Skip to main content

Reissues of Great Cast Albums.

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews original cast albums of Broadway musicals that have just been reissued. They include “Finian’s Rainbow,” “The Pajama Game,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Kismit” (all on Sony) and “Guys and Dolls” (on Decca).



Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on October 30, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 30, 2000: Interview with Frank Rich; Review of cast albums of Broadway musicals; Interview with Harold Prince.


DATE October 30, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Frank Rich of The New York Times discusses his new
memoir "Ghost Light"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Real life never quite measured up to life in the theater when Frank Rich was
young. He did his best to spend as much time in the theater as possible. He
got only deeper into theater as he got older. From 1980 to '93, he was the
chief drama critic for The New York Times. Since 1994, he's written an op-ed
column that usually focuses on the intersection of culture and politics. Now
he's written a memoir about how he fell in love with theater. It's called
"Ghost Light." A ghost light is a single light left burning in center stage
when a theater is empty. The source of the term is a superstition that a
ghost will move in if the theater is left completely dark.

Rich grew up in suburban Washington, DC. On his first trip to Broadway, he
felt that was where he was meant to be.

Mr. FRANK RICH (Author, "Ghost Light"): "Bells Are Ringing" was the first
time I came to New York, the first show I actually saw on Broadway at the
Schubert Theater. And I--by that point, I had already been fantasizing about
New York and Broadway and the theater for two or three years. I had been
really hooked into it. And I felt adrift in where I actually lived, which was
a very provincial suburbia and then Washington, DC, of the 1950s, late-1950s.
And somehow, this place with all this activity, all this excitement, all this
show business, as well, just seemed to me a place I wanted to inhabit.

I also, as a kid, had tremendous problems with insomnia. And I loved the idea
of New York as a place unlike Washington, where they didn't roll up the
sidewalks at night and where there was lights, there was action and, of
course, there was theater.

GROSS: Was that comforting in a way, that, you know, everything wasn't
expected to be calm and quiet and peaceful and sleepy at night? There was
tumult. There were other people who were awake or probably other people who
couldn't sleep.

Mr. RICH: Totally. I felt a sense of community with these strangers. I felt
just watching people walk at fast pace in midtown Manhattan, watching all the
dazzlement of Broadway, I felt there are other people like me. It's--I was
sort of a--not a terribly happy kid, and I was sort of a lonely kid. And I
felt, `Gee, there are all these people, some of them young, some of them old,
who share my passions and share the kind of life that I sort of fantasized of
having, and never having to go to sleep at a certain time, of being able to go
to a show every night, listen to a record whenever I wanted to or just go out
on the street and find some excitement.'

GROSS: You've basically said that theater was, you know, an escape from
reality and also a place where you could find solace from some of the things
that were really disturbing to you as a child. What were some of the problems
you were experiencing in your personal life?

Mr. RICH: Well, I--my parents got divorced when I was about seven years
old--separated and then divorced. And it's hard for people to remember this
now who weren't alive then, but divorce--never a great experience for anyone
involved, including a child--was, in those days, something just not talked
about. It was closeted. It was something people talked about in a whisper as
if it were a cancer. I knew no other children my age whose parents were
divorced. It was painful.

And it was also scary in the sense that--again, this seems like, you know, 200
years ago rather than just 40 years ago--but parents didn't really tell their
children what was going on. So there was this sense that you never knew what
was going to happen to you next. You knew you were in this broken home. You
knew you might have to keep moving and change schools, which I had to do. You
didn't even know that your parents might remarry, which in my case, both my
parents did. So that was really, really a hard thing to deal with.

And another part of it was--had to do with the culture. I watched TV. I was
part of the first TV generation. And like most kids, I watched, you know,
"Father Knows Best" and "Leave It To Beaver" and "I Love Lucy," "The
Honeymooners," all those great shows. But you never saw divorce on them,
either. You only saw happily married couples with happy children. So you
felt a real estrangement from everything, both from the world you inhabited
and even from the fictional world you watched every night on TV. So somehow,
I sort of saw the theater as a place where maybe a kind of non-conformity and
a kind of unhappiness would be accepted and, perhaps, you know, ameliorated in
some way.

GROSS: Well, as you point out in your memoir, even mainstream shows like
"Damn Yankees," there's a marriage that's falling apart; "The Music Man," the
little boy's growing up without a father. That really moved you.

Mr. RICH: It really did. And I--you know, at the time, I realize it now and,
of course, write about it in this book. But at the time, it was happening
almost at a subconscious level. In retrospect, when I look back on it and was
writing this book, it was fascinating to me that--and exactly as you
say--these shows we think of as sort of jolly American musicals of the Golden
Age really have this kind of dysfunctional family thing going on, parents
separated from children.

Look at a show like "Carousel," a teen-age girl growing up whose father is a
suicide and who wants to run away from home. All this stuff spoke to me, and
it was the one place I could find it. I couldn't find it in TV. I couldn't
find it, you know, Doris Day-Rock Hudson movies or whatever else was around
then. So I just gravitated toward it. And "The Music Man" is a great example
because we think of that as being the sunny, "Seventy-Six Trombones"
all-American musical. But what's going on there? There's a boy without a
father. It's never explained. The surrogate father comes to town, this sort
of--basically, a bunkum artist. And in some ways, I realize in retrospect
that paralleled my own household situation.

GROSS: Frank Rich is my guest. He has a new memoir about his early love of
theater called "Ghost Light."

During this period when you were discovering theater, you were also having
trouble sleeping. There were fears, I think, that surfaced at night. You had
insomnia. Would you describe some of your memories of what it's like to be a
kid who can't sleep?

Mr. RICH: To be a kid who can't sleep is, I'd say, even all these years
later, the most terrifying thing I've ever known in my life. It is--you don't
know where it's coming from. You don't know what it's about, and particularly
in the time I went through it when things like psychoanalysis or therapy were
not that common and none of it was offered to me. In any event, you're
completely in the dark. And I just remember--and I can still, almost like a
`sense memory' as they say in acting, put my finger on the feelings of extreme
anxiety and fear.

I think, in retrospect, I do know what caused a lot of it. And really, it was
a sense that something was happening to me that I had no control of and didn't
even know the details of because I knew that there was something unusual in
the fact that my parents broke up. I knew there something unusual in the fact
that I kept switching elementary schools. But I didn't have the big picture.
I didn't have the capability to understand the big picture even if I had had
it. So it was just this kind of abject terror of tossing and tossing and

GROSS: Did you have any friends at school who shared your interest in

Mr. RICH: I had a few friends who shared some of the interest in theater, not
with the intensity that I had. But at that time to be sort of a middle-class
kid, theater was still somewhat central to American culture in a way it isn't
now. When "My Fair Lady" became a big hit, you know, in 1956 when I was
seven, everyone knew its songs. That wouldn't happen with a Broadway show
today. But no one had the passion--or obsession with it, I should say, that I
did that I knew about. And it was very--my obsession was very much a minority

GROSS: You know, you went to a couple of camps. You went to one camp that
was largely like a sports camp...

Mr. RICH: Right.

GROSS: ...and felt really alienated and lost there because you weren't very
good at sports. But then you went to an arts camp and you loved it because a
lot of kids there were interested in music and in theater. You had one, you
know, particularly good friend there.

Mr. RICH: Right. Yes, it was a big change for me. When I was 13, my
mother, sort of in despair about the fact that there was no sort of way for me
to pursue my interest at my school or among my peers, found an ad for a camp
in the back of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, sent for the brochure and
decided to send me there. And it was eye-opening because it was full of kids
from New York City. It was in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, full of kids
who went to, like, progressive schools in Greenwich Village and who were from,
in some cases, show business families or cultural families. For instance,
Arlo Guthrie went there. It was before he was famously Arlo Guthrie, but of
course, even at the time, we knew who his father, Woody, was. And there were
people, sort of, from the fringes of the New York music and theater world.
And suddenly, I was with all these kids, all of whom were wearing black all
the time before it was cool and turtle...

GROSS: Oh, you didn't have to wear camp colors, huh?

Mr. RICH: You didn't have to wear camp colors. That was--the only camp color
acceptable was black. And so it was great that I met some kids who opened up
the world to me. And ultimately--I was becoming a teen-ager. And so I could
eventually go visit these kids and see shows with them in New York, and it
made a real difference.

GROSS: One of your good friends from this arts camp was the son of the writer
who wrote "Fiddler on the Roof." So when "Fiddler on the Roof" was doing its
tryouts before going to Broadway and it came to Washington, you got in to see
it, you got in to see a rehearsal. And I thought it was really
interesting--from the rehearsal, you weren't expecting the show to be very
good, but opening night you loved it.

Mr. RICH: Well, it was real lesson for me, you know. It just goes to show
for all my interests in the theater and going to theater at age 14 or so, I
really didn't know that much about it. So my friend, whose name was Harry
Stein(ph)--his father, Joe Stein, had had, at this point, a rather checkered
career in show business. And this show, "Fiddler on the Roof," was thought to
be not much before it opened.

And we came home from camp in August, and it was trying out in Washington, DC,
at the National Theatre. And Harry and I were, indeed, invited to a technical
rehearsal and we didn't understand what was going on. The first thing that
happened was Zero Mostel appears with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth
and sort of muttering things, including several four-letter words. And we
think, `Gosh, is this really what Russia was like, you know, at the turn of
the century just before the pogroms(ph)?' And we didn't understand that they
were cutting from the beginning to the end of musical numbers.

And we watched this whole thing and our hearts are sinking. And the show had
already played Detroit before Washington and had gotten a terrible review in
Variety. And I still remember--and write about it in the book--we come out of
the lobby in the afternoon of the National Theatre, and Harry turns to me and
says, `I cannot believe it. My father has another bomb.' And I tried to
cheer up my friend. Even though I totally agreed with him, I said, `Oh, it's
not that bad, you know. Maybe it will be mediocre or something.'

Then that night, there was the first performance before an audience in
Washington. And suddenly we released we had seen a technical rehearsal, not
the real show. And it was a fantastic, electrifying show from the moment it
began. And it was huge lesson to me as it would be a huge lesson in the three
weeks that followed while the show continued to try out in Washington. We
could watch it change every night and watch Jerome Robbins and the authors
come in and tweak this, tweak that, add a piece of choreography, cut a scene,
change a number, take something that was already good and try to perfect it.
So it was a great lesson to me in the theater and art, really.

GROSS: You got a lot of lessons like that in the sense that you, soon after,
got a job as a ticket taker at the National Theatre in Washington. So you
could see performances again and again, night after night, and see how they
changed, how they stayed the same.

Mr. RICH: Absolutely. I mean, peop--this is sort of a vanished era now in
the theater because shows are so heavy and expensive. But in those days,
every Broadway show tried out out of town to get the kinks out. And
Washington was one of the cities they played most frequently. And every two
weeks, there would be a different show on its way to Broadway. Some of them
would be huge hits, some of them would be huge flops, some would be in

All of them would change enormously whether--and it was fascinating to see
"The Odd Couple," with Walter Matthau and Art Carney, directed by Mike
Nichols. I mean, I can't believe I had to good fortune to watch this every
night as a teen-ager, watch them pull lines out, change that poker game,
change where the Pigeon sisters where going to come in Act 2 or not. It was
an incredible education. And I saw a lot of great artists of the theater work
that way with a gun to their heads before New York, including Peter Brooks,
Stephen Sondheim, Robbins I mentioned before, trying to improve their shows.

GROSS: How did you get the job as a ticket taker? My experience is, in
American theater, is that ticket takers are usually older women.

Mr. RICH: You know, that's interesting. In those days, it was all men or
young men, or boys in my case. And all the ticket takers at the National
Theatre were male and all the ushers were women. Obviously, this has all
changed now.

GROSS: Maybe I'm thinking of the ushers.

Mr. RICH: Yeah, the ushers--yes. Now still most ushers are women. But I got
the job because I think I was--hung around the theater so much and was seen so
often by the manager standing in line to by standing room or a second balcony
seat that he took pity on me. And when he saw me come back for the third or
fourth time to the same show and do that repeatedly, he introduced himself to
me and eventually gave me a job so I wouldn't have to pay each time I came.

GROSS: My guest is Frank Rich of The New York Times. His new memoir is
called "Ghost Light." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Seventy-Six Trombones")

GROSS: My guest is Frank Rich, a New York Times columnist, former theater
critic and now author of the new memoir "Ghost Light," which is about his
early years as a great fan of theater, particularly music theater.

As someone who has really loved theater all of your life, how did it feel when
you started writing reviews, to be the person in the position of sometimes
writing a bad review and dashing people's dreams with that bad review?

Mr. RICH: It's difficult. It's a difficult position to be in. I never had
a serious problem with it because I always had a clear idea as my employer,
The New York Times, did and does, that I was working for the newspaper. I
wasn't working for the theater. I was writing for the readers of The Times,
not for the people in the shows.

But it's heartbreaking to write a negative review of something that is a
serious effort. It's not heartbreaking to write a review of something whose
only ambitions are entirely mercenary or vulgar or silly. But you know, when
you see someone like, for instance, Stephen Sondheim, have a big failure on
Broadway in the misproduced first production of "Merrily We Roll Along," and
you're writing that review for The New York Times and you know there's great
Sondheim songs in it. You can say all that in the piece, but still you know
the show doesn't work. It's hard. It's upsetting, and I can't say that that
was the fun part of the job.

The flip side was much more fun, walking into something like "Sunday in the
Park"--which, by the way, a lot of people and a lot of critics didn't
like--and falling in love with it and trying to champion it and bring it to
people and get them interested in it.

GROSS: Do you remember the first bad review you ever wrote?

Mr. RICH: Gosh. Yes, the very first play that I had to review when I came
to The Times in 1980 was a play called "Marlon Brando Sat Right Here(ph),"
involving people that no one's ever heard of. It was done off-off-Broadway at
a dinner theater in Soho in New York that I never saw again. It's almost like
a dream to me now. And I just remember the whole--it was about a diner in
Hoboken when they were shooting "On the Waterfront." And the whole play
consisted mainly of people in various New Jersey accents saying, `You know,
Marlon Brando, he sat right here.' And went on for, like--the waitress said
it, you know, the customers said it. It went on for, like, two and a half
hours. And I thought, `What have I done? What job am I in?' But anyway, I
recovered. So did the theater.

GROSS: I think of your New York Times column as being, in part, about the
theater of politics...

Mr. RICH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...or the politics as theater. How would you describe your column?

Mr. RICH: Well, my column has always been sort of predicated on the
assumption that there's a place where culture, in the broadest sense, meets
the news. And so, you're right. I mean, I look at cultural--I like at the
cultural map of the United States at the same time I'm looking at the news and
the political map of the United States, and I try to find intersections. And,
of course, since I've started this column, it's become easier and easier to
do, and we have a political campaign that's almost--reaches most people
through "Letterman" and "Leno." I don't even have to strain to find these
things anymore. But that's the general idea of it, you know. And I'm just
interested in cultural issues in the broader sense.

For instance, take gay civil rights. To me, that is as much a cultural issue
as it is a political issue. Not because there are gay people in the theater
or in the arts, but because sexuality tells us--and people's reaction to
anyone's sexuality, whatever their orientation might be, tells us a lot about
where the culture is right now.

GROSS: Do you ever feel that people who are in politics are often incredibly
out of touch with popular culture in America, and therefore misread and
misinterpret what's going on and what the motivations are and what kids are
really reacting to?

Mr. RICH: I couldn't agree with you more. I think they're clueless. They're
not consumers of the product. They really don't know it. I mean, the classic
example was when there were hearings in the Senate about eight years ago where
Fritz Hollings, who's been railing against Hollywood this year--a Democratic
senator--showed a pie fight from "Love & War," a silly sitcom of the time
about, you know, a young couple as I recall, as an example of the violence on
television that was corrupting children and should be stamped out by the
government. This is--you know, these people have no context. They
don't--they have no interest in culture.

And it's true of both parties. It has nothing to do with ideology. I'll
never forget in the '92 campaign when Clinton and Gore were speaking at a New
York City--I think, New York City town meeting and a questioner said, you
know, `What are you going to do about culture? What are you going to do about
the NEA? What are your feelings about culture? Do you like culture?
Culture's very important to New York.' Well, Clinton's answer was, `Well, I
play the saxophone.' And Gore's answer was, `I saw "Les Miserables" on
Broadway.' And here it is eight years later, and he's still talking about
having seen "Les Miserables." Granted it's still running, but you know, maybe
at least go see "The Lion King," or something.

And I needn't tell you--I don't mean to pick on them, but you know, George W.
Bush is on record of not being able to remember a single book he read in
childhood and not even seeing so much of pop culture because he goes to bed so
early. So--and hadn't been to a movie, I think, in a movie theater the entire
time he's been governor of Texas. So it doesn't serve them or the country
well for these people to then talk about regulating culture.

GROSS: Well, Frank Rich, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. RICH: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Frank Rich's new memoir is called "Ghost Light." He writes an op-ed
column for The New York Times.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Soundbite from "The Pajama Game")

GROSS: Music from "The Pajama Game," the Broadway show that launched the
career of producer and director Harold Prince. Coming up, we talk with
Prince. And Lloyd Schwartz reviews several original cast recordings that have
been reissued.

(Soundbite from "The Pajama Game")

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: Introducing classic Broadway musicals to a new
generation of listeners

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Many of the great Broadway musicals are being revived in theaters. But you
don't have to go to Broadway to hear the music. Many original cast recordings
are being reissued. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, says these
musicals are a great American legacy, and these reissues are a great way to
introduce this music to a new generation of listeners.

(Soundbite of Broadway music)


During the Gulf War, I was shocked and worried, along with everyone else, but
a Broadway show tune kept gnawing at my brain. It was the big production
number from a '50s musical called "Kismet," starring Alfred Drake, and the
song was called "Not Since Nineveh." `Baghdad,' the lyric went, `don't
underestimate Baghdad.' I thought to myself, if only the State Department had
remembered this lyric, we might have been better prepared to deal with Saddam

Sony, or at least its ancestor, Columbia Records, was a pioneer in the
recording of Broadway shows with their original casts. They've just reissued
a bunch of marvelous albums, including "Finian's Rainbow," "The Pajama Game,"
"Bye Bye, Birdie," and the seductive "Kismet," whose songs are sly, sexy,
romantic, tuneful--the melodies of that score were borrowed from the music of
Aleksandr Borodin--very smart and, above all, fun.

(Soundbite from Broadway musical "Kismet")

Unidentified Woman: Baghdad. Don't underestimate Baghdad.

Unidentified Man #1: A city rich in romantic, oriental lore.

Unidentified Choir: Ahhh!

Unidentified Woman: Baghdad. You must investigate Baghdad.

Unidentified Man #1: And learn a few of the facts you never knew before.

Unidentified Choir: Ahhh!

Unidentified Woman: Due south of the Garden of Eden; due north of the gulf
of Aden; where every male and maiden is ladened down with the blisses of
Baghdad, this irresistible town.

(End of soundbite)

SCHWARTZ: Decca Records started releasing Broadway show albums even earlier.
In the 1940s, they gave us the original cast albums of "Oklahoma!" "Carousel,"
and "Annie, Get Your Gun." Now there's a new Decca CD of what is arguably the
most enjoyable Broadway musical comedy of the 1950s, Frank Loesser's "Guys and
Dolls," where stars Robert Alda, Alan's father, Sam Levine, Stubby Kaye and
the still-bewitching Vivian Blaine as the nightclub singer who's suffering
psychosomatic symptoms because Levine hasn't married her, even though they've
been engaged for 14 years.

(Soundbite from Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls")

Ms. VIVIAN BLAINE: Achoo! It says here in this book the average, unmarried
female, basically insecure, due to some long frustration, may react with
psychosomatic symptoms difficult to endure, affecting the upper respiratory
tract. In other words, just from waiting around for that plain, little band
of gold, a person can develop a cold. You could spray her wherever you figure
the streptococci lurk. You can give her a shot for whatever she's got, but
it just won't work. If she's tired of getting that fish eye from the hotel
clerk, a person can develop a cold.

(End of soundbite)

SCHWARTZ: Both the new Sony and Decca Broadway CDs have special bonus tracks
of previously unissued material; interviews with stars and composers or songs
that were cut from the shows. On the "Finian's Rainbow" CD, lyricist Yip
Harburg talks about the show and sings some of its hit numbers, such as "How
Are Things in Glockamorra?" which becomes more satirical then nostalgic in his

I especially love the bonus tracks on the "Guys and Dolls" album; soundtracks
from the movie version, which have never been released on disc before. So
now, without having to rent the video, you can hear Marlon Brando sing a song
Frank Loesser added to the movie score. It was a big hit for Frankie Laine in
1955. Brando is no singer, but I think he does it even better.

(Soundbite from Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls")

Mr. MARLON BRANDO: Your eyes are the eyes of a woman in love, and, oh, how
they give you away. Why try to deny you're a woman in love when I know very
well what I say? I say no moon in the sky...

(End of soundbite)

SCHWARTZ: It's easy to dismiss show music as trivial, but a great deal of it
has an element of literate wit and poignance that is sadly absent from a lot
of contemporary music, popular or classical. And, frankly, it's hard for me
to think of any kind of music that is better at cheering me up.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix.

(Soundbite from Broadway musical)

Unidentified Man #1: Gray skies are gonna clear up. Put on a happy face.
Brush off the clouds and cheer up. Put on a happy face. Take off the gloomy
mask of tragedy. It's not your style. You'll look so good that you'll be
glad you decided to smile.

Pick out a present outlook. Stick out that noble chin. Wipe off that
full-of-doubt look. Slap on a happy grin. And spread sunshine all over the
place. Just put on a happy face.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Coming up, theater producer and director Harold Prince. This is

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Broadway producer and director Harold Prince talks
about musical theater

Harold Prince has produced or directed many of the most important musicals of
the past few decades, including "Damn Yankees," "Westside Story," "Fiddler on
the Roof," "Cabaret," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd," "Company," "Candide,"
"Phantom of the Opera," and the recent revival of "Showboat." He has won 20
Tony awards. He's now producing "3hree," an evening of three new one-act
musical comedies. It features the work of younger writers, composers,
directors and actors. Prince is directing one of the musicals himself. It
opens Saturday at a Philadelphia theater named in his honor, the Prince Music
Theater. The theater's mission is to produce innovative, new works and
revivals. I talked with Harold Prince about his theater career. I asked,
after he fell in love with theater, how did he know he wanted to produce and
direct but not perform?

Mr. HAROLD PRINCE (Theater Producer and Director): No, I never wanted to be a
performer. I'm much too terrified of the whole experience. And I never
wanted to be a producer. I came out of the University of Pennsylvania,
I'd--just 20--I mean, a matter of days, and I came to New York terrified and,
very luckily, found a job as an office boy in George Abbott's office. And he
was probably the most prolific producer, director, writer in the American
theater. And so I changed the water in the water cooler and I opened the
windows and I stamped the letters and made myself as useful as I could. And
then he actually was working on television and writing and directing. And
very early on he let me write a segment of the television show he was doing on
NBC. I wrote the whole show. And then he said, `Why don't you direct it?
I'll come and fix it up afterwards.' And I did. It was Sunday night at 7,
the early days of television. And I wrote and directed a half-hour television
show that same year. And he came and said, `I like it. It's on.'

And then he did for me what I really wanted, which was to move into the
theater. And I moved in as a third assistant stage manager, having never
worked backstage, and learned the business from there. And I moved up in
stage-managing ranks. Everything I did, I did rather quickly--again, good
luck. Between 1948, when I started with him, and 1954, I--there was a
two-year stint in the Army, thanks to the Korean conflict, and the rest of
the time in Abbott's office. And in 1954, I co-produced "The Pajama Game."

GROSS: "The Pajama Game" had several hits--"Hey, There," "Steam Heat,"
"Hernando's Hideaway."

Mr. PRINCE: Lots.

GROSS: Could you guess in advance which songs were really going to...

Mr. PRINCE: Well, the whole business of making musicals was different then.
Popular music in the United States and in Europe was a reflection of theater
music back in 1954. Consequently, Rosemary Clooney made a "Hey, There"
recording and Frank Loesser had released it. And it was the number one song
in the country when we opened the show in Boston on our way to New York. So
we literally had a smash hit song before the audience even saw the show.

GROSS: So this was a song that they could hum going into the theater. They
didn't have to wait till they were coming out.

Mr. PRINCE: They could hum it going into the theater. And then came
"Hernando's Hideaway" and "Steam Heat" and "One By One" each became a top
number on the charts. A year later we did "Damn Yankees," and that had "You
Gotta Have Heart," and Eddie Fisher did that. And that was number one before
we opened in Boston.

So it's a very different game. The theater today does not reflect popular
music, nor could it, since I don't understand what anybody's singing about
most of the time.

GROSS: Now you've done several musicals with Stephen Sondheim...

Mr. PRINCE: Oh, nine, I think.

GROSS: ...including "Company," "Follies," "Sweeney Todd."

Mr. PRINCE: "West Side Story."

GROSS: What was your role in "West Side Story"?

Mr. PRINCE: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

GROSS: What was your role in "West Side Story"?

Mr. PRINCE: That I produced.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. How did you first meet Stephen Sondheim?

Mr. PRINCE: Well, we were good friends forever. I mean, we were--we met when
he was 18 and I was 20. That's a long time ago. And we were good
friends--very ambitious to work in the musical theater--and we stayed best
friends. He stood up for me at my wedding and as soon as I'm through with
this interview, he's coming in with John Weidman to work on the next show
we're doing.

GROSS: That's great. I mean, I had read that you had had some kind of
falling out or difference with him over the years.

Mr. PRINCE: What you read in the papers you mustn't believe. You're in the
media business. Don't believe what you read. We're actually--all we did was
come up with a clinker after having nine or 10 years of artistic and
sometimes financial success, and we decided maybe we should get away from each
other for a while and get a fresh view on things. The `while' lasted longer,
I'm sure, than either of us intended.

GROSS: OK, the...

Mr. PRINCE: It was 19 years.

GROSS: The funny thing is that clinker--if you're talking about "Merrily We
Roll Along"...

Mr. PRINCE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that clinker is one of my favorite shows.

Mr. PRINCE: The score is--Steve's score from "Merrily We Roll Along" is as
good as anything he's ever written. It's just a great score. The problem
with that show was, I think--and they're doing it again and it'll get done
again and again--people keep trying to make it work--really work. And I
think the technique of the storytelling really did it in. I, on the other
hand, didn't help because I didn't--I couldn't envision what it should look
like. I had a meeting in my office before we went into rehearsal with that
show, and I said, `Look, everybody, you want--I have a problem. I want to do
this without scenery and without costumes on a bare stage and maybe just have
some racks of clothes that kids go and choose for themselves to play scenes.
That's what I want to do.' This was 1980. My office team said, `You do what
you want to do,' and then I didn't have the guts. I thought, `How can you
charge people whatever we were charging in 1980 to see a Broadway show and not
give them, quote, "scenery and customs?" And I was too dumb to realize maybe
you should charge them less and do what you want to do. But I didn't have the
guts. Today I would have the guts. It's too late.

GROSS: I'm wondering if working with Sondheim and working with his sometimes
really innovative songs, if you felt that you had to find different ways of
making that transition from talking to singing within the productions?

Mr. PRINCE: Not really. I think we both want the same thing from the theater
and, honestly, by the time I did "Cabaret," which was in 1966, and before
the--all the shows I directed that Steve wrote, I discerned that I wanted a
different kind of experience on the musical theater stage. You don't set out
to be innovative. You set out to satisfy yourself. And so that's precisely
why once I'd done "Cabaret," not only was it a huge success, but it was
extremely different in structure and content than any other musical before
it. And I said, `Oh, look, it's working. You've got a vote of confidence
here. Now just go on and do what you want to do.' And Steve's the perfect
person to do it with.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you, when you decided to produce "West Side Story,"
were you concerned at all about what it would be like for gang members to make
that transition from talking on the street to singing and dancing?

Mr. PRINCE: I had so much respect for Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim, and
Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book--very canny job, too; very, very
creative--that I was just excited to be part of it. The sound of it, the look
of it, everything was--the way it moved; the way things meshed--it--the
creators are fond of saying it was not a watershed musical. Well, I think it
was, if for no better reason that it's the first time in the history of the
theater where the actors sang and danced as much as they acted. In fact, many
of them were better dancers than they were actors. But it all meshed that
way. Prior to then, as in "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel," Agnes DeMille had
separate casts do the dancing. So when they got to the big ballets, there was
someone dancing for each principal role. That was clearly a bridge to what
Jerry Robbins did when everybody did everything.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting, you've done a lot of work with Stephen
Sondheim--you've also done work with Andrew Lloyd Webber, directing "Evita"
and the original production of "Phantom of the Opera"--and in some ways, it's
easy--you might not find this fair--but it's easy to think of Andrew Lloyd
Webber and Stephen Sondheim as being at opposite ends of contemporary music
theater, Sondheim writing really challenging music that some people think goes
over the heads of audiences, whereas Andrew Lloyd Webber is a real
crowd-pleaser, and some people find his music, you know, comparatively
shallow. So you've got two different ends here, both of which you've been
very successful with.

Mr. PRINCE: Well, that's the--I guess the accepted diagnosis of the two
gentlemen's work. I would argue with so much of it you don't want to take up
the time. I will tell you this...

GROSS: No, no, no, I do. I was expecting your comeback. But I will tell you

Mr. PRINCE: Well, they--well, you just got it. What they have in common is
much more important than what is disparate about them. Essentially, they both
love the theater, and they love what makes the theater, musical theater,
unique. They understand the space. They have ideas about how to surprise an
audience. It's called theatrical minds. They both have those. They have two
very different minds, so how that then gets expressed is by those two very
different minds. I'm in the catbird seat in this instance. I get to be the
director, so I can shift from one man's strengths to the other man's
strengths. I'm in the catbird seat. I've also lived rather a long time, so
I've been able not just to work with them, but with Kander and Ebb and Bock
and Harnick and Leonard Bernstein. So, you know, it's a hell of a spectrum of
different but equally important musical theater voices. That's what I'd say.

GROSS: My guest is theater producer and director Harold Prince. He's
producing an evening of three one-act shows called "3hree" that opens Saturday
at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music from "West Side Story")

GROSS: My guest is Harold Prince. He produced or directed such musicals as
"West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret," "Company," "Sweeney
Todd," "Phantom of the Opera" and the recent revival of "Showboat."

A lot of musicals on Broadway are revivals, and you have both premiered a lot
of new and ground-breaking musicals but you've also been involved with
revivals. First of all, some of the musicals you originally produced or
directed have ben revived, including "Cabaret," plus you did the revival of
"Showboat" on Broadway a few years ago.

Mr. PRINCE: I did--"Showboat" is really the revival that I did, but it was
really a rethinking. I was lucky enough to get Rodgers and Hammerstein--and
most particularly William Hammerstein, who is an old friend--to let me really
reshape that musical, the second act particularly. Remember the musical was
over 70-some-odd years old when I went to work on it. It had been the first
great--really great American musical, and it changed everything that followed

The fact is, it had a rather powerful first act and a rather oddly shaped
second act, for a number of reasons. Probably one was that when this show
opened in 1927, they'd never seen anything like it, so some of the machinery
of it was old fashioned, and some of it was as brave and courageous and new as
anything could possibly be. I wanted to make it all one piece, and they gave
me the right to. I restored a bunch of numbers, numbers that were considered
too serious for the original version or for the audiences in 1927, and those
numbers are among the most beautiful in the score. Then I added two montages,
which Susan Strohman staged, which put the show in the context of the time in
which the story is being told. It covers 40-some-odd years in the lives of a
family. It used to just hop, skip and jump over puddles, really, to cover
those years. We meshed those years together by telling you what was going on
in the United States during that time.

Most potently, the show was about miscegenation, the marriage of a black girl
and a white man, which was unacceptable in the South in 1880. We told the
story 40 years on, and it was still unacceptable when the show closes, which
is in the 1920s. It still was--there were people still drinking out of
separate water fountains, still going to separate facilities, using them and
so on, still eating--riding in the back of the bus and eating in separate
restaurants. So there's a lot of political stuff there that always makes me
feel better when I'm working with theater, along with some of the most
beautiful music and one of the loveliest stories anybody ever got to tell.

GROSS: Do still love going to the theater, even though you have so much
involved in it yourself?

Mr. PRINCE: I don't love going to the theater as much as I used to, because
most theatrical priorities are not what they used to be. However, if I go to
see something like "Proof," which hasn't opened on Broadway yet but I've seen,
or "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," which I've seen, I'm very grateful to
be part of the theater community. There are fewer of those experiences right
now, but nevertheless, I do feel them, and this is the beginning of a season,
and I've just mentioned two shows which haven't opened yet that make me very
proud to be part of that community.

GROSS: I'd like to close with some music. I'm wondering if you would like
to choose a song from one of your many productions?

Mr. PRINCE: Ah! Sure. Hang on now, because you know what I'm doing? I'm
trying to remember the name of the judge's song, but that's--"Pretty Women."

GROSS: "Pretty Women," OK. Yeah.

Mr. PRINCE: Why don't you play "Pretty Women."

GROSS: OK. Good.

Mr. PRINCE: It's gorgeous and it's complicated and it's worth saying that
this absolutely beautiful song culminates in the barber slitting the throat of
the judge who's singing it with him.

GROSS: OK. So...

Mr. PRINCE: That's how complex musical theater can get.

GROSS: So this is from "Sweeney Todd." Harold Prince, thank you so much for
talking with us, and good luck with "3hree."

Mr. PRINCE: It's a pleasure. I loved your questions.

GROSS: Oh, thank you. Good luck with "3hree" in Philadelphia.

Mr. PRINCE: Thank you very much.

GROSS: OK. Bye-bye now.

Mr. PRINCE: Nice talking to you.

(Soundbite of "Pretty Women" from "Sweeney Todd")

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, pretty women, pretty women, yes.

Unidentified Man #3: Here, quickly, sir, splash a mirror, sit, sir. Sit.

Unidentified Man #2: Joanna, Joanna--pretty women.

Unidentified Man #3: How are you, man?

Unidentified Man #2: Pretty women are a wonder.

Unidentified Man #3: Merry mood again today?

Unidentified Man #2: Pretty women.

Unidentified Man #3: ...(Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: What we do for...

Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Man #3: Pretty women.

Unidentified Man #3: Blowing out their...

Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Man #3: Blowing out their candles...

Unidentified Man #3: Or combing out their hair.

Unidentified Man #2: Combing out their hair.

Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Man #3: Even when they vanish...

Unidentified Man #3: ...they--some of them still remain there.

Unidentified Man #2 and Unidentified Man #3: They're there.

Unidentified Man #2: How seldom it is one meets a fellow spirit.

Unidentified Man #3: With fellow taste in women, at least.

Unidentified Man #2: What? What's that?

Unidentified Man #3: Oh, sir, no doubt the years have changed me, then
perhaps the face of a barber, the face of a prisoner in the dark is not
particularly memorable.

Unidentified Man #2: Benjamin Barker!

Unidentified Man #3: Benjamin Barker!

(Soundbite of music going to crescendo)

Unidentified Man #2: Rest now, my friend. Rest now forever. Sleep now, the
untroubled sleep of the angels.

(Soundbite of a woman screaming)

Chorus: Lift your razor high, Sweeney. ...(Unintelligible).

GROSS: Harold Prince is producing "3hree," an evening of three new one-act
musical comedies, which opens at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia
Saturday night.

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Noir Alley' host celebrates cinema's double crosses and doomed characters

Eddie Muller's book, Dark City, chronicles film noir from the '40s and '50s. He says the genre draws on a "very dark vision of existence." Originally broadcast Oct. 21, 2022.


Pianist David Virelles shows off the depth and breadth of what he can do on 'Nuna'

Though he's been a New Yorker for over a decade, Virelles remains preoccupied with the rich, rhythmically charged music of his native Cuba. His new album shows where he's been — and where he's going.


Did the Trump camp help far-right militia groups plan the Jan. 6 attack?

New York Times journalist Alan Feuer says some members of Trump's inner circle have close ties to the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, whose leaders have been charged with seditious conspiracy.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue