Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Broadway royalty

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!


Vance said...

Ugh, and maybe I'm not old enough to have a perspective about it, but I HATE when old people constanly whine about how today sucks and nothing is as good as the old days. Because it's not always true.

Granted, some of his points are valid and yes, there could be much more further encouragement in new developments but I wouldn't exactly say Phantom epitomizes quality (sorry but I HATED it).

Meanwhile, TV I think is at an all time best, (think HBO shows, Lost), and there are many smaller films coming out from the smaller Hollywood studios (No Country, Juno) that make things more interesting.

On stage, in the last two years, we've gotten In the heights, August, Spring Awakening and Passing Strange with title of show coming. That's exciting.

If you look back at the rosters from many years ago, for every classic, there's been an old forgotten tuner/bomb that came out too, we just remember the classics which blur the past into one haze of excellence.

Anyways, if Prince wants to complain, he could first take down his Phantom to open up a theatre for something new and fresher to open and then help with that development.

jan@broadwayandme said...

There may have been a heavy dose of "it's not like the good old days" flavor in Prince's response to that first question but it would be a shame to tune out the rest of his interview, which just may be the best of the outstanding 300 or so interviews that Downstage Center has done. Prince lived through and helped create an incredible number of the shows that we all love and he's a great storyteller even when he's just talking. So let's give the man his props and for those of you who haven't heard the interview, give yourself a treat and go listen.

Esther said...

Hey Vance,
When people talk about the "good old days" I just think it's important to remember that they weren't so good for everyone!

I've never seen "Phantom." If it comes to the point where I've been in every other Broadway theatre, and I need to see it to make my list complete, I'll go!

Mr. Prince was especially bemoaning all of the reality television programs that are relatively cheap to put on, but not exactly examples of artistic genius. I guess you can't argue about that. And I agree with you about HBO and Lost.

Esther said...

Hey Jan,
You're absolutely correct that the interview is well worth a listen, with lots of great stories and insights from Mr. Prince. I've added a postscript to my blog post.

I guess I was just feeling a little bit dejected after that first answer. It was like, "Oh, ok, now that I'm finally interested in the theatre, you're telling me it's not any good?!"

Well, of course he wasn't really saying that. He was just being very frank about the challenges that Broadway faces today.

Vance said...

Ill have to give it a listen later when I can (can't really at work right now).

But yeah. I HATE when people bemoan the good ol' days which weren't always so good. My point exactly!

I admit Prince did some incredible stuff. I guess it's not his fault Phantom is so tedious. (well. not ALl his fault). haha.. sorry. I keep using POTO as my punching bag. Yeah. I finally went to see it last year since I never had, and I regret it. It was really as bad as I thought it was. Lol...

Okay, I understand the reality thing too (uh. granted sometimes its just so bad its good, then there ARE good ones like Project Runway, Amazing Race, SYCYCD) but I also hate when people lump ALL TV together, thus forgetting/dismissing all the great stuff that IS there (that not enough people watch).

But again, in the old days, it was half variety shows and weird singalongs and stuff, or the written stuff was just sometimes simpler or plain bad. (Not all, but lots more than I thought when I started watching the "classics").

On the other hand, sometimes you can't blame the makers when things like Moment of Truth or Phantom do well and things like Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, Aliens in America or Passing Strange don't capture the audience, that sometimes its the audience that is to blame for not taking the time to seek out the good. (Sorry, that's part of the whole rant about people complaining there's nothing good out there, then when I ask them what they watch, it's all the crap stuff, while they've never heard of any of the good stuff... DO RESEARCH PEOPLE if you want quality!)

Vance said...

Whew, now that THAT's off my chest... haha.. sorry Esther for ranting here... (funny cause I started a similar post but have witheld from posting it so far...)

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, I'll have to give it a listen and let you know what I think. But I have enormous respect and admiration for Hal Prince, who really is the king of Broadway.

Personally, I would have loved to have been able to see the stage shows from 50 years ago. It must have been an exciting time, especially as our popular culture truly revolved around the theatre.

Esther said...

Hey Steve,
I know what you mean. It would have been so exciting to see musicals like "Oklahoma" or "Gypsy" or "South Pacific" when they first opened, or a play like "Death of a Salesman," when theatre was at the center of American popular culture. And I can't blame Hal Prince for feeling that something has been lost. I mean, he's spent his professional life in the theatre, and he's seen its influence slowly diminish over time.

Jan is right, there's much, much more to the interview than the answer to that first question. He does have some great stories about shows like "The Pajama Game."

I definitely have a lot of respect for Hal Prince, too, and I guess because he is the king of Broadway, I was expecting him to give some small nod to what's taking place on the Great White Way today. And he does acknowledge that there are a lot of talented people, it's just that the economics have changed and popular culture has changed. But you can't blame the man for being brutally honest.

Esther said...

You are welcome to come here and rant! I always appreciate your comments. They're interesting and on the topic. And I've been known to get off a good rant myself from time to time. ;-)

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Jan is right and when you consider that new musicals, which have nothing on the old standards in my opinion, now cost in the neighborhood of $10,000,000 just to mount, it's easy to see why somebody of even Hal Prince's stature would be distressed and negative. Thank God, he was there for many, many brilliant shows and it's wonderful to hear from him - we can learn from even the negative.