With a smile beaming from his face, Broadway legend Harold Prince enters the room I’m waiting in and cheerfully declares, “I’m not jet-lagged at all — they’re just working me to death.”
Prince arrived in Tokyo only a few days earlier and is eager to talk about his life as a theater producer and director. He’s also keen to discuss “Prince of Broadway,” his latest, largely autobiographical musical, which will have its world premiere this month at Theatre Orb in Shibuya before it moves to Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka.
The winner of an unparalleled 21 Tony awards, 87-year-old Prince — who is accompanied by Susan Stroman, his co-director and choreographer, and a five-time Tony winner herself — may have been cheerful as he walked into the interview room at Theatre Orb, but as I was waiting for him beforehand I caught a glimpse of the other side to this show-biz king when I overheard his passionate-yet-stern voice through the door as he discussed staging details with his crew.
Originally set to open on Broadway in 2012, “Prince of Broadway” fell victim to financial belt-tightening before finally arriving at its upcoming Tokyo debut in this Asian hub for musical aficionados.
In talking with Prince and Stroman, however, it becomes obvious that while show-biz can be a route to living the American dream, it has taken this gilded duo of Broadway royalty a lot of work and tears — and maybe just a smidgen of luck — to make it happen for them.
Born and bred in New York, Prince tells The Japan Times that Broadway theaters were his “playground” growing up, and how at only 8 years old he was delighted to be taken to see “Caesar,” Orson Welles’ fabled anti-fascist 1937 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar,” in which the great American dramatist also played the dictator’s killer, Brutus.
“Though I was so young, I was so excited,” Prince says. “My parents took me to the theater every Saturday afternoon, but by the time I was 12, I was going by myself. And at home, I had my own stage. (Laughs) I had a little stage with little tin people I’d move around, and I loved that. I think most of us in theater are quite solitary, because we live so much in the imaginary worlds we escape into — which we like.”
Stroman, who also grew up in New York, adds: “I had dance lessons from age 5, and my father played piano so there was always music in the house — whether it was standards, classical or rock ‘n’ roll. But even as a little girl I would visualize music, and then I choreographed what I heard.”
Prince remembered his early years when he started to work as an assistant stage manager with American theater giant George Abbott (1887-1995), before going on to co-produce “The Pajama Game” with him in 1955 — winning his first Tony, for best musical, in the process.
“I always used to imagine going to opening nights and to little parties afterward and meeting all the great people in theater I admired,” Prince recalls. “Then 10 years later, in my 20s, I’d gotten to know all those people and they were very generous and very supportive to a young person like myself.”
In those days, too, he says he believes theater reflected society much more than it does now, concerning itself with social issues and injustices, such as the problems of rich and poor — just as “The Pajama Game” features love blossoming between an unlikely pair of rivals in the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, whose underpaid workers are locked in a dispute with management.
“I didn’t like musicals as a young boy, and I only saw heavy, serious theater,” Prince says. “There was a time when all popular music — the equivalent of rock and rap — was the music of theater, such as works by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
“However, as you couldn’t tell a story with such material, it left an opportunity to address other subjects without popular music — so you could set a musical around more serious subjects. That’s why I got more interested in musicals, and nowadays there’s even elements of opera in them. If you see ‘Sweeney Todd,’ you’ll understand what I mean,” he adds — citing the musical for which he won a Tony in 1979.
Besides “Sweeney Todd,” other monumental Tony-winning musicals Prince has directed and/or produced include “Cabaret” (1966), “Candide” (1974), “Evita” (1979), “The Phantom of the Opera” (1986) and “Show Boat,” his 1994 Broadway revival of Oscar Hammerstein II’s classic 1927 show with lyrics by him and P.G. Wodehouse, and music by Jerome Kern.
With those productions just a few among his improbably stellar resume, what does Prince want to achieve with this new show, “Prince of Broadway”?
“Well, I’ve been working for 61 years in theater, so in ‘Prince of Broadway’ I didn’t need to give lots of explanation. It’s enough to just show how tastes have changed and how that has changed the material (through revivals), and what kind of material is popular and makes its way to the stage. So you’re getting a history of a civilization through its entertainment.”
Meanwhile, with the show’s premiere approaching, Stroman is excited to see how the production is received.
“We have been working about four years on this because of everybody’s schedules, but time has added to its depth and made it even better,” she says. “Audiences will not only be entertained, but also amazed at what Harold has accomplished. No one has made a mark on theater as much as him, so I think they will be overwhelmed.”
As for all the twists and turns behind this new show’s debut, Stroman points to the stresses.
“You never know what’s going to make a hit musical, there’s no formula. If there was, we’d use it,” she says, laughing.
“There are heartbreaks because you are creating and giving birth to something that means lots to you. Then sometimes a show can be critically successful and not sell tickets — or artistically fabulous, but critics don’t like it. When a show is forced to close, it’s like a little death.”
Despite such perils, Prince jumps back in, stating firmly that “you really have to want to do it.”
“There’s a certain amount of denial in people who work in the theater because they’re always ready to do the next thing despite the pain they’ve experienced. If that stopped you, you wouldn’t really be a theater person because you’ve always got to be looking forward to the next thing,” he says.
“I learned from Harold Prince, and he learned from George Abbott, that the day after a show opens, you have a meeting for your next show,” Stroman adds. “So it doesn’t matter what happened, you are going forward.”
As the interview draws to a close and the stage beckons Prince to get back to his preparations, the director sums up what he has always sought to convey through his work.
“Controversy is very good in theater, making audiences think about something they weren’t thinking about, making them go home and talk about what they saw,” he says. “We want to engage with people in a deeper way and make them think.”
“Prince of Broadway” runs from Oct. 23 to Nov. 22 at Theatre Orb in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; and from Nov. 28 to Dec. 10 at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka. Performance times vary. Tickets cost between ¥7,000 and ¥17,000. For more information, call 0570-077-039 or 06-6377-3888, or visit pobjp.com.
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