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A Believer in Big Breaks

Hal Prince got his start when a producer took a chance on him. That's why he's taking a chance on young talent for '3hree.'

April 22, 2001|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is the author of "State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work" (Morrow, 2000). She is a regular contributor to Calendar

Long ago, before "West Side Story," 'Fiddler on the Roof" or "The Phantom of the Opera," 19-year-old Harold Prince wrote to legendary producer-director George Abbott seeking a job. Not only would he work for free, he wrote, but if it looked as if he was working for free, they were to fire him immediately.

Prince got the job at Abbott's office in New York's Rockefeller Center and soon took home $25 a week. By the time he was 26, he won his first Tony, for co-producing "The Pajama Game" in 1954. Nineteen Tony Awards later-and still in Rockefeller Center-it's now 73-year-old Prince who's taking the chance with promising young people.

His current bet on the future is "3hree," an evening of one-act musicals opening at the Ahmanson on Wednesday. Conceived by Prince and three teams of relative newcomers, the trio of musicals was developed in the Harold Prince Musical Theatre Program of New York's Directors Company and had its world premiere last fall at Philadelphia's Prince Music Theater. And just in case that wasn't enough of an imprimatur, Prince is directing one of the musicals himself.

"I wanted to redress the balance of what's getting done in the commercial theater and to get new musicals up on the stage," Prince says. "I think my biggest frustration is the absence of opportunity for the next generation, and this piece triples the number of people you introduce to the public in one night."

Prince joined the directing team in part to make sure "3hree" had a nice-sized budget and added publicity. The extra money, he says, made it more feasible for each show to have its own director-one of them Prince's assistant, Brad Rouse-as well as its own writers, choreography, set, costumes and overture. The result, says Prince, is "you get the sense of occasion of a single musical, only three times in one night."

The man who directed musicals about Eva Peron, South American prisons and the lynching of Leo Frank chose gentler fare this time around. "3hree" sets to music the stories of an exterminator's illicit love affair ('The Mice"), a Southern belle's ghost story ('Lavender Girl") and a New Jersey guy's determination to send his Wal-Mart lawn chair and himself skyward ('The Flight of the Lawnchair Man").

At a recent rehearsal for the Ahmanson production, Prince is lit with enthusiasm. He applauds, laughs out loud, dictates notes. Be more irritated, he tells one actor. Rougher. Be more casual, he tells another. Don't think so much. But after nearly every criticism he tosses off a line like, "Hey, guys, it's just great."

Prince's enthusiasm persists whether he's speaking about his conductor son, Charley, and director daughter, Daisy, or lavishing praise on such "3hree" family members as lighting designer Howell Binkley and the nine actors playing more than 30 parts. He cares about every one of them and takes pride in their work.

Prince's frequent collaborator Stephen Sondheim has referred to him as "one of the very few champions of new work in the commercial theater," and it's something he's done since he first started as a producer back in the '50s. His first hit, "Pajama Game," launched the composing team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, in addition to choreographer Bob Fosse. The pattern continued through Sondheim on "West Side Story" in 1957, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick on "She Loves Me" in 1963 and John Kander and Fred Ebb on "Flora, the Red Menace" in 1965.

"I don't know anybody with the consistent track record of Hal Prince in terms of giving young people their break," Ebb says. "Looking back, Hal more or less invented us. Johnny had an unsuccessful show on Broadway, and I had an unsuccessful show off-Broadway, and he gave us a chance to write an unsuccessful show on Broadway together-'Flora.' With that kind of theatrical history behind you, you have to believe that nobody would ever hire you again, but Hal put the lie to that by offering us 'Cabaret.' I very much feel that without Hal, we might never have been hired again."

Years later, Prince saw choreographer-director Susan Stroman's work at a tiny off-off-Broadway house in 1987, then asked her to choreograph "Don Giovanni," the opera he was about to direct. He saw playwright Edward Gallardo's work at the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre, then gave him a shot writing 1994's "The Petrified Prince."

Stroman says one never knows where Prince will turn up, and these days his reach is extended by his children, who often funnel new talent his way. John Bucchino, one of the composers of "3hree," was introduced to him by daughter Daisy, who sang a song on Bucchino's album, "Grateful-The Songs of John Bucchino." So were Michael John LaChiusa, who wrote music and lyrics for "Petrified Prince," and Jason Robert Brown, the composer-lyricist Prince hired for 1998's "Parade."

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