Through the love of two people — my wife, Vickee and my best friend, Bob — I was honored to spend an hour in September with one of the greatest theatre minds of the past 100 years, Mr. Hal Prince. Mr. Prince has 21 Tony Awards for shows including Pajama Game, Damn Yankees (giving a break to a young choreographer named Bob Fosse), Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. In collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, he directed and created the award-winning Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd. With Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, he won Tonys for Evita and Phantom of the Opera. In total he has 36 major theatre awards and was nominated for 23 more.
At 10:30 on a beautiful September morning in NYC, we (Vickee and my daughter, Maggie, also) left the hotel and walked the few blocks to 10 Rockefeller Plaza, arrived way too early and decided to sit and have some coffee to fill the time. Looking into Rockefeller Plaza is always exhilarating. We then walked across the street and got our security badges and rode up to the eleventh floor. I’m always amazed at how narrow the halls are in these pre-WWII skyscrapers. We walked into the equally narrow entrance corridor of the office, filled ceiling to waist with posters and pictures from 64 years of theatre life. As we moved past them, the whispered conversation was “Saw it,” “Directed it,” “Was in it,” and “Would love to do that.” There were two chairs where Vickee and Maggie sat while we waited. We could hear busy voices from the offices down the hall to the left, and I could hear Mr. Prince’s voice from inside his office on the right. After a couple of minutes, an attractive older woman came out of a side office and said, “You must be his 11:30” and we agreed we were. “I’ll let him know.” Moments later, the door to his office opened and there was Hal Prince, glasses perched on top of head, his essential look for decades.
“Hi, you must be the Spicers. I’m Hal Prince. We’ve been in a set design meeting but we thought since you all know theatre, you might find this interesting. Come in.”
Inside, the office the walls were covered with more personal pictures: Hal with Elaine Stritch, Hal with Stephen Sondheim, and Hal with everybody who is anybody who ever know anybody in theatre for the last half century. In the office were Hal’s assistant, Eric, and the set designer for the project of the day. The project was “Prince of Broadway,” a retrospective of Hal’s work throughout his career. The designer for this is Beowulf Boritt, whom I immediately recognized because he had just won the Tony for set design for his brilliant work in Act One, the life story of Moss Hart. My first thought was “why the hell isn’t J.R. Lidgett (SCT’s set designer) here for this?” I shook hands with him, and told him how magnificent those designs had been. He seemed surprised that I knew who he was.
The surprising part of the set discussion was how “old school” Boritt’s technology was. Cardboard cutouts for the proscenium walls, with similar inserts for legs. The actors were represented by tiny scale figures. According to J.R., this is part of the charm of Beowulf. Then the meeting was over, and Bey (as he’s known to his friends, “Wulfie” by Hal) left, but not before I got a shot of him with Maggie.
For the next hour and a half we all had a great conversation with Hal. He talked about his career and his work, how he got started, his work with Sondheim and Webber. I asked him if he deliberated turned musical theatre 90 degrees between Fiddler and Company, or did it just happen? He was given nine short stories written by George Furth to see if there was a play in them. Prince came back saying that there was a string of an idea between three of them about marriage. Out of this grew Company, a musical that changed the way musicals have been created since.
I thanked him for creating so many great pieces of work from which I could steal. He smiled and said, “All of us steal good ideas.”
I said, “Yes, but I get to steal from you.” He smiled again.
I asked him what was his method of working with such large personalities.
“Who do you mean?” he asked.
“Well, Elaine Stritch….” and he immediately began telling stories about working with her, and what a great “theatre personality” she was. Then he saddened a bit, saying that he had lost three great women in his life in the last year: Stritch, Joan Rivers, and Lauren Bacall.
Finally, our time was done. We took some pictures of the four of us (we each now have an autographed copy), thanked him and his staff for their generosity. I also have an autographed book from his office. I wonder if he’ll miss it — kidding. The first person I called upon leaving the building was J.R. I knew he would be excited to know that we got to meet Beowulf, so I also sent him the picture with Maggie.
We left and walked into the gorgeous New York afternoon, sunny and warm. We had a great lunch at the outdoor Summer Garden and Bar in the Plaza. When the ladies were away from the table, I enjoyed a moment of calm and reflection on the day so far; how great the air felt, how wonderful it was to see faces of every description in the crowd. I remembered how many shows I’ve done with the touch of Hal Prince in them. I thought of Maggie’s recent move and the adventure that will be her life. It may have been one of the few moments in my life where I felt genuine serenity. Imagine finding a moment like that in a city that presents the possibility of chaos at every corner. But there it was.
Mr. Prince is 86, in the same arena as Charles Kephart and Jack Stewart when they left. If I could sign the contract right now to get to 86 like Hal or Charles or Jack, I’d be inking it this moment.
Thank you, Bob. Thank you, Vickee. Thanks for such a great moment.