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Sense of Occasion
by Harold Prince

Book Review by Bob Verini

Richard Rodgers, Ethel Merman,
and Hal Prince

Photo from author's collection
A rare photo among the plates in Harold Prince's Sense of Occasion features a smiling Richard Rodgers, Ethel Merman, and the director posing for an ultimately spiked TV Guide cover that was to tout a Tony Awards broadcast. The trio looks so uncharacteristically mirthful, Prince in particular, that you wish you could be a fly on the wall to hear their conversation. Were they dishing colleagues or current shows? Might they have tossed around ideas for working together? What do musical theater legends talk about when they're tete-a-tete?

We'll never know what went on during that photo shoot, which Prince barely recalls. Moreover, a search through the pages of Sense of Occasion yields precious few tidbits about the people with whom he's been associated for an astonishing 67 years to date. This decision to keep things "all business" illustrates both the scope and the limitations of this work of reminiscence which, and let's be unequivocal about this, everyone interested in theater in general, and musicals in particular, will want to own.

In fact, many buffs likely own much of it already: 2/3 of the present volume consists of his 1974 memoir entitled Contradictions. Its 26 chapters are reprinted here verbatim, with contemporary additions and emendations that don't amount to very much. (We learn that Peter Gennaro, not Jerry Robbins, choreographed Chita Rivera's material in West Side Story, including the "America" number; and back in the day shows could turn a profit at 60% of capacity, but "How times have changed.") In a way, Sense of Occasion is a recycling endeavor parallel to the current Prince of Broadway, both memoir and revue dipping selectively into the high points of an incredibly impressive body of work.

My own copy of Contradictions having fallen apart and lost 50 pages over the years, I was as happy as novices will be to get reacquainted with the saga of Prince's post-WWII movement from mentorship under the even more celebrated George Abbott, to producing or (often with Bobby Griffith) co-producing a slew of hits from Pajama Game through West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. His ambition to direct begins with a few duds (Baker Street) and the odd succès d'estime (She Loves Me), fully taking off with the invention of the so-called "concept musical" in the form of Cabaret and the collaboration with best friend Stephen Sondheim on a string of sophisticated shows (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music) that revolutionized and redefined the musical form. Later, in 100 pages of new material, Prince recounts the development of Sweeney Todd, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera; chronicles more succèsses d'estime in Parade and Lovemusik; and goes into a string of projects that suggest he may have lost some steam but still hangs on to considerable ambition.

The West Side Story team: Stephen Sondheim,
Arthur Laurents, Hal Prince, Robert E. Griffith,
Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins

Photo courtesy of Photofest
Each show is recounted in thorough if selectively chosen detail, in which he reveals the thinking behind his choices of material, collaborators, casting and staging. Early exposure to the work of total-theater pioneer Vsevolod Meyerhold and a life-changing visit to Moscow's Taganka Theater ("a turning point in my thinking as a director") led him to seek ways of breaking out of the conventional Broadway mode as it had evolved by the mid-20th century. Prince claims he strives always to conceive of a central metaphor to literalize a play's theme and interior life, hence the equation of Hitler's Germany with the Emcee's transformation in Cabaret; the photo of Gloria Swanson standing grandly in rubble for Follies; the rolling Mississippi in Show Boat; and placing the Grand Guignol Sweeney Todd into a sweatshop representing the Industrial Age. (If he has any thoughts about John Doyle's very different madhouse metaphor for Sweeney, he keeps them to himself.)

As a rule, when he has centered a show properly he's well satisfied. Preparing The Phantom of the Opera, his memory of recoiling at lepers with whom he shook hands became "for me the reigning metaphor of the show ... why in the presence of deformity our atavistic response is to pull back, perhaps not in horror, but instinctively. And then, if we are sentient human beings, we quickly realize how irrational that response is." Conversely, an absent or inappropriate central image is seen as the locus of failure. ("We used a covered wagon as the show's metaphorical symbol," he reports of Bounce, but designer Eugene Lee was distracted by Wicked at the time and "delivered a desultory design"; the rest of the Bounce discussion suggests Prince lost heart then and there.)

That Prince largely sidesteps the personal doesn't imply that his prose is cold or unfeeling. "Now let's talk about how not to produce a show," he says toward the end of the Contradictions section. "Let's talk about how I ignored everything I learned, or should have learned." It's tough to resist such witty candor, as he recounts how he "hated" bringing the iconoclastic Candide revival to Broadway, beset by union problems and the difficulties of converting a Broadway house into an environmental playground, even as "form and content merged easily" into a production of which he was especially proud.

Photo by Friedman-Abeles
Whatever Prince show floats your boat, you will find goodies here and yearn for more. He trenchantly compares the directing styles of Abbott and Robbins, explains why She Loves Me failed, describes how his movie version of Follies would have worked and why he would cut Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz if he were doing Cabaret today, and reveals that, audience reactions to the contrary, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera are not "spectacles," merely clever uses of a big black box.

On the other hand, don't expect him to go into specifics about his feud with lyricist Jim Steinman on Whistle Down the Wind, or what he means by "I behaved very badly" to Gilbert Bécaud on Roza. He alludes only in vague terms to why he and Sondheim parted company after Merrily We Roll Along, let alone why years later "the triumvirate of Steve, Judy [Mrs. Prince] and Hal is as solid as ever." You may even wonder why librettist Michael Stewart, in the 1950s, was moved to call Griffith "the nice one" and Prince "the loud one." The loudness, whether that's a metaphor for volume or abrasiveness or bullying, simply doesn't come through in these pages.

While reading Sense of Occasion, then, don't be surprised if you get a sense of a wise and thoughtful pal discoursing amiably at your side on topics you both care passionately about. But also, don't be surprised if he clams up when you most wish he'd go on.

Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince
343 Pages
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
Publishing date: August 1, 2017
List Price: $29.99
ISBN: 978-1495013027

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