NEW YORK — When choreographer Susan Stroman got a call from director Harold Prince asking her if she'd be interested in working on his new production of "Show Boat," she was certain she heard him wrong.
"I thought I misunderstood the name of the show," Stroman says. "Everybody else does Harold Prince revivals."
But she heard him right. Prince, the man who produced the likes of "West Side Story" and "Fiddler on the Roof," and directed such shows as "Evita," "Sweeney Todd" and "The Phantom of the Opera," had decided to revive a classic, not create one.
Aside from his 25th-anniversary re-creation of his own show "Cabaret," "Show Boat" is, in fact, Prince's first musical revival. Or sort-of revival. Weaving chunks of "Show Boat's" many stage and film versions together with his own vision, Prince has come up with a show that is quite different from what Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern sent to Broadway in 1927.
With its serious themes of black-white relations, family and, well, show business, "Show Boat" is generally considered the first contemporary musical. Its memorable score is loaded with songs like "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "Ol' Man River" and "Why Do I Love You?"
But for Prince, it was also a personal link to the past. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for 'Show Boat,' " the director says. "The kind of theater I chose to be involved in is completely a direct reflection of what 'Show Boat' made possible."
That kind of theater includes 40 years' worth of musicals, from "The Pajama Game" in 1954 to last year's Tony winner, "Kiss of the Spider Woman." His stage pictures, which have influenced everyone from the late Michael Bennett to Peter Sellars, have brought the flow of cinema to the stage and made casts of dozens look like casts of thousands.
His Rockefeller Center offices chronicle a life in the theater. His 19 Tony Awards are crammed together on top of one cabinet, adjacent to a wall full of photographs of Prince with composers, Presidents and royalty. Other walls are covered with framed telegrams, musical scores, set designs and other mementos of a theatrical legend who, at 66, shows no signs at all of slowing down.
Now comes "Show Boat," an $8.5-million extravaganza with a cast of 73 and a top ticket price of $75, a Broadway record. After a year in Toronto, where another production is still running, "Show Boat" last Sunday joined Prince's "Phantom" and "Kiss" on Broadway. And among the excellent reviews was the New York Times' commentary that Prince is "still the undisputed master of the Broadway musical."
Prince, a warm, thoughtful man whose casual dress belies his seriousness, admits to feeling "mellower," and why shouldn't he? Things are going very well. He just learned he will receive a Kennedy Center Honor, he's soon off to Buenos Aires to direct "Madama Butterfly," he's directing the new musical "The Petrified Prince" Off-Broadway in December and his beloved "Show Boat" is finally playing New York.
But the commercial theater is not what it used to be, and Prince's lingering message is that few other people in the theater enjoy such luxuries of production time and money. With "Show Boat," he hooked up at the right time with Toronto impresario Garth Drabinsky, chairman of Live Entertainment of Canada, and the man who also saved Prince's "Kiss of the Spider Woman" from oblivion.
" 'Show Boat' is a very large and very expensive investment," says Prince. "But nothing artistically has been compromised."
It is the day before previews start, rehearsals are under way and Prince is sitting on the aisle in the nearly-empty Gershwin Theatre. Leaning back in his seat, he looks pleased, almost relaxed. For about 40 seconds.
Everybody wants his attention, from choreographer Stroman to producer Drabinsky to stage managers, actors and lighting people. "It's the home stretch," he apologizes before rushing off.
Most of the cast, including all of the principals, played in the Toronto production of the show, but there are 18 new people in the New York cast and a brand-new set. There are 500 costumes, and so many people backstage changing clothes at any given time that they have to use the freight elevator as a dressing room.
Prince is everywhere. A blond wig doesn't look right. Moving a major prop requires some new staging. And, he tells an assistant, "I'm sorry to make a lot of trouble, but that's a conventional little signboard (onstage) when we had something wonderful before."
You can be sure there was a better signboard onstage that night. "When Hal leaps up out of his chair, everybody stops in his tracks," Stroman says later. "There's an incredible want to please him. Hal is walking history, and he's a star in the theater community."