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One On 1: Hal Prince Celebrates Extended Run

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His given name is Harold, but for 55 years, everyone in the New York theater world and beyond has known him as Hal Prince, a name connected to some of the most successful and acclaimed shows in Broadway history. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One on 1" report.

How passionate is Hal Prince about the theater? When he got back to New York after two years in the army, his first stop wasn't his home, but a Broadway theater to see a producer.

Hal Prince: I called my parents and said 'I'm going to detour before I go home' and I went to the Cort Theater with a big bag with clothes in it.

Budd Mishkin: You went to the theater before going to see your folks coming out of the Army and they spoke to you again?

Hal Prince: You're darn right. Oh they forgave me.

Hal Prince has directed or produced many of the most famous shows in the history of the American theater -- "The Pajama Game," "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret," "Sweeney Todd," "The Phantom of the Opera" and many more.

Prince is scheduled to return to Broadway this year with a new musical, "Paradise Found." He's won 21 Tony Awards, more than anyone else. The passion is still there as are the nerves.

"It usually comes right before I go into rehearsal. 'Oh, I think I have Hepatitis!' Well, I've never had Hepatitis in my life," says Prince.

For much of his career, Prince was involved with a show per year, virtually impossible now, he says, because of production costs and the number of funders required -- producers in name only.


"There are 20, 25 names above the title of a show with three actors in it. Presented by 25 people, and you'll get to see three actors on the stage. And that's a very bad, bad system. And it also eliminated a lot of creative producers," says Prince. "Now, the price of everything is so high that you have to know people who'll put a million dollars in. And I knew people who would put $500 dollars in."

Prince says the cost of putting on a show now has created a paradox.
Many of his old shows are being revived, but he thinks if they were new shows, they would never make it to the stage.

"Given the intelligence of where the money is coming from. Who wants to do a show about a strike in a pajama factory? Who wants to do show about Nazis?" asks Prince.

Prince's Rockefeller Center office is a virtual theater museum.

Budd Mishkin: You have posters of a lot of the plays and musicals outside and in here too but, I can't help but notice that "Follies" takes up a pretty good part of the wall here. Is that coincidence?

Hal Prince: It's one of my favorite shows, by far. It's very dense, beautifully written.

The 1971 show "Follies" won numerous Tony's, including Prince for Best Director. It ran for almost two years on Broadway but still lost money, leading to a piece of advice from his wife Judy that still resonates with him.

"She said, 'You've got to see the difference between success and failure and hit and flop. Some of your hits have not been so damn good, and some of your successes have been really good. Hang onto that,'" recalls Prince.

Hal Prince has had such a long and storied career that it's not easy getting a prime spot on his wall.


Budd Mishkin: You have all of these pictures of presidents and such you stuck the Queen [of England] in the corner?

Hal Prince: Well, yeah.

Budd Mishkin: That's pretty good when you say 'I have so many I gotta stick the Queen in the corner.'

Prince says his parents took him to the theater every Saturday, providing an escape for a shy but imaginative kid.

"I was entering a phase in my life from which I did not come out for a very long time, of living more with my imagination, which seemed much more real than the real world," recalls Prince.

When Prince turned 14, the real world turned all too real.

"I was very neurotic. I had little nervous breakdown, sorta, don't know why I'm so shy of saying it, but it was and it lasted a summer and then I pulled out of it a different person," says Prince.

Prince says he came out of it, in part, because he created a role -- himself.

"I always thought when I was 18, you're a phony, you're some person who is acting out a person. Then I realized I recreated that person for so long, I am that person," says Prince.

When he went to an agent's office to try to get his first directing job at the age of 20, he created something else -- experience on his resume.

"I had a resume of all the plays I'd wished I'd directed and all the theaters that were so far away or not even existent," recalls Prince. "And he looked at my resume quickly and he said, 'You won't believe what happened!' to whoever's on the phone. 'A brilliant young director who I've heard a lot about' -- it's exactly "The Producers" -- 'has just come in my office, and he's looking to work this summer."

Prince got the job.

Budd Mishkin: You were quoted as saying you were an abrasive kid.

Hal Prince: I was a pain in the ass and I worked for George Abbot. Then I got drafted into the Korean War. I never went to Korea, I went to Germany. Those two years did much as I hated the Army, when I came back I was tempered."


After early success in "The Pajama Game" and "Damn Yankees," Prince first worked with Steven Sondheim on "West Side Story" in 1957.

The collaboration resumed in 1970, with a series of award winning shows, including "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music" and "Sweeney Todd."

In 1981, "Merrily We Roll Along" closed after 16 performances, and the two didn't work together again for two decades.

"Expectations run too high. You do nine years and eight hits and every year a Tony and people start to go. 'Oh them again.' And then you see a picture in Time magazine that says 'The Hope of the Theater,' and you flop right on your face," says Prince.

After the success of the 1970s came a decade of closed curtains.

"I did 8 shows in the 80s -- eight shows that flopped, one right after the other," recalls Prince.

Budd Mishkin: Are there more lessons learned from the things that didn't turn out well as opposed to those that did?

Hal Prince: Sure, absolutely. When you muck up a show, you learn much more. Usually, it's about being persuaded by people to do things you don't wanna do.

Prince rebounded, thanks in part to the vast success of "The Phantom of the Opera."

At 82, he's still going, bringing the show "Paradise Found" first to London and then to Broadway later this year. And there is still the combination of nerves and confidence he first experienced almost 60 years ago.

"It's a psychological thing, it's a sink-or-swim thing," says Prince. "I had to do it. It was my life. And I had to be able to do it. I don't know what I would've done if I hadn't lived the life I'm living now."

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