HAL

HAL PRINCE
January 30, 1928 – July 31, 2019

HAL PRINCE and me at the Opening of CANDIDE

I was HAL PRINCE’s Casting Director for the better part of a decade.
We worked together on his revival of SHOW BOAT from its inception throughout its many productions all around the world. Our production of SHOW BOAT premiered at the North York Performing Arts Center in Toronto 26 years ago. I also worked with HAL on the most recent Broadway Revival of CANDIDE, as well as KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and PARADE.

This year alone, we have found ourselves saying goodbye to countless theater luminaries, including DIAHNN CARROLL, CAROL CHANNING, ANDREW ZERMAN, KAYE BALLARD, PHYLLIS NEWMAN, VALERIE HARPER, BILL ESPER, DORIS DAY, E. KATHERINE KERR, KATHERINE HELMOND, MARTIN CHARNIN, MAX WRIGHT, ALAN WASSER, ALVIN EPSTEIN, ERIC LAJUAN SUMMERS, TONI MORRISON, RIP TORN, GLORIA VANDERBILT, ANN CRUMB, TIM CONWAY, GEORGIA ENGEL, LUKE PERRY, ARTIE GAFFIN, MARION MCCLINTON, KYLE RENICK, RON LEIBMAN, RENE AUBERJONOIS, and So Many Others… But even among so many shattering losses to our Community this year, this one stands out.

HAL PRINCE died on July 31st at the age of 91. There will be a Celebration of his Life at the Majestic Theater next Monday December 16th.
I have never known a professional life without him in it, and the loss to the theater community is perhaps the most profound imaginable.

You see, I came of age in a theater in which HAL PRINCE was a primary fixture — a name known by everyone, even before the Internet. People who had never been to a Broadway Show in their whole lives knew his name, and associated it with the Best of Broadway. I had seen several of his shows as a kid, and that was enough to discern that he was the best at his craft. Having celebrated two or three decades of artistic and box office successes, by the time I had graduated college he was then in the midst of a short-lived string of box office failures; but to those of us aspiring to theater as a profession, his place as theater royalty was unshakable.

Once I graduated college, I wrote to his office periodically, sending my resume and requesting a meeting or a job. Every time I wrote, I got a personal letter back from a woman named ARLENE CARUSO of the HAROLD PRINCE ORGANIZATION who thanked me and explained that Mr. PRINCE would not be able to meet with me at this time, but wished me the best of luck. I continued to create work out of an insatiable need to be a part of this industry of broken misfits as, like so many others, I simply did not fit in anywhere else in the world; and every time I updated my resume and had something new to share, I wrote to Hal, and one of those letters would come back.

For a young person starting out in a business in which there is very little affirmation that you are seen or heard, the consistency of this communication in itself — from the single biggest name in our industry, mind you — represented a generous and nurturing act of kindness and professionalism, unparalleled in my experience to this day. No correspondence to the HAROLD PRINCE ORGANIZATION went unacknowledged. (Compare this today to professionals who do not respond to a simple email or text message.) Hal’s professional life was respect translated into action.

Eventually, a letter came back from ARLENE CARUSO, stating that Mr. PRINCE would be delighted to meet with me and to please call the office to set up an appointment.
To be honest, I do not remember exactly what happened next. I remember holding that letter in my hand and reading it over and over again in a kind of shock for what may have been several minutes or several days. I believe I did call and HAL was in the midst of so many shows at once that the meeting kept getting postponed and after a year or two, due to my own naïve insecurity about following up beyond that, it never happened.

When I was in High School, my mother had taken me to see HAL’s environmental production of CANDIDE which had moved to the Broadway Theater from the Chelsea Theater Center of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. HAL had turned a show that had closed early in its original production years before, and through dramaturgy, showmanship, and a sense of Creative Adventure, he infused it with so much imagination and magic that his Creative Achievement was now enjoying a long and successful run on Broadway! Sitting in that audience, I had no idea that I would cast the next one for him. And that JIM DALE, whose star turn in SCAPINO I saw that same year, would leave such an indelible impression upon me that decades later, I would have to have him as my Dr. Pangloss.

Eventually, there was a huge ordeal about the Musicians Union and the requirement to pay the “walkers” which put the show in the red. At the time, the Musicians Union required a minimum number of live musicians to be hired for a Broadway Musical (25, plus a Conductor, in this case) — if a show employed less musicians as did this production of CANDIDE which utilized a very small onstage band of 13, they still had to pay for the minimum number. The union musicians who were paid but did not have to play were called “walkers,” as they would come to the theatre, pick up their paycheck, and walk away. As HAL explained it, the show was going into the red by pretty much the amount they were required to pay the walkers. HAL was on the television news a lot, as the issue came to a head. And the issue was resolved, as I am given to understand that there has not been a walker on a show since this time period.
He was intelligent and savvy, obviously a great director and producer, and most notably of all, he had a good sense of fairness. He supported musicians, as he did all artists, with deep respect and profound regard. He supported unions in my experience of him — as not all Producers do — not just his own (the SSD&C), but all the unions with which he dealt. He held a point of view which the Broadway accompanist SANDE CAMPBELL once expressed to me in her own words, so beautifully: “Work for everyone! That’s the goal! That all of us can work and make a living in Show Business — jobs for everybody — that’s what we all want to see happen!”

PACIFIC OVERTURES was another of the HAL PRINCE – STEPHEN SONDHEIM collaborations which MOM took me to see in that era. What a magnificent production! HAL once described to me that the original intention with that show was to tell a story with every scene in a completely different style of theater. But what they discovered when they began working was that the Kabuki Theater that they chose for the Opening Number was such a marvelous and overpowering method of storytelling, that all of the other methods were dwarfed by comparison. Once they saw that, they decided to tell the entire story in that one theatrical genre. HAL had a profound respect for Process as Collaborator! If one attempted to boil down his unparalleled success to one core principle, that may be it.

I saw my friend LOUIS PADILLA in an Off Broadway Show entitled DIAMONDS in 1984. The AIDS crisis was in its embryonic stages, and would go on to claim his life. But while he lived, he got to work on a HAL PRINCE Show presented at Circle-in-the-Square Downtown on Bleecker Street. The title song, a particularly moving number by my Full Of Wonder Friend, CRAIG CARNELIA, entitled “What You’d Call a Dream,” was a song of special significance to LOUIS. Five or six years later, when he was in a particularly weakened state living with AIDS, he would sing that song standing at the piano in his house at a party given in his honor, with our extraordinary friend JOHN BOSWELL at the piano — one of the most deeply touching performances I have ever seen of anything, a sentiment I share with most of the folks who were present that evening. And that song made it into the canon of Musical Theater, both from CRAIG channeling the poetry from his muse and HAL (and his Amazing longtime collaborator, ARTIE MASELLA) stepping Off-Broadway to move that show into existence.

The same year that HAL premiered that show, I was hired to produce the thesis projects of the second graduating class of the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Musical Theater Program. Before graduating, the students were required to have Reading Presentations of the new musicals they had written, and I was to cast and assist in producing those Readings. Amidst this work, I helped to coordinate outstanding luminaries of the musical theater to come and speak with the writers, and HAL was among them.
One of the things I most remember him saying was “If you want a truly great musical, write your Best Film Script — Fill it with all of the action of a great movie! That’s the way you write a Musical!”
Another was, “Write your show, and when it’s all done, then go back and rewrite the Opening Number! Because after you’re done, that’s when you know what your show is really about, and that’s when you can write the right Opening Number!” He then added, “If you have a Great Opening Number — I mean a Really Great Opening Number — your audience will forgive you a Lot!”
It did not occur to me at the time that these were anything but the axioms by which he had always lived and worked — but in retrospect, I understand that these were ideas he was evolving through the work he was doing at that time; they were merely observations he was making of his own day-to-day experiences.

SHOW BOAT

Less than ten years later, I began working with HAL more directly. Perhaps the vibration of my consciousness was so focused on HAL PRINCE that the manifestation of our relationship proved inevitable. I started as the Casting Director of SHOW BOAT in 1993. HAL had never focused on Broadway revivals, and had turned down countless opportunities to stage them; he was all about New Musicals and the creation of new projects. SHOW BOAT was one notable exception. SHOW BOAT is considered by many to be the first Great American Musical — combining text, music and dance, all in service to the story. Others consider OKLAHOMA, some fifteen years later having the addition of AGNES DEMILLE’s thoughtful choreography as the first time we saw Musical Theater rise to the benchmark we use today. Still others consider THE BLACK CROOK from the 1800’s to be the very first American Musical of the art form. But SHOW BOAT wove together the American traditions of Operetta, Vaudeville and Melodrama into a new form of American Musical. This resulted in close to four hours of material, very much in need of shaping and tailoring, even six decades later. HAL was willing, and more than that, excited to take on the challenge of creating a definitive version of this show for all time. That is why he did it. And it was a Joy to be a part of his great success!

We began working together and he liked my ideas. What is so striking about this nowadays, although it was quite standard back then — is how HAL was delighted to meet me and embraced our working together. Although he had not initially hired me himself, he respected my work, and jumped in with both feet! This is how an A-List Director behaves. I find it, even today, to be a reliable litmus test of who is an A-List Director and who are the lesser talents. The A-List always “Plays well with Others.” The lesser talent “Runs with Scissors.”

Casting Directors are pre-production executives and we are not unionized. So we’ve all been through various versions of Hack “B” and “C” List Directors dismissing us out of hand. HAL saw the ugliness of all that and worked around it, worked through it, avoided it as much as possible. Sometimes it wasn’t possible, but he understood this. He was truly a First Class Gentleman of the Theater, and he respected the theater as a sacred place of Community. As far as he was concerned, the job was mine. Now it was up to me to prove myself. But having had the experience of a person of HAL PRINCE’s caliber giving me a chance — it spoils you — I now have no respect for any lesser talent (and with all due respect, Face It! We are All Lesser Talents!) who does not give someone else a chance! I continue to emulate him and all that he taught me!

Early on in the casting of SHOW BOAT, I brought in the inimitable MegaTalent, JASON GRAAE, to audition. HAL turned to me and exclaimed, “If we were in a Healthy Theater — which we’re not — but if we were, this man would be a GREAT. BIG. STAR!” I recognized in HAL a deep appreciation of talent, akin to my own.

BARRY OTTO as Cap’n Andy

HAL and I worked together on SHOW BOAT for some five years — Five Companies throughout North America and as far as Australia. I spent eight weeks in Australia pre-screening the talent pool for him. BARRY OTTO, the star of the film STRICTLY BALLROOM was brought in to meet for the role of Cap’n Andy by my brilliant Casting Partner, Emmy nominee MICHAEL WALTERS. BARRY was as offbeat a choice for that role as you could imagine, and we knew that HAL would Love him for it! You see one of the things that made casting for HAL such sheer Joy was that when we’d found the most perfect person for a role — any role — I mean someone right out of “Central Casting,” and just an ideal fit, who could do everything the role required perfectly and was the personification of exactly what was written on the page, HAL would shrug and say to me dismissively, “Conventional.” He was all about surprising the audience. He wanted to lift the story off of the page and bring it into a real life experience. And as we all know, real life has some bumps and curves. It is never what we expect. So the choice HAL preferred was always the most offbeat, opposite, surprising and unexpected. And it was always Brilliant! And So Much Fun!
BARRY OTTO got the part. And it was all of those things. And yet another great success!

The Opening Night of SHOW BOAT in New York is a joyful yet painful memory for me. Although I had worked on several Broadway Shows before this, SHOW BOAT was the first one for which I had my name on the title page, and on the poster outside the theatre. My parents were in the audience as my guests in the first row of the mezzanine house right. From where I sat in the orchestra, house left, I could see them just over my shoulder. They had made so many sacrifices to get me where I wanted to be, and I was able to invite them to our Opening Night on Broadway! I could feel them beaming with pride throughout the show! At the Curtain Call, HAL got up on stage, as is not uncommon at Broadway Openings for the Director to do. HAL then gave a speech about how many people it takes to put a show of this size and scope together. He asked for the stagehands to come out onstage and be applauded. He then pronounced, “But that’s not all!” and invited the sound and lighting booth people to come out onstage and be applauded. He continued this with everyone involved in the production — wardrobe personnel, wigmakers, press and marketing people, box office personnel, ushers… punctuating each arrival onstage with “But that’s not all!” My Casting partner, the always gracious BETH RUSSELL and I clasped one another’s hands in support. I whispered to her, “This isn’t happening, is it?” and she whispered back, with resignation, “It is.” I looked over my right shoulder and caught my Mother’s eye as she was shaking her head. She knew how hard I had worked on the show for several years, and it had become apparent that we were not to be acknowledged at our own Broadway Opening. The centerfold spread of the Daily News the next day was a photo of the stage populated with everyone it took to put a show this size together. …Well, almost everyone! Then, after seemingly everyone had been called up onstage, HAL gave one more, “But that’s not all!” We waited breathlessly, as he announced his last group of contributors! Could it be us? Perhaps he saved us for last! Then he spoke his last statement of the evening, some version of… “I want to thank the janitors and the people who clean the toilets at this theatre! Good Night, Everyone!”

The Daily News Centerfold the morning after the Opening

He was a man! Imperfect and Genuine and Genius — still and all, a human being!
He forgot.
It’s a fairly easy mistake to make — you see, Casting is pre-production. We do all of our work before the show even goes into rehearsal — before the show can go into rehearsal! So, Casting Directors are generally unacknowledged in our own industry. It hurt me because I felt so close to him. Oh, and the cast of each company for this show (There were five companies.) was 73 people, including children (both African-American and Caucasian), Opera Singers (including high tenors and low bass baritones) — HAL was passionate about the role of Joe, and Old Man River being sung in the key of PAUL ROBESON which was lower than it had been done in recent decades! So, in addition to identifying one African American man who could sing this renowned bass solo in Bb and hit that Low F eight times a week, we had to find two understudies for that man — that’s three African American Men who can do that, for each of the five companies — that’s fifteen — and maintain those across the planet for over five years… that’s somewhere around forty-five! …Tap Dancers and Character Men who could play piano and sing well were also required onstage in the cast! There were acrobats and dancers and multiple specialty acts. It was quite a tall order, this job.
When HAL found out about our feeling slighted, he sent the following note:

 

 

And what more can a good person do?
We are human beings. We make mistakes. We apologize. We make amends. We forgive. And we move on. For the rest of our years working together, HAL always let me know that he respected me and my work, so that over time, my heart would heal as I would grow aware that the Opening Night in New York was an unintentional mishap, and not what the man believed nor in his heart what he held true.
Especially in a business in which so many dysfunctional people try to cover up their own mistakes by making other people wrong for them, or by deciding that what they said must be true and then punishing you for their own mistake (and we all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that), how can one not appreciate and admire a man who does the right thing by living his amends?
I could almost say we grew closer as a result of this than if it had never happened.

The role of Julie is wildly tricky. Julie is the headlining leading lady travelling up and down the Mississippi River during the time of miscegenation. She is an African American Woman who in the American South of the late 1800’s successfully “passes” for white. Somewhere in the audition process, I learned the story of LENA HORNE and the MGM Movie Musical version of the show. I have no idea how I learned it — as there was no internet back then!
But it came to me, somehow — in the ways that we used to learn things, through conversation and research and the exploration of ideas — that MGM had auditioned LENA HORNE but cast AVA GARDNER who was Caucasian. They matched her makeup for the film to the skin color of LENA HORNE — I was told it was called “Egyptian 86,” but current research on the internet refers to it as “Light Egyptian.” AVA GARDNER was given recordings of LENA HORNE singing and told to learn to sing the songs like that. With this legacy of racism — and no one would deny that AVA GARDNER gave a Beautiful and Moving Performance in that film, but if they wanted LENA HORNE’s skin color and LENA HORNE’s Voice, and asked a White Woman to do those things, then Yes! That is Racism! — it seemed imperative to have an African American Woman in that role for this new and definitive production. I phoned my friend JOANNA MERLIN who had cast for HAL throughout all of the PRINCE-SONDHEIM Collaborations, and asked her advice on how to approach HAL about this.
She smiled through the telephone (JOANNA is a warm human being who was capable of doing that before we had videophones!), and told me, most supportively, “Arnold, Hal is very reasonable. I think he will appreciate your point of view. Just call him and tell him this. I am guessing he will agree with you.”
I phoned up the biggest legend in Broadway History and told him why I thought it would be important to cast an African American woman in the role.
His reply: a most sincere, “Of course, you’re right!”

And that’s what HAL was like — He listened. He believed in People. He had Faith! He practiced the secret to success in life which M. SCOTT PECK talked about in THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: Willingness to change your map. He was basically every good quality I can think of in a person, at the highest level of an industry which too often uses artistic license as an excuse to mistreat people. And every attempt by the producer of this show — infamous in his mistreatment of people (He even went to prison for it!) — Hal would correct and speak up against, as soon as he became aware of it. His standard of dignity was uncompromising!

After our conversation about the role of Julie, HAL came up with the idea that the role of Queenie could also be rethought — no longer the overweight, passive, Stepin Fetchit character as we had seen her portrayed in the past, but a dignified and strong woman of principle and integrity. GRETHA BOSTON was an unknown at the time, in rehearsal for a Non-Equity touring company of PORGY AND BESS. I will never forget her audition for HAL on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater! She personified everything he had envisioned as possible in the redefining of that role, and he literally leapt in the air exclaiming to me, “Where did you find her!?” She went on to win a Tony Award for her portrayal and redefining of that role, under HAL’s visionary guidance, and HAL and I had now cemented our relationship as two theater geeks who understood one another, shared a vision, and would continue to collaborate and create together for a long time.

When we opened the Chicago Company of SHOW BOAT, I presented two finalists for the role of Julie: one an unknown, stunning and phenomenal vocal artist and actress, and the other, the incandescent MARILYN MCCOO of 1970’s SOLID GOLD Fame. They were both exquisite candidates for the role. MARILYN had more of a name, of course. HAL said that either of them could do it for sure, and acknowledged that they were both Wonderful, adding to the producer about the former, “I would bring this girl in, and make her a huge star! That’s’ what I would do. But you do what you have to do here,” as he understood commercial producing concerns. The producer went with MARILYN for her talent as well as her name value which sold a lot of tickets, and revived her career. The other woman, last I had heard, became a welfare mom. HAL understood the harsh realities of this business, and did what he could to help every actor — employing thousands and thousands over the years.

CANDIDE

During the casting of CANDIDE, HAL said he had an actor in mind for the role of Maximillian — an actor we all know and Love. I mentioned to him that I had been thinking of BRENT BARRET for that role. HAL suggested we bring both of them to his office and audition them for it. After BRENT left the room, HAL said to me, “Well, of course you’re right!” Inherent in his tone you could feel all that we were both sharing: a celebration of how wonderful and right BRENT was for this and the successful casting of the show; a simultaneous disappointment that the other actor whom we both Loved so much and regarded so highly was not cast; and a determination to find him a role in something else somewhere as well.
I don’t know that I have ever worked with a director, either before or since, who was so sensitive to all those aspects and emotions of the Casting Process.

We had also determined that MADLEINE KAHN would be the best choice for the Hilarious role of the Old Lady. HAL was hesitant about this, as having directed her in ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, her behavior had been less than exemplary. He was quite reluctant, but once everyone was on board with the idea, he relented. I found that extraordinary — that even though he had had a bad experience with an actor, he was willing to give that actor another chance! This spoke volumes about the true gentleman of the theater that he was. As it turned out, when I went back to the agent to seal the deal, the agent brought up from out of nowhere, a tv series that would interfere. This turned out to be untrue. In fact, MADELINE was beginning her battle with cancer, but this would not be public information for some time.
I felt so humiliated going back to HAL, after he had been willing to relent — that now, after so much discussion, the actress we had finally all agreed upon had removed herself from consideration, but he took it in stride. He didn’t flinch. What I saw was that he had been involved with casting and commercial theater at such a cosmic level, that he had absolute trust that things would work out just as they were supposed to — It didn’t matter if he had agreed to our pursuit of an actress he didn’t want. It was destined not to work out. ANDREA MARTIN was destined to give a splendid performance in that role, and she did! And HAL trusted, in the vein of the boyish Faith of Candide, “Everything is for the Best in this Best of All Possible Worlds!” For all the work he did, there was a kind of effortlessness to it. A kind of TRUST — and that is the whole point!

In the Prologue of STEPHEN NACHMANOVICH’s Wonderful Book FREEPLAY, he shares a Japanese FolkTale which sums it all up very well:
A new flute was invented in China. A Japanese master musician discovered the subtle beauties of its tone and brought it back home, where he gave concerts all around the country. One evening he played with a community of musicians and music lovers who lived in a certain town. At the end of the concert, his name was called. He took out the new flute and played one piece. When he was finished, there was silence in the room for a long moment. Then the voice of the oldest man was heard from the back of the room: “Like a god!”
The next day, as this master was packing to leave, the musicians approached him and asked how long it would take a skilled player to learn the new flute. “Years,” he said. They asked if he would take a pupil, and he agreed. After he left, they decided among themselves to send a young man, a brilliantly talented flautist, sensitive to beauty, diligent and trustworthy. They gave him money for his living expenses and for the master’s tuition, and sent him on his way to the capital, where the master lived.
The student arrived and was accepted by his teacher, who assigned him a single, simple tune. At first he received systematic instruction, but he easily mastered all the technical problems. Now he arrived for his daily lesson, sat down, and played his tune – and all the master could say was, “Something lacking.” The student exerted himself in every possible way; he practiced for endless hours; yet day after day, week after week, all the master said was, ” Something lacking.” He begged the master to change the tune, but the master said no. The daily playing, the daily “something lacking” continued for months on end. The student’s hope of success and fear of failure became ever magnified, and swung from agitation to despondency.
Finally the frustration became too much for him. One night he packed his bag and slinked out. He continued to live in the capital city for some time longer, until his money ran dry. He began drinking. Finally, impoverished, he drifted back to his own part of the country. Ashamed to show his face to former colleagues, he found a hut far out in the countryside. He still possessed his flutes, still played but found no new inspiration in music. Passing farmers heard him play and sent their children to him for beginner’s lessons. He lived this way for years.
One morning there was a knock at his door. It was the oldest past-master from his town, along with the youngest student. They told him that tonight they were going to have a concert, and they had all decided it would not take place without him. With some effort they overcame his feelings of fear and shame, and almost in a trance he picked up a flute and went with them. The concert began. As he waited behind the stage, no one intruded on his inner silence. Finally, at the end of the concert, his name was called. He stepped out onto the stage in his rags. He looked down at his hands, and realized that he had chosen the new flute.
Now he realized that he had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. He sat down and played the same tune he had played so many times for his teacher in the past. When he finished, there was silence for a long moment. Then the voice of the oldest man was heard, speaking softly from the back of the room: “Like a god!”

Here’s a Fun anecdote: One evening during that season while our production of CANDIDE played at the Gershwin Theatre, having opened to less than stellar reviews, HAL and his wife JUDY attended a performance of CY COLEMAN’s hit show, THE LIFE, at the Ethel Barrymore. The Opening Number, “Check It Out” introduced us to the unsavory characters of the prostitution and drug world of Times Square prior to its Disneyfication. As the characters salaciously and unapologetically accosted their audience with “Check it Out!” “Hey Baby, you want a date?” “How about it?” rousing to a great cacophony by the number’s conclusion, HAL leaned in to JUDY and whispered sardonically, “Meanwhile, just up the street, someone just said, ‘Syllogism Number One…’”

CANDIDE was a Joy to cast! We were able to identify so many marvelous and unique people to create the world of the show. HAL was So Pleased! We were told to make offers, and we began that process. SETH MALKIN was a wildly talented, distinctively Tall and Beautiful Man. He was as perfect for the Lion as D’VORAH BAILEY and NANNE PURITZ were for the Sheep. These performers were simply Magical, and it was a delight to offer many of them their Broadway debuts. The phone rang. HAL wanted to know if we had offered SETH the Lion, as he had a new idea. ARTE JOHNSON had been cast as the Rich Jew and MAL Z. LAWRENCE was cast as the Grand Inquisitor. HAL’s idea was that these two brilliant comedians could play all of the male character roles throughout the show and reappear throughout the evening. It was a good idea, but… “We have made the offer to SETH,” I told him. My voice was quivering, as we both understood that my job as Casting Director was to carry out the Director’s vision, and to do as asked. I could not imagine breaking this young man’s heart and calling him back to say that we had changed our minds and he would be performing in the Ensemble without that Feature. But here I was in the hands of a consummate professional and a true Class Act! “Well, then,” HAL replied, after the tiniest beat to process this, “ARTE and MAL will play all of the male character roles, except the Lion!”
Dignity!
Grace!
Professionalism!
Respect for Theater!
Respect for Actors.
And occasionally compromising his Vision in favor of doing the right thing!
Would that every Director and Producer would follow in his footsteps!

Eventually, our relationship got to the place in which when I would suggest someone for a role, Hal would respond, “I trust you, Arnold! Just offer it to them!” As a Casting Director, as a Human being, as a Theater Geek, I had arrived! And Hal made so many of us in all areas of this profession feel that way throughout our careers! He was more than a legend. He was a Great Person and Community Leader! He created Possibility for so many, took risks, and made careers, both onstage and behind the scenes. I am one of an infinite number of theater professionals who is here because HAL was there.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

During one casting session for SHOW BOAT, we needed to audition THERESA DE ZARN to take over the lead role of Christine in the Toronto Company of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. HAL was in a terrible mood after a bit of a run-in with the Producer (who had a knack for putting people in terrible moods). We had been forced to schedule this audition during an already way-too-short lunch break. HAL, generally warm and welcoming during auditions, with a deep respect for actors’ work, was as ornery as I’d ever seen him. THERESA sang Beautifully. Then it was time to read. Our Reader was on lunch break, and everyone at the table looked toward me, expecting me to fill in. Now this was not an unusual request of a Casting Director, although I personally prefer not to do it. I always want an Actor to have the very best reader, and I know that that is not I. Still, I rose to my feet and took in hand a pair of sides I had never seen before; since PHANTOM is mostly sung-through with very little dialogue, the scene was composed largely of lyrics to be read aloud — awkward sounding under the best of circumstances.
Christine’s reencounter with Raoul in the Dressing Room: Three lines in, I was required to read,
“Little Lotte let her mind wander.
Little Lotte thought, ‘Am I fonder
Of Dolls or of Goblins…’” and so on.
Nervous as I could be, and with the tension in the room at a peak, attempting to make eye contact with the actress and not stare down at the paper the whole time, what came out of my mouth was,
“Little Lotte let her hand wander…”
And from behind me at the table came the loudest stifled guffaw I had ever heard.
As soon as the seemingly interminable scene was over, HAL burst out the Laugh he had been stifling, and slamming the table in an uproar of hilarity, he shouted pointing at me, “You said HAND!!! You said HAND!!!!”
He laughed robustly, and then waving his hand toward Theresa he told her, rather off the cuff, “You’re hired! You’re Swell!” and then continued laughing and enjoying himself.
The rest of the day was Wonderful! HAL had the ability to change his map — and always appreciated a good laugh!

In addition to casting PAUL STANLEY from the Rock Group KISS as the Phantom some years later, I did create a largely mixed-race Cast, including an Asian Christine — the inimitable MARGARET ANN GATES, an Asian Piangi — the phenomenal SCOTT WATANABE, and a young Asian Girl in the Corps de Ballet, HARRIET CHUNG, who wrote us a letter about how inspiring she found it as a young Asian Dancer to be working in a company which so valued the integration of all people into the telling of this story. I shared this with HAL and it delighted him, as he was always supportive of this kind of progress!

KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN

Early on in our relationship, during the Casting of KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, I suggested NACHA GUEVARA, and HAL stopped in his tracks. He leaned way back, taking me in, and asked me, “Well, now how do you know about her?”
I replied that I had seen her perform at the Top of the Gate in the early 1980’s.
“I produced that show. I brought her here to the states!” he told me quite delightedly.
“I am well aware of that,” I replied with a warm smile.
He recognized me in that moment as someone who, like himself, saw everything — really everything — and stayed on top of New York Theater. I knew this about myself, and I knew he would like that about me. The moment when he discovered it did not disappoint. We found that we shared a vocabulary that was exceedingly rare, and that connection was like an electric current. We were both misfits who had found our home and our Calling in the Theater; we recognized in one another a likeminded Soul. Rarely in my Life have I been so honored being in such good company!

CHITA RIVERA once told me about how she trusted him. At the end of the first act of KISS OF THE SPIDEROWMAN, HAL staged the finale number with a jungle curtain falling abruptly on the last note of the song, with the lights quickly up. This seemed to her to be a wrong choice, but as she put it, “I’m a dancer. We do what we’re told,” then quickly adding, “Well, Dancers are tv stars now, I have no idea what they do! But I always did what I was told. That’s my training!” She resisted the idea, but said nothing. It wasn’t until much later, she could see that HAL was absolutely right and this was the most powerful choice! She admitted that it took awhile for her to catch up with his genius.

PARADE

When we opened PARADE on Broadway, I told Hal that I appreciated the show’s quintessential HAL PRINCE Moment. He asked which one and was genuinely interested in hearing the answer. Even after so many years working together, I remained humbled to be in his presence and was still surprised that he wanted my opinion — and yet he always did. I told him that it was the end of Act I when as the jurors slowly gave their verdicts, with twelve people, each slowly standing and stating with solemn condemnation, “Guilty!” the Parade was swelling and the Celebration picked up in contrast, so that we experienced the devastation of the injustice brought into sharper relief by the escalation of the ignorant society’s festal celebration.
He took that in with a rather pleased “Hmmm”, and it seemed to me that he was genuinely interested in having reflected back to him what people perceived as his signature or what was recognizable as his work. It occurred to me then for the first time that what I perceived as his signature had, in fact, grown and changed and evolved over time. Perhaps he had not always been the HAL PRINCE whom I had known through his work for some twenty years. And he would yet continue to evolve.

I remember telling him that this show seemed true to the advice I had heard him give some years earlier when we worked together so briefly at the Musical Theater Program at NYU TISCH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS: “If you want the most successful Musical, start with the most unlikely idea! And write it like a movie script — keep that in your mind the whole time. That is the way to make a Great Musical!” He was surprised that I remembered so much of what he said in such great detail.

THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH

HAL’s Portrait hangs in the Theater Hall of Fame, in the Lobby of the Gershwin Theatre, where we premiered the Broadway Production of SHOW BOAT.

We see these people as Titans in our Industry.
Coming of age when HAL was already a Broadway Legend, one would not imagine that he had insecurities and lost out on jobs too, or kicked himself for mistakes. He was truly a legend in his own time, and to this theater geek kid, he was as close to perfection of this art form as could exist in this world.

HAL once said to me, “Nobody remembers your failures, They really don’t. They only remember your successes.” I have learned this in my own life, as well. We tend to make more of our failures in our own minds, and no one else really thinks about them. He often described how indebted he was to his wife JUDY who helped him to see that he needed to stop determining what was a “flop” and what was a “hit” based on the box office results from opening night reviews, the length of the run, and the profit yielded. It took him awhile to realize that FOLLIES, for example, though not a box office success in its original production, was indeed something he could define as a hit show.
I Love That!

In our collective memory, HAL was always a success. That does not mean that as an individual artist, he did not long for more and that he wasn’t occasionally devastated by his struggles, as any artist would understand. Hal once said, “Nobody that’s really secure in his talent is sure of anything! You’re always frightened, I think that’s the way it is!”

We are all aware of LIZA MINNELLI’s Breakout Performance in the film, CABARET! The story goes that she had auditioned for the stage production and was beaten out by JILL HAYWORTH because LIZA was just too young at the time, and by the point the film had become ready for production, she now had grown into the role.
But, in addition to having given BOB FOSSE his first (and second) job(s) as a Broadway Choreographer, HAL put on the map: LIZA MINNELLI in FLORA THE RED MENACE, JOEL GREY in CABARET, and of course, KANDER & EBB… HAL was expert at New Talent, expert at Believing in People and expert at Nurturing Careers, expert at Giving Actors and Artists a Chance, and a Second Chance! He started careers; he built careers; he made careers!
FLORA THE RED MENACE was the first Broadway score by JOHN KANDER & FRED EBB, and he didn’t give up on them when it failed. The next morning he had a scheduled meeting on their new project CABARET, as was his wont. HAL always scheduled a meeting on his next show the day after the Opening of any present show — this way, whether the present show was a hit or not, he kept his focus on his work and on the future. As JOHN KANDER described it to me, “We went in the next morning thinking after those reviews that we were going to be fired, but HAL got right down to business, and we were working on the next show at 10am sharp.”

CABARET was HAL’s biggest Hit at that time. Still, when the movie of CABARET came along, the direction was given to BOB FOSSE. In 1973, Hal directed A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC which won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but the Tony for Best Director went to BOB for PIPPIN. That same year, BOB won an Oscar for Best Direction for CABARET. Yet, HAL’s Decade in the 1970’s included the Broadway premieres of COMPANY, FOLLIES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, CANDIDE, PACIFIC OVERTURES, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, EVITA, and SWEENEY TODD, amongst a host of other projects. This is what comes from getting right on to the next project. There is no time to play, “Compare and Despair.” In HAL’s own words,

The theater needs you.
You have something to say.
You belong here.
You.
Now.”

He lived by that. And he pronounced it upon all of us!
And for that, I shall always be Grateful!

Hal Prince: Winner of 21 Tony Awards — the most of anyone! (Technically, it appears that Producer Roger S. Berlind holds more in number, but these are soley as a Producer and many for shows in which he invested, with less hands-on creative involvement.) A career is more than numbers. A legacy is even more than that! HAL’s 20th Tony Award was in 1995 for SHOW BOAT on which we worked together, and after that, a third LifeTime achievement award.

CABARET was an adaptation of JOHN VAN DRUTEN’s I AM A CAMERA based on CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD’s GOODBYE TO BERLIN: HAL described working on the show, when he hit upon the idea of a creepy short little man in a nightclub in Germany he had remembered from when he served in WW II — technically it was after the war had ended, and he had been assigned to Berlin. The man wasn’t very talented, as HAL described it, and emceed a bizarre little underground cabaret he would attend on Saturday evenings.
Over a decade later, that man turned out to be HAL’s inspiration for adding in the character of the Emcee to CABARET.
So without knowing it, and without even being very talented, that odd little man set forth a spark of inspiration that would affect generations!

And that’s how it was with HAL.
Even a nobody like me could put his imprimatur on a work, or a series of works, so that even if nobody ever heard of me, what I do and what I do well could be out there in the world.

HAL was a channel for the talents of others. He was supremely gifted but he never kept that to himself nor did he claim ownership of it in an exclusionary way. He believed in Community and he believed in the power of Truth. He would say about the audition process, and the creative process in general, “We are searching for that all elusive element, TRUTH!”

Having a President of the United States who has told more lies than any other President in History flew in the face of this, and HAL did not miss his opportunity to offer an Opinion Piece to the New York Times within tRUMP’s first six months in office:

To the Editor:
There’s a saying in the theater that whoever occupies the star’s dressing room creates the atmosphere backstage. If you have a leading lady or gentleman who is easy to get along with, undemanding, friendly and charming, the cast follows suit, and you have few if any problems. If you have a diva or a narcissistic star, the atmosphere turns viral.
I’ve been thinking about that recently in terms of our national trauma, and I believe that the star in our dressing room has brought about the epidemic of dangerous mood changes, random episodes of violence and a general malaise in the lives of most Americans.
I’m more than observing it; I’m living it.
HAROLD PRINCE, NEW YORK
The writer is the Broadway theater director and producer.
A version of this article appears in print on May 19, 2017, Section A, Page 28 of the New York edition with the headline: President as Diva.

When the company I worked for in the nineties came down in flames amidst charges of fraud and embezzlement, with its lead producer sentenced to prison, I asked HAL for the meeting we had never had when ARLENE (now retired) had written to me so many years before saying that he would be happy to meet with me.
He, of course, agreed.
After the meeting, in appreciation for his having done that, I sent him a list of the things I’d learned from him. Here, below…

And here was his note back, in response…

Thank You, HAL PRINCE, for bringing to the World your Glorious Search for Truth, and for including me in it!
Thank You for your profound influence on every moment of my Professional Life!
Thank You for using your status and position to give so many of us a chance!
And Thank You for changing the way we think, and what a Musical can be!

A Photo from a Rehearsal of SHOW BOAT. In the foreground is the back of the head of a young man who attended every rehearsal that he could, and hung on Every Word…

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2 Comments

  1. Michael Walters

     /  December 10, 2019

    Great blog! Thanks for the shout out!! xoxox

    >

    Reply

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