The masquerade scene from The Phantom of the Opera, which comes to Louisville this week for a three-week stand. Below: Jason Mills as the Phantom and Sara Jean Ford as Christine. Both copyrighted photos by Joan Marcus and courtesy of the Louisville Broadway series.
This is a full transcript of an edited interview that ran in today's Herald (ha, I nearly wrote Harold) Leader:
There are numerous credits in Harold Prince’s 57-year Broadway career as a producer and director that would be impressive on their own.
Prince’s directing turns include the original productions of Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and last year’s Kurt Weill show LoveMusik. But he still has his hands in Phantom of the Opera, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that now holds distinctions such as being the longest running show on Broadway and grossing $3.3 billion worldwide, which Lloyd Webber’s company claims makes it the most financially successful entertainment enterprise of the 20th Century. Later this month, Phantom will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Broadway.
The show’s United States tour, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, sits down in Louisville this week for a three-week run. That gave us a chance to get on the phone with Prince, 79, to discuss this most successful endeavor.
Harold Prince (photo, right): No, I don’t think anyone ever dreams that something like this will happen to them. Why would you? I just thought, “I would like to do that.’ It’s a romantic musical and I haven’t seen a romantic musical in decades. So, I said yes, right away.
It was interesting. I was in London, at a restaurant, sitting at one table, and sitting at another was Andrew with Sarah Brightman, his then wife. I was sitting by myself, and he said, ‘Come have coffee with us.’ It was the Le Caprice Restaurant. And I went over, and he said, ‘I’ve been thinking of something and I want to run it by you: What do you think of a musical version of Phantom of the Opera?’ And I said, ‘Do it,’ and he said, ‘Will you?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Why were you so instant? That’s not like you,’ and I said, ‘because I’m desperate to see a romantic musical, and I think everyone else must be.’
You know, musical and romance should be rather usual currency. But they’re not. The last totally romantic musical I had seen was South Pacific in 1949.
So we did it, and we did it for the same reason: assuming that people would like to lose themselves in a romantic musical and lose themselves in an atmosphere that does not reflect what’s out on the street or their personal lives.
Q: Why had Broadway and the West End gotten so far away from romantic musicals?
A: I really don’t know. It’s so odd, it hadn’t occurred to me. I guess you could say My Fair Lady was a romantic musical in so far as at the end he says, ‘Liza, bring me my slippers.’ But that’s not conventional romance. I don’t really know. Musicals were usually peppy, they started out romantic but peppy. But let’s face it, South Pacific is a really intense love story, beginning to end, and this turns out to be one as well. Audiences seem to want that very much.
It will be 20 years old on the 26th of January, and no one has emulated it since then.
But you look at operettas and operas, like Puccini, and those were hugely romantic pieces, so it’s just an odd turn musicals took.
Q: When Mr. Lloyd Webber approached you, had he written anything yet?
A: I think this was just an idea turning in his head. I think he had read the novel, and I in turn read the novel (by Gaston Leroux), and the novel was hugely influential to us, more influential than any other source. The Phantom in the Lon Chaney movie, which is wonderful, is so grotesque, that it’s never romantic. The book is very romantic, and has a lot of stuff we incorporated in the show: mythic, folkloric, metaphysical stuff from the Scandinavian countries, which we took out and used in the dressing room scene and referred to in other places.
Q: In making the Phantom a romantic character, how did you and Michael Crawford work on that?
A: It was all written before Michael came in, but it was very easy, and Michael turned out to be a wonderful actor and a great singer. Andrew gets credit for thinking of him. He called me from London and said, ‘Come on over, I think I know who can play this part.’ And I flew over, and went into his office, and there was Crawford. He sang and I learned that he was a child soloist in a choir, and he had a really rooted musical education as a singer. So, though he had been playing comedy and light comedy and dancing and all of that stuff, he hadn’t used what he started with early in life.
Q: Two years ago, Phantom surpassed Cats, which is also by Mr. Lloyd Webber, as the longest-running show on Broadway. You’ve worked with so many great composers, what is it that he gets and an audience gets from him that they obviously like so much?
A: He writes hugely soaring romantic music or tunes that work very well in theatrical terms on the stage and sometimes become popular. I also directed Evita, and that’s really the Cinderella story, because it’s really not the same kind of musical. It’s agitprop, spiky musical, but it did unbelievably well. He is a theatrical man. Put it that way. He really understands theater, loves theater, and on those two projects we had a wonderful time.
Q: What is your involvement in productions now, such as the tour that is coming to Louisville?
A: I keep an eye on all of them. The leading man in the production you’re going to be seeing is somebody that I’ve been nurturing. His name is Jason Mills. We have a process with this show where someone comes into the company and moves up. He’s moved up from the juvenile to the lead. When I heard he was going on in the show, I went to see him and thought, ‘Oh, my God, he’s a winner,’ and we bumped him up to the Phantom, and he’s still a winner. Christine (Sara Jean Ford) I know, and Rebecca Judd, who plays Madam Giry has played it before, often and well.
The reason the show seems to have these legs is a great deal
of attention is paid to all the companies. I pay attention, and
there’s a resident director, in the case of this production, Peter von
Meyerhausen, who is wonderful. You honor the rare occasion where you
have a show of this success. You have to.
I used to be a producer, and I never could get my directors to come back to see shows and rehearse them. And I knew that if I ever became a successful director that I would pay a great deal of attention to the productions, and I have. Because I live in New York, I rehearse that one more than any other, perhaps four times a year. But I catch up with all these productions, and I’ve seen all of the leads in the shows and given them notes, recently.
You have to keep an eye on these things and be selfish about it. There was a time when productions went on the road, back in the 40s, and they were pale imitations of what was on Broadway. We have discovered that the road is perhaps more important than Broadway to us. Broadway is our window on the world, but the touring companies are intrinsically what make a show very successful.
There’s an audience that has been appropriately trained to demand quality. They want the show to be the show that’s up in New York. Though the show tours and we have to get it in and out of theaters quickly, we go to great lengths to make sure it’s exactly the show that’s in New York. It just gets delivered differently. You can’t quite make the holes in the floor that are permanent in New York. But you find ways to circumvent that, and it works.
Q: Do have a consciousness that with the tours and the 20 years on Broadway that now a whole new generation is coming to Phantom?
A: I think that’s what’s keeping it so strong. The fact that we are 20 years old and 22 years old in London is because a whole new generation has come to it. Their parents are bringing them. I’m bringing my grandchildren. And it seems to have a real pull.
How long will it run? Your guess is as good as mine.