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[Weekly Q&A]

Broadway legend Hal Prince on ‘West Side Story’ walkouts and not worrying about entertaining the audience

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Hal Prince’s Broadway: An Evening in Word and Song arrives at the Smith Center May 14.

They tell me the Riviera is closing, says Harold “Hal” Prince over the phone. He doesn’t sound nostalgic exactly, more bemused by the grand sweep of history that he’s witnessed and, when it comes to the world of theater, greatly influenced. The 87-year-old Broadway director and producer has 21 Tony Awards to his name and credits on everything from the original production of West Side Story to Sweeney Todd to Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian.

On May 14, he’ll return to Vegas as the star of his own one-night show, a speaker series engagement at the Smith Center featuring Strip talent performing numbers from Prince’s plays. The details will be a surprise. “That’s what the theater is: an invitation to astonish an audience.”

Did you fall in love with theater as a child? Yeah, I was about 8 years old. It was Orson Welles in Julius Caesar.

Did you ever want to perform? No. I’ve never been a performer, nor ever wanted to be. I’m much too uncomfortable about that. I wanted to be part of the theater. Early on I wanted to be a playwright, and then very soon I wanted to be a director because I didn’t think I was a good enough writer.

You’ve won 21 Tony Awards, including eight for directing everything from Cabaret to Evita. What’s your greatest strength as a director? Taste is probably one of the most important things. Then I have ideas, lots of ideas, and then I have a degree of courage, so I don’t have to do things exactly as I’ve seen them before, but in fact like to do them as perhaps I’ve never seen them before. The other thing is, I learned discipline. … You show up on time and you do it like it’s a job, a creative job absolutely, but nevertheless a job. It’s not some kind of self-indulgent exercise in being “an artist.”

Do you think taste can be taught? That’s a very interesting question. I have no idea. I have no idea whether you’re born with it or whether you can be educated to it.

A number of your shows have dealt with very serious topics, like West Side Story, which you co-produced in 1957. When it first opened, it wasn’t quite the gleaming success we think of it as today. When it first opened, it didn’t win a Tony Award or anything like that. Although it did quite well and paid back its investment and made a profit, there were still a considerable number of walkouts at each performance because it was such an unusual subject for a musical.

Do you enjoy working on challenging shows? I guess the amount of joy you get from the work you’re doing is in direct connection with both how difficult it is—how challenging—and how close you get to the mark.

You also produced Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. How does a musical about such a specific demographic become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history? The whole show is about tradition. That’s why though it seems to be about an Orthodox Jewish family in Russia, it means as much to a traditional Japanese family. Any traditional family in our civilization responds to the message of tradition and family as a unit.

For a show to succeed, what does it have to do for the audience? I never think of that. I once asked [Tony-winning playwright and director] George Abbott why he did the shows he did, and he said, “To entertain.” And I have to say, that was not my priority. My priority was to stimulate, invite controversy, get people thinking and, most of all, express myself. That’s what I was interested in.

You served two years in the U.S. Army in post-World War II Germany. Did that affect your career? I was sent to Germany as a part of the Occupation troops, and I was there in Stuttgart. It was at that time that I encountered for the first time the emcee who became the main character in Cabaret in 1966. I was there in 1952; 14 years later, he was on the stage in Cabaret.

What part of the creation process do you like the most? All of it. I love working on the script beforehand. I love going into rehearsal. I really like actors very much and the company of actors, so I love working with them, and I love working with designers. In fact, I love the whole process. It’s once a show is opened that you feel a little bit like you’ve lost a close association.

How does opening night feel for you? I’m not a big opening night person. I don’t enjoy reading the reviews so much, and the reviews are often inaccurate when history finally says … The reviews that West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof got were good but not great, and those two shows have made history. So time tells. If you’re lucky enough to have a show run, nobody knows what the original opening-night reviews were.

Do you still listen to or attend musicals as entertainment, or is it work for you? When I go to a musical, I go as a member of the audience hoping to be excited by what I see.

What do you think about the current state of Broadway? I think it’s in transition. There are some things happening now that are very encouraging and indicate that there are young people working in the theater now who want it to explore new subjects in a different way and reinvent how shows are done.

Hal Prince's Broadway: An Evening in Word and Song May 14, 7:30 p.m., $24-$79. Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall, 702-749-2000.

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