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Royalty and revival

Sunday, August 23, 1998

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic:

Sometimes, Mohammed goes to the mountain. And for a recent phone interview, that's exactly where he was. Harold Prince, the all-time most decorated scaler of Broadway peaks, was sitting in his cubbyhole of an office in his vacation home in the French Alps, looking out at Mont Blanc.

  Related article

'Showboat' continues successful voyage


He hasn't climbed that mountain. But in show biz terms, Prince has done just about everything else, having created as producer and/or director a couple of dozen Tony Award-winning musicals, from "Pajama Game" to "Cabaret," from "Sweeney Todd" to "The Phantom of the Opera."

At 70, Prince is at the top. If he were English, he'd have a title; indeed, he's received the American equivalent, a Kennedy Center honor. This Prince creates musicals. He doesn't do revivals.

OK, he has done a few. "Cabaret," for example, which he revived for Joel Grey a few years back. Or "Candide," which he famously turned into a Broadway hit in the '70s and then revived as operatic spun sugar in 1997.

But those were his own shows. Prince doesn't revive other people's work. Unless, that is, that work is the biggest mountain of all - "Show Boat," the epic and epochal 1927 classic that changed the terrain of American musical theater. That turned out to be a mountain worthy of Prince's attention. Pittsburgh sees the result when the mammoth production, now in previews at the Benedum, opens officially Tuesday for a four-week run.

"Show Boat" is the big one, the inescapable early peak that turned popular musical entertainment into a vehicle for serious themes and expansive ambitions. But for all its apparent familiarity, it also is a mountain with many unexplored crags and ravines. When Prince tackled the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein giant in 1994, he convinced the copyright owners to let him go at it from the ground up, exploring all the variant versions of its complex history. The result is a "Show Boat" no one has seen before - a famous mountain in a whole new light.

And as he sat looking out at his Alpine heights, Prince discussed his recent return to those theatrical slopes. Although his "Show Boat" began its 23/4-year Broadway run back in 1995, Prince just re-directed it for Australia in April and then for London in May. One national tour "just closed in a blaze of glory in Washington," he said with pride, and he has rehearsed with the remaining tour, the company now in Pittsburgh.

In this company, Tom Bosley and Karen Morrow play sweet Cap'n Andy and his tart wife, Parthy. "Tom and I go way back to 'Fiorello,' " Prince recalled, "and Karen I've known since - well, I won't give her away, because I'm older than her - say as long as she's been in the business.

"I visit these tours, I keep in touch."

He agreed that Broadway touring "used to be a very slapdash deal. They sent out sets with painted flats instead of sculpted pieces and cast a lot of no-names, and when they got to Chicago, a lady named Claudia Cassidy [famed Chicago critic] raised holy hell. I was a stage manager back then; she was right."

But now, "the ante's been upped. The road is now as important if not more so than Broadway. The way shows are tended to today is pretty extraordinary. We've had three touring companies of 'Show Boat' and five of 'Phantom' - it's a responsibility."

He admits that by this point in his work on "Show Boat," "discovery days are over. The only way to make it fresh now is different casts. You can't cookie-cut this thing; you have to adjust to different people."

But to start, it was new all the way. As Prince sees it, "Show Boat" had been obscured by light-operatic prettiness. He recalled his Broadway Ravenal, Mark Jacoby, who had played the role several times before, objecting that he seemed to be making fun of the great love song, "Make Believe."

No, said, Prince, "I'm making light of a romantic line he's feeding her," rediscovering the drama of a song that "had usually been sung with hands clasped."

He's most proud of reinserting "Misery's Coming 'Round," "the most beautiful song in the show but deemed too serious in 1927." He jettisoned the extraneous Worlds Fair sequence in Act 2, replacing it with a cinematic whirl through the dress, music and dance styles of several decades. He restored a song that makes it clear Ravenal is a professional gambler. And he strengthened the role of the tragic Julie with an additional line that makes more sense of her long absence from the plot.

By September, Prince expects to make a quick trip to Pittsburgh to have a look at the tour. "I'll have the guilts by then." But by then he also will be deep in rehearsals for a brand new musical, "Parade," a telling of the Leo Frank story by Alfred Uhrey and Jason Robert Brown. He'll stage it at Lincoln Center under the auspices of Livent, the troubled Toronto-based company that also produced "Show Boat" as well as "Ragtime" and Prince's "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

Talk of revivals led inevitably to some recent shows first associated with Prince, especially the star-studded "Follies" at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey and the gritty "Cabaret" in New York. "This is the year I could have spent seeing shows I originally did," he said, "but I decided I shouldn't. It's better leaving that work to other people, other audiences."

No, Prince doesn't do revivals. New mountains continue to seek him out, and he moves forward. "My age is hard to hide, because I've been around so long," he said, "but I don't feel half my age." He hopes he's performed the same feat of rejuvenation on "Show Boat." n

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