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If you like Harold Prince's story, you might also like:
Edward Albee,
Julie Andrews,
Carol Burnett,
Athol Fugard,
Jeremy Irons,
James Earl Jones,
Audra McDonald,
Trevor Nunn,
Lloyd Richards,
Stephen Sondheim,
Julie Taymor,
Twyla Tharp and
Kiri Te Kanawa

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Harold Prince
Harold Prince
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Harold Prince Interview

Broadway Producer and Director

June 22, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Harold Prince

You've been associated with so many legendary shows, as producer and Director -- from West Side Story, Fiddler On the Roof, and Cabaret, to Evita and Phantom of the Opera. We hope to talk about all of them, but let's start with West Side Story. The combination of talents in that show is just mind-boggling. Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim. Most of you were almost at the beginning of your careers, weren't you?

Harold Prince: Actually, George Abbott had given Bernstein and Robbins their first big hit, On the Town.

On the Town was a musical that Comden and Green wrote. It's just a great musical and very popular, they do it all the time. And it was the first time anyone saw the amalgam of Lenny's ballet music, Jerry's dance, in a very light, frivolous musical that Comden and Green wrote. It worked really well. I loved it. I actually saw it when I was in college. I saw it nine times, because I thought, "I'm looking at something new that draws me -- elements of which draw me to the musical theater when I've not been drawn there before."

So how did your involvement with Bernstein and Robbins and West Side Story come about?

Harold Prince Interview Photo
Harold Prince: It depends on who you talk to. I keep reading that it was offered to my partner Bobby Griffith and me and we turned it down. I don't think that's true at all. I think we were working on New Girl in Town, which is a musical based on Anna Christie. I don't think we could have turned it down. Cheryl Crawford certainly did say she'd produce it, and she was a wonderful, creative producer with a great record, but the year before she was to do this, she did Candide, and that fell flat on its face, so she said, "I can't raise the money twice in a row for these difficult things." I was on the road with New Girl in Town, which was having problems. It starred Gwen Verdon, and Bobby Fosse was doing the choreography, and it was having real problems between Abbott's view, and mine as a producer, and Bobby and Gwen. We were not in sync about some of the dances, and so it was troublesome.

The phone rang in Boston, and I was in the hotel, and Steve Sondheim called. I told him my problems, never occurred to me to ask him what his were. But ours were minimal, compared, because we were struggling to get the show finished, to come to Broadway, where it did ultimately, a couple of weeks later. But then, when I was finished, he said, "We've lost our producer. We have no show," being West Side Story.

So I said, "Wow. That's just the worst," and I said, "We have to give our cast a day off on Sunday. If Bobby and I flew into New York, could we all meet and hear the score again?" We wanted to meet with Sondheim, Lenny, Jerry, and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. Bobby and I already knew the score, but...

Lenny had told everyone no one was to ever hear the score, and I knew every note of the score because Steve was my friend, and he'd play it all the time. So I knew it all, but I had to pretend that I had never heard any of it. So we went to Lenny's apartment, and they were all there on that Sunday, and Lenny was nervous. You've never heard anybody pound so loudly on the piano, just in an effort to please. Steve sang some of the lyrics with Lenny, and it was just as thrilling as anything could be. And I started to sing along, inadvertently, and Lenny stopped. A nervous pause, and then he said, "That's what I've always been looking for is a musical producer!"

And that's how we got away with it. But we picked up the show.

We said, "We will do this show, but you cannot call us and talk to us about any of your problems. We have to get this other show fixed and into New York and open on Broadway, and we'll go to work the next day." We also parenthetically said, "You guys are being all paid too much by Cheryl Crawford. It's not that you don't deserve more. It's just not good from an investor's point of view, and we're going to renegotiate all your contracts." Long pause. We did. We decided that we knew how to pay shows off quicker than anybody else, which is how we got a quick reputation in the business, and we wanted to continue. Anyway, we came in with New Girl, reviews very mixed, show ran, paid back. But I think six weeks later than it was meant to go into rehearsal, we actually went into rehearsal with West Side Story, having cast it, having completed the designs, having found the theaters, the bookings. We came to Washington, to the National (Theatre), and it was spectacular from the get-go in front of audiences.

You were at the premiere of West Side Story. What was that like?

Harold Prince: It was just thrilling. You knew right away. My memory is that the only thing that ever got fiddled around with forever was "Somewhere," which was a song, top of the second act, where Reri Grist, the opera singer, sat in the pit and sang -- she wasn't seen by the audience -- and there was a whole big ballet between the Jets and the Sharks. And that just got fiddled with and fiddled with and fiddled with until finally we had to open, but it was quite thrilling.

I left someone out of all this who was really wonderful because he was so supportive, and he had been part of the original team with Cheryl. That is Roger Stevens, who was a big figure in Washington, and responsible for the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center Complex and so on, a wonderful guy. He just said, "I'm with you. I will put up my share. You guys do the producing." The credit read "In Association with Roger Stevens." He was true to his word and really nice.

What was the audience's reaction to the opening?

Harold Prince: They had never seen anything quite like it. They were just thrilled, just excited. It just got right. The blood boils, and it's exciting, and the Romeo and Juliet story is pretty swell. Arthur Laurents created a language for it, which some people are fond of saying, "What is all that 'cracko-jacko' stuff -- 'womb-to-tomb' stuff?" You had to create a different language, which is probably why, sometimes -- you know, you talked to Sondheim and you heard him criticize some of his lyrics. The fact that it is all heightened and people are not real and they are not really saying what they would have said in the words they would have used, I think that would have been an impossible task and inappropriate.

The big place where we encountered this schism was "Officer Krupke." The authors all said, "What in the hell are all these street kids doing, talking about psychoanalysis? What do they know about that?" And the answer is, "You are right, but the show is getting too heavy, and we need to lighten the audience's load," and we did. It wasn't Fidelio. It was West Side Story, and it was trying something new in the commercial theater.

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This page last revised on Sep 11, 2007 23:46 EDT
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