Sense of Occasion by Harold Prince: review
Going to the theatre should always be an occasion, something special, different, say, from going to the cinema, the movies or going shopping.
That the combined efforts of a handful or dozens of individual persons to present a live show, something in the moment and fleeting make a special occasion is something that I completely agree with and the title of Harold Prince´s 2017 book is entirely appropriate. It harks back to Henry Purcell and his colleagues in 17th century London who referred to their work in the theatre as Spectacle and Entertainment, something very much out of the ordinary.
The first part of Sense of Occasion is a reprint of his earlier book: Contradictions, Notes on 26 years in the theatre from 1974 with commentary and self evaluation on that earlier book. That the time in question includes ground breaking works such as West Side Story should give a clear enough hint that this is no small time endeavour.
The remainder of the book is a collection of Mr Prince´s experiences over seven decades of success in the theatre and especially in musical theatre. I was drawn to this book by reading Andrew Lloyd Webbers´s Memoir and the quintessentially English Sir Andrew ´s experiences of collaborating with the totally American Mr Prince.
I came to the book as an admirer: I have enjoyed Evita and Phantom of the Opera and have seen both several times both in London and New York. So, imagine my surprise at learning that not everything Mr Prince touched turned to gold.
“Not every show is going to work, and in a long career you have to expect disappointments” he says in the opening sentence to Chapter 32. How can it be that the producer/director of magnificent pieces such as West Side Story, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and so many more successes, can also turn in some shows that were commercial and/or critical disasters?
Isn´t that precisely why going to the theatre is an Occasion? As a spectator, we put our trust in the producer, director, writer and performers without any guarantee that the show will be to our liking. We spend our hard earned cash in the hope of, but without any guarantee of, a good time being had by all.
Among Harold Prince´s frustrations we read of his battles with the musicians´union who insisted on a certain number of players to be employed, not according to the needs of the score but according to the size of the performance venue. This leads to the ridiculous situation of musicians being paid to not play, literally to sit reading during an entire performance just to satisfy a quota system. This section of the book drew me back tom Blair Tindall’s book Mozart in the Jungle, where she describes this and many other craziness examples of the NY music scene.
Back to Mr Prince, my favourite part is where he describes his work as providing the minimum of staging so that he audience can supply the rest through their imagination. Once and again he repeats the mantra that if too much is spelt out and up front, there is nothing left for the spectator to bring in terms of her/his own imagination.
After reading page after page of the book, and after seeing numerous performances of Mr Prince´s producing/directing work on stage, I am left with the impression of a strong and likeable personality. It was striking to read an article in this morning´s London Sunday Times where he is described as “A dictator and not a nice man” by actress Patti LuPone. Mind you, according to the same interview she also “fell out with Andrew Lloyd Webber”.
Each to his/her own: I am left with a sense of admiration for Harold Prince who has been an essential part of some of the great successes on Broadway and London´s West End, and who has been an inspiration for so many of us who have worked to pass on his legacy to our students, albeit in much more limited circumstances.