Years of living dangerously

Producer/director Harold Prince has always embraced the perils of the unknown


He likes political themes. A bit of danger. The unknown.

No wonder director Harold Prince savored the experience of staging the original production of Evita in 1978.

"I've never done a job I was more pleased with the result of and I thought we really nailed it and it was flying blind," Prince says from his office in New York's Rockefeller Center.

Considering the scads of legendary shows that the 77-year-old has produced and/or directed, his feelings about Evita run particularly deep. The record-setting 20 Tony Awards on his shelf are for productions ranging from The Pajama Game (which he produced in 1954) to the most recent Broadway revival of Show Boat (which he directed in 1994).

The stellar roster in between includes, among others, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Follies, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera and, of course, Evita, whose latest touring production, supervised by Prince, opens Tuesday at the Hippodrome Theatre.

Even when Prince's shows don't seem political, they usually are. Evita was a logical choice. The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice chronicles the controversial life of the late Eva Peron. An Argentine actress who was born impoverished and illegitimate, she married Juan Peron, becoming first lady - or some would say, co-dictator - when her husband was elected president in 1946.

For Prince, however, Evita was about more than what went on in the corridors of power in Argentina. "I did Evita originally almost 30 years ago because I was fed up with being blindsided by my government," he explains.

"I did not know what was going on, who these people were - these mythological figures in the White House. What are they really thinking and how much of that is imparted to me?" And, he adds, "It's more pertinent now."

When he was first working on the show, Prince recalls that he was advised not to travel to Argentina. More than a decade later, he was invited to stage some other productions there. One day while in Argentina working on Kiss of the Spider Woman, he was unexpectedly taken to lunch at the Casa Rosada with Carlos Menem, the country's Peronist president from 1989-1999.

"He turned to me and said, `I suspect you'd like to see the balcony,' " says Prince, referring to the balcony on which Evita's title character sings the show's most famous song, "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." Other than that, their conversation "stayed way far away from Evita," he says.

Although the balcony scene has become iconic, Prince says initially the show "was hard to figure out." Like the previous effort by Lloyd Webber and Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita was first released as a record album. To bring the album to life on stage, the director came up with what he calls a "sort of vaudeville-type" approach. The result was influenced by everything from Russian theater and German expressionism to imagery from the movie Citizen Kane.

The next Prince/Lloyd Webber collaboration turned out to be the biggest hit of either of their careers. The Phantom of the Opera will become the longest-running show in Broadway history in January. "You never think anything's going to run 20 years," he says of the musical, which opened in London in 1986 and on Broadway two years later.

For Phantom, Prince acknowledges, "I had to stretch very hard - though I'm used to stretching - to make it political." The political underpinning he found is this: "It's about human nature's response, atavistic response really, to deformity, and how unreasonable, irrational, it is, and how we can't seem to be able to let reason dominate our response. ... So that becomes political for me."

Two decades after Prince began working on Phantom, the show is again giving him a chance to try something new. A 90-minute, $35 million version of the musical opens at Las Vegas' Venetian hotel in June. "The 90-minute part is done. Andrew is back in London adjusting his music to accommodate what's been cut and seems to like the task very much," he says. "I didn't know whether I'd be looking forward to it, but I am."

The seemingly tireless director/producer also has launched the "T Fellowship" for theatrical producers, to be held at Columbia University and named in honor of one of his most influential mentors, Baltimorean T. Edward Hambleton. A pioneer of the off-Broadway movement, Hambleton gave Prince his first opportunity to direct, back in 1961, at the groundbreaking Phoenix Theatre in New York.

The Columbia program, which begins next fall, is intended to "encourage young people who can't find the huge sums of money needed to produce on Broadway, creative kids who are not directors or writers or actors but want to be creative producers," he explains.

In addition, Prince is working on two new musicals - one large and one small. The small-scale show is titled LoveMusik and uses the songs of Kurt Weill and a script by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, Parade) to tell the story of Weill's marriage to actress/singer Lotte Lenya.

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