Hal Prince: ‘Phantom’ fading because Las Vegas audiences won’t open the ‘book’

Hal Prince, director of “Phantom — the Las Vegas Spectacular” at the Venetian, on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Phantom's Fifth Anniversary at The Venetian

Hal Prince, director of "Phantom -- the Las Vegas Spectacular" at the Venetian, on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.

Six years ago nearly to the day, Hal Prince was in the same place, in spirit and in fact: Seated under a glorious chandelier in a multimillion-dollar theater at the Venetian, talking about the grandeur of “Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular.”

“I remember being in here before, before it all started, and everyone was wondering if we’d be open in time,” Prince said earlier this month during what would be a send-off interview about the closing of the amped-up musical, which opened in June 2006. “We had people from Cirque in here, looking around at the theater, and the painting along the walls wasn’t finished yet. They were very skeptical that we would be ready to open.

“But we were, and the show was great, from beginning to end.”

A man who has won a record 21 Tony Awards spanning six decades and has been consistently represented on Broadway since 1954, Prince was in town to check on “Phantom” a couple of weeks ago. The show famously was refitted to 90 minutes for Las Vegas. The intermission and a few scenes built to allow for set changes were lopped, but all of the show’s universally familiar music was spared.

The musical survived six years on the Strip, keeping afloat as union contracts were reworked to keep quality high and the show onstage. But high production costs finally led to the closing of “Phantom,” announced in January. The final show is Sunday. The headliners stepping in, temporarily, are Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, whose “Soul2Soul” show runs from December through April.

Following are highlights of the interview with the 84-year-old Prince of Broadway:

Johnny Kats: How does it feel to be here now, talking about the show closing?

Hal Prince: I am sad for all of the people in the show, the cast and the crew. This was a great show. A great show. But it had run its course.

J.K.: The show, and the theater, was built to last indefinitely, longer than six years. Why did it not play longer?

H.P.: That would be a question for (Base Entertainment CEO) Scott Zeiger to answer.

J.K. His answer has been that this is a very expensive show to maintain and it’s time to make a change.

H.P. Then that is the answer, but I believe we could have stayed on and been financially feasible. That’s just my own belief. But I also think this is not a good time in Las Vegas for “book” shows … You have to remember, when we opened in 2006, there was all this talk about Las Vegas being Broadway West, which turned out not to be true.

J.K.: By that, you mean a place where you could see shows with a lot of scripted dialogue, right?

H.P. Yes. There have been some “book” shows that have worked here. “Mamma Mia!” (which ran for six years at Mandalay Bay) was a “book” show, though it doesn’t have much of a story. But the climate here is that those types of shows are a hard sell, for a lot of reasons. I think the international audience has a tough time with those types of shows.

J.K. I want to ask you about something you said, or wrote, actually, to the cast of “Phantom” that was posted backstage.

H.P. (Chuckling) I hope it wasn’t something that got me into trouble.

J.K. It was the note to the cast, where you said, and this is the full note: “Just heard that Scott Zeiger announced the end of our 6 ½-year run — what a run! Now, of course, if you were swinging from the rafters and jumping through fire, we might’ve been able to add a few more years, but what you accomplished was tremendous and unique for a Las Vegas audience. Congratulations to you all and I hope to see you before the closing.” That raised some eyebrows around Las Vegas, especially from Cirque du Soleil people, who thought it was a slap at their form of entertainment.

H.P. Oh, not at all. Not at all. I was not trying to be negative. It was just an honest message. The city has changed. Look, I love what Cirque does, I honestly do. When we opened “Phantom,” I went to see “KA,” and was flabbergasted, just flabbergasted. What I said was not a slap at anyone but just me talking about the reality of what was happening here in Las Vegas. I did not mean for it to be negative.

J.K. Have you had a chance to visit the Smith Center for the Performing Arts yet?

H.P. The what? There is a performing arts center here? You are telling me something I don’t know.

J.K. Yes. It opened in March, and there are touring Broadway shows that are staged there and a lot of other diverse programming. I’m going to “La Cage” tonight.

H.P. So this sounds like the performing arts center in Miami, where I live. That is wonderful news. I am very glad to know this. It is a great step for the city.

J.K. Will you ever bring another show to Las Vegas?

H.P. I don’t know. I have a musical I’m working on with Susan Stroman, kind of a collection of all the things I’ve done (called “Prince of Broadway”) that opens next year. I’ve been coming to Las Vegas since 1955 (when Prince produced a version of "The Pajama Game" at the Riviera) and have seen many shows here. I saw Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra and all the guys. I’ve seen Celine (at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace), and I thought she was just wonderful, and Cirque, as well. There is so much entertainment. I’ll just say you never say never.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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