What an understatement.
PRINCE OF BROADWAY?
He became the king a long time ago.
But because Harold’s surname is Prince, the title of the new revue at the Friedman is a logical one.
If Prince’s last name were Pseudolus, Maraczek or Meszaros, this show would have been called THE KING OF OLD BROADWAY. Yes, it’s a song in THE PRODUCERS, but Harold Prince certainly has greater claim to the title than Max Bialystock.
Two of Prince’s shows have run even longer than THE PRODUCERS: FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, once Broadway’s champion at 3,242 performances, and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which has now amassed nearly four times as many showings.
Prince was the producer of the first and the director of the second. Both nouns provide a nice enough nutshell description of the man who has worked in both capacities during his extraordinary, unchallenged 21-Tony Broadway career.
“A thousand people will tell you that you can’t succeed,” says one of the show’s nine people who play Prince. That’s surely a low estimate. If we’re going to talk “thousands,” let’s hear that many songs that have graced Prince’s musicals and revivals.
No, we’ll have to settle for 33 selections – and, happily enough, they’re not all Greatest Hits. PHANTOM’s “The Music of the Night” is here, but so is its “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Other songs range from a snippet of THE PAJAMA GAME’s “Hey, There” to four songs from CABARET.
That was, of course, Prince’s trail-blazing musical that put a stop to the snarky comments that Broadway savants had been quipping for five years: “Yeah, Hal can produce, but he can’t direct.”
Indeed he could and still can, this time with Susan Stroman. In conjunction with a cast of five women and four men, they’ve wisely had almost everyone avoid replicating any original cast performance.
As a result, the show that could have been a mere photograph or a photocopy (PRINTS OF BROADWAY?) is instead is a painting.
First and foremost is Karen Ziemba, who brings newness to every line of Fraulein Schneider’s “So What?” The way she sings “An offer comes, you take” shows Schneider’s experience in what happens if you don’t. Ziemba actually outdistances – yes! – Lotte Lenya.
Kaley Ann Voorhees, playing Young Phyllis in the FOLLIES sequence, makes very clear that there will be no negotiations on where Young Ben will take her for dinner.
When Michael Xavier’s Fredrik sings that his Anne is “so unlike a wife” he’s hinting right then and there that she’s still a virgin. Tony Yazbeck does a riveting “A New Argentina” and Janet Dacal does a new interpretation of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”
In the SHE LOVES ME sequence, Brandon Uranowitz has a nice who’s-kidding-who moment after he gets slightly cocky over his upcoming meeting with Amalia Balash “Tonight at Eight.” She’s Bryonha Marie Parham, who has the unenviable task of singing “Will He Like Me?” so soon after the singer who introduced it – Barbara Cook – died. Parham makes us put that aside and appreciate what she’s accomplishing.
I’ve also witnessed 16 Sally Bowles, and Parham is the first I’ve ever seen get mid-number applause. And when has anyone played that character as well as SHOW BOAT’S Queenie? Parham ages extraordinarily well in “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
One bone to pick here: Julie isn’t in the number, so what we lose is one of the smartest implications in musical theater history: Julie’s knowing a song only identified with African-Americans is our first hint that she’s black.
Emily Skinner roars out the song that acknowledges Prince’s terrible track record of six flops in the early ‘80s. (It’s the pin-point perfect choice to comment on the situation.) Skinner is equally effective with “The Ladies Who Lunch.” At one point she makes her mouth seem as wide as the Monongahela. This comes after she’s been oh-so-elegant in “Send in the Clowns” (yes, it’s included) and proves that she is certainly NOT losing her timing this late in her career.
Yazbeck shines throughout. During “The Right Girl,” he does a tap dance break in which he looks at one leg and then the other, eyes increasingly widening, as if one is his wife Sally, the other mistress Margie — and he doesn’t know which to choose.
Jason Robert Brown once wanted us to believe that a summer stock actor in Ohio played both Tevye and Porgy. Well, here Chuck Cooper gets to play Tevye and Joe from
SHOW BOAT. He does each character proud.
David Thompson has provided some connecting material at the beginning, less as the first act continues, and less still for Act Two. He knows that what he has to say isn’t nearly as important as the songs and dances.
A few quibbles: Washington Senators sing “(You Gotta Have) Heart” (from DAMN YANKEES) in front of four gym lockers. Three are labeled Fitch, Eckart and Jacoby – nice tributes, respectively, to Robert (of Prince’s production of FLORA, THE RED MENACE and was directed by him in BAKER STREET), William and Jean (who designed FLORA and SHE LOVES ME) and Mark (directed by Prince in PHANTOM and SHOW BOAT).
But the fourth locker says “Hardy.” Ah, but when this song is sung in DAMN YANKEES, Joe Hardy hasn’t yet joined the team.
Trivial? Okay. But a bigger problem plagues the sequence from IT’S A BIRD, IT’S A PLANE, IT’S SUPERMAN. In front of a witty Beowulf Boritt scrim of a SUPERMAN comic strip with colored dots that replicate a Sunday supplement, Dacal sings the seductive “You’ve Got Possibilities” to Xavier’s Clark Kent.
Now considering that there has only been one woman of any consequence in SUPERMAN, the audience is well within its rights to assume that Dacal is playing Lois Lane.
She isn’t. Broadway babies know that IT’S A BIRD … invented a woman named Sydney who lusted for Clark. The show is over 50 years old, ran for all of four months and has rarely been seen again, so those who aren’t fervent musical theater enthusiasts would assume the lady in question is Lois. So they’re undoubtedly confused when the lady tells Clark that “You’ve Got Possibilities.” Throughout the strip’s history Lois has never for a second felt that he’s had any.
Prince and Stroman try to keep the audience from misunderstanding. They have Xavier enter and immediately say “Hello, Sydney.” But here’s betting that much of the audience assumes that Clark is giving Lois some sort of pet nickname.
Even if they did understand that this woman isn’t Lois, Prince and Stroman wouldn’t be home free for they have Sydney remove Clark’s glasses. No, in the mythical world of Superman, that would be enough to have Sydney recognize him as The Man of Steel. And when she stands behind him, reaches around his chest and rips his shirt open revealing to us that great big red “S,” Xavier doesn’t get off stage nearly fast enough to avoid being outed. He looks more embarrassed than concerned that his secret identity could be a secret no longer.
Frankly, all these issues should have been enough to drop “You’ve Got Possibilities.” Prince has plenty of his other musicals from which to choose; a full 16 aren’t represented and most of them ran substantially longer than SUPERMAN’s 129 performances.
Well, nobody’s perfect as characters in such non-Prince musicals as I DO! I DO! and SUGAR have taught us. Most of what’s included is mostly terrific, including a dynamic first-act ending and a powerful Act Two beginning.
PRINCE ON BROADWAY isn’t an elaborate production; Beowulf Boritt’s sets are analogous to the bare-bones ones seen on the Tonys. And speaking of that award, let’s give one each to Amelia Haywood, Terry Lavada, Erin Roth and Kate Sorg; the four dressers must get everyone in and out of the myriad costumes that William Ivey Long has either designed or reconstructed – and in speedier time than Superman could fly across the stage.
Jason Robert Brown has bookended the show with two impressive pieces. One is the overture that contains 16 selections from Prince’s musicals, ranging from ones most everyone knows (“The Phantom of the Opera”) to ones that very few do (“The Blob” from MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG). Brown finishes the show with the show’s only new song: “Do the Work,” a longtime Prince credo and one that Brown has honored throughout his career.
PRINCE ON BROADWAY could have been a mere cruise ship show, but instead in a way – and this is a compliment – it’s a sincere FORBIDDEN BROADWAY. At the curtain calls, Cooper gets the first bow and Ziemba the last, for Prince and Stroman have opted to use the alphabet to decide the order.
And while I’m glad that Cooper, Dacal, Parham and Skinner are on hand, if someone had been cast with a surname starting with “W,” we would have had a representative from each of the last six letters of the alphabet. That would undoubtedly be a Broadway first.
It also would have been apt, for when we think of Harold Prince, the word “first” often comes to mind, doesn’t it?