The great man, at his great desk, with photos of his great successes spackling the walls until there was no wall left showing, bore down on me.
“Is theater your whole life?”
Was it a trick question? This was, after all, Hal Prince.
In 1982, when he somehow found time to interview me for a lowly apprentice job, he had a stage résumé going back to 1950, with more than 40 credits on it. He was already known as the “Dark Prince”: the man who stripped the last veneer of inanity from musical theater and brought it into line with the all-encompassing and all-despairing outlook of contemporary drama.
“No!” I said.
That was the right answer, even if it was partly a lie. I’d spent a lot of my life, in fact, listening to cast albums of shows he’d produced (“West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof”) or produced and directed (“Cabaret,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music”) or just directed (“Sweeney Todd”). Those shows had made me want to model my career on his, which is why, at 23, a grad school dropout, I was sitting before him.
But I also believed, largely from observing his career, that the theater was better when it talked about real things. His shows were about Nazism and decadence, marriage and nostalgia, injustice and upheaval. His work all but erased the light-touch, keep-it-moving, bring-on-the-girls aesthetic of his own mentor, George Abbott, for whom he produced his first hit, “The Pajama Game,” in 1954.
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