What's New on the Rialto
Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre: Expanded Edition
By George Reddick
Also see Alan Gomberg's review of The Tricky Part
Foster Hirsch has updated his 1989 book, Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre, which originally ended with a chapter on Prince's then-most-recent musical, The Phantom of the Opera. Sixteen years and five major Prince shows later, Hirsch provides an additional seventy-five pages in this newly published version. Originally released by Cambridge University Press as part of a "Directors in Perspective" series, Hirsch retains an academic's care for citation and thorough research in this updated edition from Applause.
Included is Prince's own one-page addendum to his original Foreword, which is a brief but illuminating addition. In fact, every time Prince's voice is woven in from his previous writings or the numerous interviews conducted by the author, the book is electric. When Hirsch's voice and analyses take over, it's less compelling, revealing the author as just another critic with another set of opinions that range from right-on to off-the-mark.
Hirsch thinks Sweeney Todd is pretentious, but finds nothing negative to say about Phantom. His insistence that Prince's work, beginning with Cabaret, revealed him as an American answer to Brecht - a comparison that Prince himself dislikes - is illustrative of Hirsch's interest in Prince. He likes Prince because he was dark and daring and political, in deference to what Hirsch perceives as the light, inconsequential shows of the Golden Age. Hirsch is dismissive of the George Abbott shows with which Prince was associated early in his career, preferring the bolder, more directly political shows like Evita and Cabaret to the more complex and ambiguous works like Sweeney. However, distracting as this attitude can sometimes be, ultimately it doesn't matter which shows Hirsch likes and dislikes because the book's value is its illuminating behind-the-scenes look at one of Broadway's greatest directors. Prince's voice is brought in at regular intervals and, since Prince's own (out-of-print) book Contradictions ends with his 1974 production of Candide, the current book is particularly valuable for its insights into the subsequent thirty years of Prince's career.
Hirsch had the benefit of Prince's personal cooperation throughout the writing process, and both the new and old chapters are filled with material from one-on-one interviews with the director-producer. The new chapters will be of interest to Broadway enthusiasts, particularly the final installment on the rise and fall of Bounce, the failed reunion of Prince and Sondheim, the Broadway giants of the 1970s.
Prince is a tough visionary who, by his own admission, constantly contradicts himself, but once he has an idea, he rarely backs down. He thought Sally Bowles should never be played by a star because it would overwhelm the show, and he thought Bounce needed a woman star. (Who cares about those two brothers? Where's the sex?) The first ten chapters here, which provide plenty of insights into Prince's creative process, particularly focusing on the rehearsal process of his then-current 1987 Broadway revival of Cabaret, are unchanged from the first edition.
The new and final four chapters document an increasingly bleak outlook for the Broadway scene, illustrating how the Serious Musical on which Prince made his career has begun to disappear. Hirsch displays little faith that the Broadway musical will ever return to the level of seriousness he appreciates in the Prince musicals discussed in the first ten chapters. Even Prince's own trademark optimism shows signs of tarnish, particularly in his remarks concerning Bounce, which couldn't survive even after his many changes and additions to the original material, and Whistle Down the Wind, which ended his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Kiss of the Spider Woman and Prince's revisal of Show Boat both ran for just over two years on Broadway in the nineties, but Prince's subsequent projects have been less lucky. (Hirsch applauds Prince's decision to significantly revise Show Boat, concurring with his belief that the original second act would never work with a contemporary audience.) Parade was not liked in New York and Whistle Down the Wind and Bounce, each a reunion with a former collaborator, failed out of town. Prince bemoans the current economic state of Broadway theatre and the paralyzing effect it has on young writers' ability to be seen and heard in full productions.
Just as the Golden Age of Broadway musicals of which Hirsch is dismissive came to an end in the 1960s, the post-Golden Age era of the Hal Prince Musicals has also given way to a post-Disney theme-park style of Broadway musical in recent years. Still, though Foster Hirsch and Hal Prince himself may be pessimistic about the lack of interest in serious works like Prince's over the last fifteen years of Broadway musicals, Hirsch's new edition of Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre is a valuable document of the rise and fall of an era of a particular brand of Broadway musical for it provides an all-access backstage pass to view that genre's greatest practitioner at work. For anyone interested in the development of Broadway musicals over the last fifteen years, Hirsch's close look at Prince's Broadway work over that time, though not always satisfying, will prove illuminating.
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