The director whistles a different tune Theater: In 'Whistle Down the Wind,' Harold Prince brings his touch for the first time to the topic of religion.

December 01, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Director Harold Prince has a penchant for not repeating himself.

And now he's at it again.

"I've never done anything like this. It's what gets me going," he says of the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, "Whistle Down the Wind," which begins previews Friday at Washington's National Theatre before an April 17 Broadway opening.

"Whistle Down the Wind" is the third Lloyd Webber musical Prince has directed. The others -- "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera" -- garnered two of his record 20 Tony Awards.

But what sets this latest show apart is that it deals with a new subject for Prince -- religion. Based on a 1961 British movie and 1958 novel of the same name, the musical tells the story of three children who discover a stranger they believe to be Jesus Christ.

A week ago, the cast rehearsed on the set for the first time. In the early afternoon, only the main three child actors were on stage, but the orchestra section of the National looked more like mission control at NASA than a theater. On top of the seats, a half-dozen tables were loaded down with as many as three computer terminals apiece. Manning these stations were the show's lighting, sound and set designers, the stage manager, director and their staffs -- many of whom were busy talking into telephones or headsets.

The field commander of this space-age theatrical maneuver was Prince -- a trim, white-bearded, 68-year-old man with a baseball cap on his head, whistle around his neck and wireless microphone in his hand. Whether objecting to a sound effect that sounded like a train instead of a chiming clock or affectionately addressing one of the children as "darling," there was no question that: 1) he brooked no nonsense; 2) he knew what he wanted; and 3) he was going to get it.

"He has a great knack for seeing the big picture before any of us see it. He sees the piece as a whole in his head, and he knows exactly what it should look like and what it should say and where it should go before we start," says Davis Gaines. Gaines, who plays the stranger, has worked with Prince before: He holds the record for the most performances in the title role of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Yet Prince claims that not until he turned 60 did he allow himself to admit, "You really know what you're doing." It's a surprising statement coming from a man who exudes self-confidence, a man who produced his first show, "The Pajama Game," in 1954 and directed his first play, a New York State Arts Council production of "The Matchmaker" (for Baltimore-born producer T. Edward Hambleton), in 1962.

Not that some of his subsequent shows haven't flopped, among them "Grind" and "Roza," both of which played pre-Broadway runs in Baltimore in the mid-1980s. But with producing and/or directing credits including such landmark shows as "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Sweeney Todd" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," he has had a greater influence on the American musical than any other living director.

Central issue

Though the theme of "Whistle Down the Wind" may be new to Prince, he describes it as "an issue which is central right now to our thinking, which is spirituality, vis-a-vis organized religion."

A year and a half ago, when Lloyd Webber gave him a videotape of a workshop production of "Whistle Down the Wind," Prince recalls religion suddenly cropping up on the covers of national magazines. Since then, the subject has captured the attention of television viewers with programs such as Bill Moyers' PBS series on the book of Genesis.

That was part of the appeal for Prince. Another part was that Lloyd Webber and his collaborators -- Patricia Knop, with whom the composer co-wrote the book, and lyricist Jim Steinman -- moved the setting from northern England to rural Louisiana in the 1950s.

Initially, Lloyd Webber, Knop and Steinman planned to make "Whistle Down the Wind" a movie musical. But after the #i workshop, a number of the composer's friends told him it belonged on stage. When Prince watched the videotape, he agreed. He also was struck by the composer's use of a more traditional American book-musical format, instead of the operatic, through-composed structure of most of Lloyd Webber's shows.

The traditional American musical format is one reason Prince feels the show is well-suited to make its world premiere in the United States -- Lloyd Webber's first U.S. premiere since "Jesus Christ Superstar" 25 years ago. The Louisiana setting is an even more obvious reason, and has given Lloyd Webber the opportunity to create a score influenced by gospel music, country and rock and roll.

The Louisiana setting was also "a big inducement" for Prince as a director. Textually, it offers a range of religious denominations stretching from Southern Baptist to snake handling. Inherent in the latter is the sense of danger Prince believes is crucial to the production. He acknowledges that this dark sensibility is the one element "Whistle Down the Wind" shares with much of his earlier work.

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