musicals, they're faring better. A weak dollar has brought an influx of European tourists to New York City, and Prince says that they're helping to fill seats, especially for musicals. "Typically, what feeds those audiences is musical material that doesn't require an intricate knowledge of English," Prince said. "So you can have a show like The Phantom of the Opera and you can see it and experience it and understand the language." Of course, as the director of Phantom, I'm sure he doesn't consider that a negative.
I could go on, but you get the point. Not much there to disagree with, really. It's true that theatre doesn't occupy as central a place as it once did in American life. Show tunes aren't America's Top 40 anymore.
But with all due respect to Mr. Prince, I really don't think it's fair to say that there haven't been any positive change over the past six decades. Seriously, couldn't he have thought of one positive thing that's happened to the American theatre since 1948?
I just think about some of the shows I've seen on Broadway this season - Passing Strange, In the Heights, A Catered Affair - that have given their African-American, Latino and gay characters a voice that they never would have had 60 years ago. And one of the things I love most about August: Osage County is the way it authentically portrays many of the stresses in the lives of women today.
I know that the success on Broadway of August: Osage County is an aberration for a drama. But the fact that it came out of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company is a testament to the great work being done in places far from Broadway, as well as off Broadway. While I don't know this for certain, I'm guessing that there are many more successful regional and off Broadway theatre companies today than there were 60 years ago.
So c'mon Hal, it's not all bad - give a kid a little hope!
Jan at Broadway & Me rightly reminds me that it really was a great interview, with lots of stories and insights from Hal Prince about his lengthy and illustrious career. So give it a listen!