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Producer,Tony winner visits SMC

Sarah Mervosh | Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hal Prince, winner of 21 Tony Awards and producer and director of over 50 musicals, including West Side Story, Phantom of the Opera and Fiddler on the Roof, spoke at Saint Mary’s College Tuesday about his “lucky” career and how the theater industry has changed.

From the time he was 8 years old and saw his first play, Prince “was addicted to the whole habit of going to theater” and right out of college he got his first job in the theater business at the age of 20.

“I was too scared to look for a job, so I wrote a letter,” he said. The letter, which he wrote to George Abbott, read, “I do not know what I could do to earn $25 a week … so I would like to work for you for nothing. And if you can tell by my performance that you aren’t paying me, please fire me.”

That letter sparked Abbott’s interest, and Prince was hired to work as an assistant stage manager for no pay for the first six months.

“I was energetic, incredibly ambitious and I think probably a painful presence to people in the office,” he said of his younger self.

Prince actually had to write the words “Watch it!” on the top of his note pad every day at work to remind himself to keep his energy under control, and “to get me through the day.”

Prince eventually went on to direct his own musicals, but “knew that I had yet to express my own voice, and my own voice was pretty dark.”

After going to Russia for vacation, Prince was introduced to a more “flamboyant” style that helped him come into his own as a director.

“Seeing a curtain of light that was used instead of a curtain … was something that I never dreamed could happen,” Prince said, adding that the use of smoke and dynamic, rough scene changes also spoke to him.

“I saw the show and thought, yes, there is a lesson in all of this. You’ve got to get back to you,” Prince said. “I found a voice.”

“You might think that it’s all been gravy, but it hasn’t,” Prince said. “There’ve been long dry patches in my lifetime … but I’ve outlasted it.”

Prince said a key component in his success as a producer and director has been luck.

“What I’ve described to you is a very lucky life,” the 81-year-old Prince said. “It’s very lucky to be born when you were born. I’m glad that I lived when I lived.”

Prince said he was fortunate to be introduced good values.

“It’s lucky to be exposed to values, to the right education and to know to take advantage of that education,” he said. “The luck of a chance meeting, networking … the luck of being able to see luck when it’s staring you in the face.”

Prince also commented on how times have changed in the theater business due to its high cost and commercialism.

Instead of funding new shows, the industry revives old ones, he said.

Despite his numerous successful shows, “I’m certain that not one of those shows could raise the necessary funding to be produced today,” he said. “It’s easy to revive something that you wouldn’t put on in the first place, which is a very painful irony.”

However, Prince said economic change might end up being beneficial.

“We need to have a moment to go back and think what made the theater what it was at its best,” Prince said. And due to the economic change, “that’s happening right now.”

However, he said his work with young people has taught him that the upcoming generation is “ambitious, disciplined, excited and scared, as they should be, of the future.”

Prince ended on a serious note, however.

“I really do feel privileged to be born in an earlier time,” Prince said. “What I dearly hope is that we can relive that again. You can argue with me if you want, but it’s how I feel. It’s passionate. I really feel it.”