Harold Prince’s new memoir, “Sense of Occasion” (Applause Books, $29.99) — a conversational chronicle and candid analysis of his many hits, seminal musicals and occasional flops — includes a last chapter on his new show, “Prince of Broadway,” which opened last night; the book and the musical were clearly timed to coincide with one another.
They have much in common. Both promise a retrospective of a 70-year career in the theater that is one of the most successful in American history. Both aim for breadth over depth — Prince offers his take on 46 of his shows in the book! — although obviously a 300-page book can go into more detail than a two and a half hour stage show. But if his new Broadway revue tries to recreate the original look and sound of popular musical numbers from shows that Prince produced or directed, his new memoir replicates his past work more directly. The first two-thirds of “Sense of Occasion” – 200 of its 300 pages – is a reprint of his 1974 memoir, “Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre” with updates entitled “Reflections” after each of the first 26 chapters.
Photographs and captions from the 16 pages of photographs in the book. Click to see enlarged.
The set-up can make for some odd and messy reading. In the five pages of Chapter 2, for example, he writes about “The Pajama Game,” the first show he produced on Broadway, and also his first big hit. He doesn’t tell us he won a Tony Award for it, nor that it was the first of his 21 Tony Awards, more than twice as many as anybody else has received. But he does tell us that when the musical opened on May 13, 1954, it had advance ticket sales “of only $40,000, which means it could only survive one week.” Then, however, in the page and a half that follows Chapter 2, entitled “Reflections on Chapter 2 of Contradictions,” he informs us: “The advance of the Pajama Game was $15,000, not $40,000. That means the show could have run for a performance and a half.”
Not all the “Reflections” are “Corrections.” But it’s baffling why Prince (with the help of an editor if need be) couldn’t simply have reworked the original chapters. Is his old memoir sacred text, requiring exegesis rather than rewrites? Or was this simply the most efficient way for a busy or distracted man to get a product to market on time?
In the last 100 pages, “Sense of Occasion” takes up where Prince left off in “Contradictions,” going show by show from 1974 to the present. There is no obvious sloppiness in the new chapters. But here too there are signs (albeit more subtle) that Prince might not have been intensely focused on the writing of this memoir. In the chapter on “Sweeney Todd,” he writes of a recent London production that “took place in a specially constructed pie shop.” This is not inaccurate, but the Tooting Arts Club production of “Sweeney Todd” began in an actual pie shop, the century-old Harrington’s, before it transferred to a “specially constructed” space, certainly worth mentioning.
In the chapter on “Merrily We Roll Along,” the first of a five year string of flops, Prince writes about the end of the celebrated partnership between him and composer Stephen Sondheim, which had produced a steady stream of landmark musicals, including Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd:
“As a result of Merrily, both Steve and I, after more than a decade of successful collaboration, thought it would be advisable to sever our partnership. Had Merrily been a hit, our partnership would have been sustained. But it flopped, and we both moved on….we remain best friends…”
That’s it. This is an explanation that explains little, reveals little.
One wonders whether Prince’s discretion is one of the lessons learned from his first mentor, the legendary theater director George Abbott, who hired Prince in 1948 when the younger man had just graduated from college at the precocious age of 20, first to assist Abbott on a venture into television that didn’t pan out, but then keeping Prince steadily employed and advancing his career. Prince admired Abbott for keeping the theatricality restricted to the stage — remaining calm and reserved during the many crises of putting together a show. This might not have been Prince’s natural approach, but it is something he aspired to from the get-go:
“I realize that my presence in the office was abrasive. I was smiley and enthusiastic and overenergized. So, recognizing that, one morning I wrote at the top of my desk calendar (for an entire year!): ‘WATCH IT!!!”
In a sense, Prince’s memoir also reflects the philosophy recently expressed by Stephen Sondheim in a different context – that directors should serve the text rather than themselves. If in “Sense of Occasion” Prince offers little in the way of personal revelation or even personal anecdote, it is full of shop talk – enough of it for a certain class of theater lover to dismiss any claims of literary infelicity as so much irrelevant quibbling.
Prince does drop in a few amusing tidbits, such as the time that a singer named Jay Harnick brought his mother to a backer’s audition for “The Pajama Game.” Prince politely complimented Jay Harnick’s mother for her son’s talent. “She said if I thought Jay was talented, I should meet her other son.” That’s how Prince met her other son, Sheldon Harnick, who would write the lyrics for the Prince-produced “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Fiorello” and for “She Loves Me,” which Prince both directed and produced.
Prince also establishes himself as opinionated, digressing on occasion to pontificate about critics and ticket prices (he supports dynamic pricing) and unions (“If you lived up to the letter of your contracts with any of the affiliated guilds and unions, you would never get a show on.”) He even lets us know he doesn’t like “Hello, Dolly!” because it’s the kind of musical where “songs are utterly unmotivated” and “characters react inconsistently for laughs.”
But the greatest strength of “Sense of Occasion” rests in the insights Prince offers into the way he works. For each show he directs, he searches for what he calls a metaphor, which then helps guide him. He saw “Cabaret” as a play about civil rights, “the problem of blacks in America, about how it can happen here.” “Phantom of the Opera,” he tells us, is about our instinctive response to deformity, which is to pull back, followed by our realization that our response was irrational. To each new company of Phantom he tells a personal anecdote of his reaction when a leper shook his hand.
At 12 pages, the chapter on Phantom is the longest and most detailed — including a story I had not heard before of producer Cameron Mackintosh firing Prince from the show because he wanted an English director, causing Prince to “blurt out the f-word” and stalk off. (Prince was rehired about three weeks later.)
The greater attention on Phantom surely has something to do with its success, the longest-running show in Broadway history, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary on January 26, 2018 – four days before Harold Smith Prince turns 90 years old.
Hal Prince seems just as engaged with some of his old flops as his continued successes, and after 70 years in show business, he expresses what seems a clear-eyed perspective about his extraordinary career “Broadway is not the place to look for loyalty from the public,” he writes in “Sense of Occasion,” “and sad as that is to the ego, it is one of the best things you can say about Broadway.”