It would take a dissertation to do justice to Harold Prince’s theatrical career, which has yielded a record 21 Tony Awards spanning more than 50 years. No one has guided more iconic Broadway shows, first as a producer (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof) and then a director (She Loves Me, Cabaret, Company, A Little Night Music, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Kiss of the Spider Woman). Oh, yes…his credits also include The Phantom of the Opera, which opened at the Majestic Theatre on January 26, 1988, and is still going strong. Prince has a double reason to celebrate this month: Phantom’s 25th Broadway anniversary and his own 85th birthday on January 30. This towering (yet surprisingly down to earth) theatrical great chatted with Broadway.com about his aversion to seeing revivals of his own shows, the forthcoming musical anthology Prince of Broadway and why the Masked Man is an irresistible role.
Does it feel like 25 years have passed since opening night of Phantom?
Of course not! Time moves very, very quickly. It feels like about five years. It’s astonishing that the show is still very much alive and kicking.
You must be excited about the anniversary cast, with Sierra Boggess joining Hugh Panaro [as Christine and the Phantom].
I love Sierra. She’s in my new show [Prince of Broadway], and she is just extraordinary; we’re thrilled that she’s here. And Hugh Panaro is about as good as anyone has ever been in the [title] role. He has the most beautiful voice, and he’s a very, very strong actor. So we have a terrific cast. I think that’s our obligation, and not just because we’re celebrating the 25th.
What’s the key to keeping a long-running show like this in top shape?
We work very hard. There is a resident director, and I come in and rehearse about four times a year. In addition to performance notes, I want [the cast] to have a clear understanding of why the show looks and moves the way it does. I tell them to sit in their dressing rooms and read the script. Don’t think about the music, just read the script and the lyrics, and you’ll get insight into motivations and plotting. You can lose sight of those things when you play a show eight times a week for years.
Why are actors willing to play the demanding role of the Phantom for such long periods of time?
It’s a very satisfying role. My god, the audience! There’s nothing like the ovation at the end of this show. An interesting thing about the Phantom is that it’s so intense. He’s only on stage about half an hour in total, but he is being talked about and is making things happen the whole evening. I’ve rarely had a character—well, Sweeney Todd, I suppose—who stays at such a high level of emotion the whole evening. Even before you see him, when his voice is heard behind a mirror, he’s at the top of his energy and ferocity. He never lets down except at a couple of romantic moments, and moments when he is almost childlike in his self-pity. It’s a tough task, but actors love it because it’s so appreciated by the audience.
The Phantom is a villain, and yet he remains sympathetic. And in a weird way, so was Sweeney.
I’ve always loved Victorian melodrama. And I’ve always liked larger-than-life theater, providing it’s truthful and honest. I like what the theater can provide in energy and bombast—I enjoy it when it’s large, and by that I don’t mean in size, I mean in emotions. Shakespeare did that.
Your Broadway resume is astonishing. Does it bother you to be so strongly identified with this particular show?
No, you’ve got to be happy with something that has run all this time, and is clearly going to run a lot longer. I think everybody knows about Cabaret and Sweeney and Company and Follies. I’m at the point in my career when I hear about revivals and reinterpretations of shows I’ve done. Occasionally I see them. More often I don’t.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you don’t like to watch revivals of your classic musicals.
No, because I have a different kind of history with them. I’m the first person who directed them, which means I was working with the creators for a minimum of a year; usually two or three years. The whole process gets in your bones, especially in working on something that’s not proven. You’re creating something you hope people will like and accept. It’s very different from redoing a piece of material.
For a long time, Broadway seemed a bit condescending toward Phantom. Do you think that’s changing?
I really don’t know. I’m reminded of a line Herb Gardner wrote [in A Thousand Clowns]: “How come if you’re so good, you’re so successful?” In this case, I would substitute “you’ve run so long.” I’ve worked on shows that have gotten great reviews but not pleased a wider public, for whatever reason. The thing you can’t argue with is how the public has embraced this material.
Do you go to the theater very often these days?
No, I see things selectively.
You must get pitched shows all the time. Who are some of your favorite younger composers?
I’m crazy about Jason Robert Brown [Prince’s collaborator on Parade] and Adam Guettel; those are just two. There’s no lack of talent out there. I suspect there is a lack of creative guidance, and that would not be solely the responsibility of a director but also a producer.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon to see 20 or more producers listed above the title.
I think that’s a shame. But that’s, of course, dictated by the cost of productions. I wish people were willing to invest in shows without taking producer billing, for a simple reason: I think there should be one strong, creative producing hand at the helm of a show. In many instances, the ideas for my shows have originated in my office. Then you cast the composer and the book writer, and you pick the designers, along with the director. Producing should be a creative responsibility.
There’s this idea that Broadway has become mostly a star-driven tourist attraction. What do you think?
That argument has some validity because shows cost so much to do, and the people who provide the money are shy about taking chances. However, I have no reason to think they’re right. The two most successful musicals on Broadway have no stars in them. One is the Mormon musical, and the other is Once. A star may guarantee business, but the tradeoff is a very short run. There are shows that open now for 10 or 12 weeks. [With Phantom] we’re talking about a 25-year engagement that’s still going strong.
What’s your relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber now?
We’re good friends. We always have been. There’s never been any reason not to be.
Did you see the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies?
I saw it in London. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ll tell you this: It was beautifully acted. And it had some lovely melodies.
You and Stephen Sondheim collaborated on some of the greatest musicals ever. Are you still close?
Very. He’s one of my best friends. We were great friends long before we ever worked together. We were kids together. He stood up for me at my wedding, so we go back forever.
You have a big birthday coming up! [Prince turns 85 on January 30.]
Yes, I do. Again, that number doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m working on shows, and I have just about as much energy at this point as I ever remember having.
What is the status of the musical revue of your life and work, Prince of Broadway [co-directed by Prince and Susan Stroman]?
We’re going into rehearsal on Labor Day, and we open in November. It’s a difficult show to describe, because it’s not anything I’ve ever seen before. I wouldn’t want to do “And then I…” “And then I…” It’s a very odd duck, very well constructed and written. There are big chunks of scenes that are not from shows. You’ll just have to see for yourself!
It’s wonderful that you are still creating new work for Broadway.
That’s because I live in the present and the future and not in the past.
Well, thank you for chatting with us about Phantom’s 25th anniversary.
We’ll talk again in five years!