The intervening years made for plenty more frustration, as one announced production of “Prince” after another fell by the wayside. An earlier version finally reached Japan in 2015. “I’m told it played better in Osaka than Tokyo,” Mr. Prince said of that production, “because the theater was so much smaller.” By that logic, the Broadway run — presented by Manhattan Theater Club and opening Aug. 24 at the relatively intimate Samuel J. Friedman Theater — will be a more fitting place to hear the likes of Chuck Cooper and Karen Ziemba perform material from the above shows and nearly a dozen more.
Some of those were directed by Mr. Prince, others merely produced by him. But he didn’t write a note of the songs in question, deferring to those with last names like Bernstein and Sondheim and Webber and Kander. And Brown, which helps explain Mr. Brown’s involvement in the show. In addition to currently weaving about 16 songs from Mr. Prince’s past into an overture, he has reorchestrated the material throughout and written a forward-looking new finale, “Do the Work.”
The two men sat down immediately after the first full “Prince of Broadway” run-through to discuss how to distill two-thirds of a century of Broadway history into just over two hours. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
So … 67 years. Dozens of shows. How did you decide which to pick?
JASON ROBERT BROWN I have trouble getting Hal to say this out loud, but “Prince of Broadway” is about an era in which musical theater and really Broadway completely changes. Not solely because of Hal, but largely because of Hal.
HAROLD PRINCE No, not solely.
BROWN And I think you have to understand certain landmarks around that. There’s no way you can tell that story without “Phantom of the Opera,” without “West Side Story.” You can’t do a show about Hal without “Cabaret,” which I think is sort of the ur-Prince experience. But even with that criteria, there’s too much material, so then it just becomes about personal taste and flow, and we’ve always deferred to Hal about that. There’s a point in which Hal says, “I feel like we just need one more song,” and we say, “It’s your show, let’s do another song.”
The stuff from the big hits, either you’re going to do a song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” or you’re not going to do it. No one’s going to die one way or the other. It’s the stuff from “Grind” where you’re like: How do we pay tribute to the fact that not only did you succeed over and over again, but when you failed, you failed with such beautiful ideas, you failed for the best possible reason, you failed because you tried hard?
PRINCE The tough decision was to cut from “Grind,” to cut from “Flora the Red Menace.” Of course you get into what’s a flop or a hit. My wife once said: “I’m sick of hearing you talking about flops. I wish you would make the distinction between success and failure, because some of your successes have been flops and some of your failures have been hits.” And that is true in any artistic career.
How much does the size of a show play into that?
PRINCE I want this show to be about the empty space and how all of us dedicate our creative lives to filling it with magic. This whole thing about extravaganza has been pinned to me, that I do spectacles, and I don’t. Sure, “Follies” had a spectacle moment. But “Phantom” is always put down as a spectacle — it’s a black enameled box with things put in it mostly. Not always, but mostly. In the theater, two people sitting next to each other see a different show because they fill the blank spaces differently. That’s what we’re here for.
Are any of these shows or performances so seared into your mind that it’s hard to look at them with a fresh perspective?
PRINCE No. My job is to stimulate people. If I ask for something and I get what I ask for, I’m sorry. Because I’m not a composer, I’m not a designer. I want you to come back with something that will surprise me.
BROWN There’s not been a single moment from the day I met Hal to this day that he said, “Let me tell you what’s going to make a musical work.” That’s not his job. His job is to get the show up. Hal was fantastic at seeing there was something that was wrong with a piece. And it took me a while to realize that solving the problem isn’t what he did. He was always proposing solutions, but they were often terrible solutions.
PRINCE In the “Superman” song [“You’ve Got Possibilities,” from “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman” in 1966], I clearly remember Linda Lavin. Now, Linda never imposes. And so I said to Janet Dacal, who’s doing it here, “Let’s go the Linda way.” Of course, Janet’s not Linda, so you never impose. But you get her to try coming from under.
Jason, what is your role here?
BROWN Part of my job on this show, and it’s sort of a strange job, is to represent the writers who are not here to do it. I needed to make a cut from the balcony scene in “West Side Story,” and I thought, “I’m supposed to change Lenny Bernstein’s music?!” It really matters to me to do that right. And I feel like the minute I came on board, it allows Andrew Lloyd Webber and Steve Sondheim and John Kander to relax and say, “O.K. Jason can take care of it.” Plus, I wouldn’t have the career that I have if it wasn’t for Hal. It is always fun to work with Hal — it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s fun. This is the place I pay my respect to the work that he did.
What on earth took so long in terms of getting this show produced?
PRINCE It’s all about who has the money and where the money comes from. You know who the backers were for “The Pajama Game” [in 1954]? Wardrobe mistresses. Stage managers. Stagehands. All the people we worked with backstage. The biggest investment was $5,000. There’s a line in this show that tells it all: “Follies” was the most expensive musical ever done when it opened in 1971. You know how much it cost? It cost $800,000.
BROWN There’s no institutional memory on these blocks. At the time Hal happened to come up — in the ’70s, when New York was like Beirut — he had the luxury to explore these beautiful, difficult concepts in a commercial environment. Now, when New York is the most expensive real estate on the planet, there’s not that luxury to do that. It drives me bananas that the memory of what that is has so little purchase. You’ve got all those people talking about “the great history of Broadway,” but none of them are saying we have to honor that history in a great way. They’re saying, “Oh no, we have to put on ‘SpongeBob SquarePants.’”
PRINCE Jason is part of the answer. He’s part of the continuum. And that’s very important to me. I am not interested in an audience coming to this show and saying, “Those were the good old days.” If they do, I’ll kill myself. It’s the future you’ve got to take care of.
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