Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hal Prince on Broadway

My wife and I headed over to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) last night to hear Broadway producer Hal Prince give a talk.

Hal Prince has produced some of the most memorable musicals on Broadway over the past half century.  Shows like West Side Story; Fiddler on the Roof; Cabaret; Evita; and The Phantom of the Opera were all produced in whole or in part by Mr. Prince.  Not surprisingly, he has won the most Tony awards (21) of anyone ever involved in theater.

Last night's talk was hosted by Stephen Terrell from Emerson College. There were also two separate musical interludes featuring students from Emerson performing some of memorable music from Mr. Prince's shows.

I always come away from these talks learning so much about what goes on "behind the scenes" in music and the arts, and last night was no exception.

Many of the musicals that Hal Prince produced have, of course, become American icons, yet at the time they were first introduced critical reaction was often less than favorable.

West Side Story, for example, features a story and music that is some of the most memorable in our culture. However, when the show was first performed in 1957 the reviews were largely negative, according to Mr. Prince. Audiences found it difficult to relate to a love story set in the Puerto Rican community in New York City, and the music written by Leonard Bernstein was too different than what audiences were used to hearing.

Mr. Prince related how he became involved in West Side Story.  The show's rehearsals had not gone well, and it lost its original backers.  Desperate for money, Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim called Prince and his partner Hal Wallis in Boston to come to New York.

It was the last chance for West Side Story.  Its unconventional story - for the late 1950's - was falling on deaf ears in the Broadway community, and had Prince and Wallis decided to not take a chance the show probably would have never seen the inside of a theater.

But as Mr. Prince related last night, he immediately loved both the music and story, and the rest is history.

This was a pattern repeated in many of Prince's shows, and moderator Terrell asked him why he seemed comfortable to challenge the conventional wisdom.

Prince said that it had always been his opinion that Broadway producers should produce what they considered quality work, and not base their decisions on what they think the public might like.

Ironically, he said that he personally did not like musicals when he was growing up.  While the music was often memorable, the stories were banal and formulaic, and as a young boy he was often bored at the theater.

So when he decided to get involved in producing Broadway shows, he was determined to make the kind of shows that he found interesting, and hope that the audiences would follow.

This, in his opinion, is no longer the case on Broadway, which is part of the problem in theater today.  Audiences are surveyed as to what they might like to see, and shows are produced accordingly.  However, using public opinion polls to make artistic decisions inevitably leads to watered-down productions.

That said, Prince said several times that finances play a critical role on Broadway.

He noted, for example, that a typical Broadway show now costs 40x what a show would cost when he first started in the business.  With so much money at stake - shows often have to run for at least a year before they become profitable for their backers - it is hard to take a chance on unconventional performances.

Naturally, because of what I do for a living, I was reminded of a paragraph written by legendary investor Benjamin Graham in his book The Intelligent Investor.

Although Graham was speaking about buying stocks - and not producing Broadway shows - it is clear to me that both Prince and Graham looked at their work in the same fashion.

Here's what Graham wrote:

If you have formed a conclusion from the facts and if you know your judgement to be sound, act on it - even though other may hesitate or differ. (You are neither right or wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right).