Theatre yesterday and today



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As a consistent theatregoer for more than fifty years, I consider myself deeply blessed for many reasons. One of the most meaningful is that I got to witness and be part of the prolific legacy the producer/director Harold Prince has provided audiences the world over. When he passed away in July at the age of ninety-one, it was a sudden and sad blow to all of those whose lives he touched. I didn’t know him personally and only spoke with him a few times in my life, but over his near seventy-year career and the many productions he either produced or directed (or did simultaneously), he passed on to me a love for theatre—especially musicals—that will endure until the day I die. Joining more than a thousand people yesterday at his memorial (or a “celebration,” as Stephen Sondheim suggested was a more appropriate description), everyone present was truly present. The afternoon was all about Hal (and I can call him that because when I interviewed him in 2013 and addressed him as Mr. Prince, he said, “Call me Hal,” which to this day are three of the nicest words anyone has ever spoken to me).

Photo by Michael Portentiere

Held at the Majestic Theatre, where The Phantom of the Opera (which he directed) has been ensconced since 1988, a veritable who’s who of the American theatre came out in the cold to say a final goodbye. I stood by as Victor Garber, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Sheldon Harnick, John Cullum, Kevin Kline and Jonathan Tunick filed in past me. Not only the cream of the crop of Broadway, but all of them veterans of Prince productions. Then upon entering the theatre, I couldn’t help but be stirred by memories of so many shows I saw pre-1988 at the Majestic, one of my favorite musical houses. In fact, I saw my second Broadway show there in 1968 — the Prince-produced Fiddler on the Roof—just five days shy of fifty-one years ago. All that greeted the audience onstage by way of set decoration was seating for a full orchestra plus a ghost light, downstage center. At almost exactly 1:30, the light was removed by a stagehand, and Jason Robert Brown (composer of Parade, his first Broadway show which was directed by Prince), stepped up in front of the now seated two dozen or so musicians. How many memorials open with an overture? Reprising the composition Brown created for Prince of Broadway, the 2017 revue Prince co-directed with Susan Stroman, the clever orchestrations cleansed the palate for what was to come.

Many of the contemporaries with whom Prince started out are no longer around, so it was a genuine treat that Joel Grey should be the first to pay tribute. As Grey himself has acknowledged, Prince saved his flagging career when he cast him in Cabaret, which would earn Grey both the Tony and the Academy Award. Singing “Willkommen,” the eighty-seven-year-old Grey was a most welcome sight. The first speaker was Stephen Sondheim, who briefly told a funny and insightful story about Prince on the day of his wedding (Sondheim was best man). He reminisced how nervous Prince was, so much so that he called Sondheim and asked him to meet him outside in the hall, prior to entering the apartment where the wedding was to be held. “Hal emerged off the elevator,” Sondheim recalled, “excited and scared… and carrying a script.” After the audience laughed uproariously, Sondheim continued: “I gently slipped it out of his hand and said let me take care of this and we walked into the apartment together… and he got married for 57 years.”

Sondheim also mentioned in his opening remarks that “the two most important things in Hal’s life were his family and putting on shows.” This was brought to vivid and poignant life by Laura Linney, who when she first came to the podium caused my mind to scan all of Prince’s shows for a clue to what one this wonderful actress might have done with him, only to quickly discover that her association was of a more private nature. Linney went to school with both his children, Daisy and Charlie, and thereby recounted a lifetime of observations of how he was not only kind and affectionate with his own children, but with the friends of his children. “Both he and Judy took an invested interest in our well-being, made us feel as though we were worthy of his time. He mentored us. He put an invisible hand on our backs and cheered us on.” It was without doubt the most moving speech of the afternoon.

And so it went for just under ninety minutes. Interspersed throughout film clips, mostly featuring Prince discussing his life and work, we heard live from Carol Burnett, Alfred Uhry, Thomas Kail and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who was singularly charming in his remarks. But since Prince loved musicals, and with a wealth of actors willing to pay tribute, there were songs sung with joy, love and reverence. They included Michael Cerveris’s “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, Sierra Boggess’s “Will He Like Me?” from She Loves Me, Janet Dacal’s “Buenos Aires” from Evita, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Meghan Picerno (a recent Raoul and the current Christine in Phantom) duetting “All I Ask of You,” and perhaps most vividly, Bryonha Marie Parham singing “Cabaret.” I had seen her perform this number in Prince of Broadway, but to watch her fill a house the size of the Majestic was… well, majestic. Another cast member from that show, Tony Yazbeck, provided a powerhouse rendition of “This Is Not Over Yet” from Parade. When he began, a mike stand next to Yazbeck was empty, and for those who know the song, we awaited who would join him. It happily turned out to be Carolee Carmello, on a day off from the Hello, Dolly! national tour, to recreate the performance for which she was Tony nominated. Thrilling.

But the most nostalgic number was when Lonny Price, Ann Morrison and Jim Walton came out for “Old Friends,” the song they first sang on Broadway thirty-eight years ago. Talk about old friends! They even recreated most of the choreography, and I know that I wasn’t the only one in the house whose memories hurtled back to the first time seeing Merrily We Roll Along during its long and troubled preview period (I was at performance #1). Then with time for one last song, Merrily provided another emotional highlight, when about three dozen actors from various Prince productions gathered on stage to sing “Our Time.” It was easy to spot clustered together the four original stars of Songs for A New World (Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Billy Porter), which was directed by Hal’s daughter, Daisy Prince, as well as Chuck Cooper, Jason Danieley, Gregg Edelman, Amanda Green, Richard Kind, Tom Kitt, Michael John LaChiusa, Norm Lewis, Howard McGillin, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Georgia Stitt, Brandon Uranowitz, Karen Ziemba and Chip Zien, to name a few.

Photo by Ron Fassler

Finally, Joel Grey stepped forward once again and sang the final words from “Wilkommen,” then turning upstage and with a gesture of his cane, pointed at the photo of Hal looming above the stage. The drumroll rose in strength and volume — and that was it. The stage dimmed to near darkness, the ghost light was brought back out… and the applause lasted for four minutes. Everyone there didn’t want it to end, didn’t want to leave. We just stood at our seats applauding an empty stage.

Significantly, we all wanted to give Hal Prince one final bow; one last round of applause.

And so we did.

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