Prince of Broadway
23 October 2015 (Fri), Tokyo
Harold Prince has apparently been shopping around the idea of a retrospective of his life on Broadway for years without much success. The plan was to feature samples from his amazingly varied 60-year career not, I had understood, as a song-by-song compilation like Jerome Robbins Broadway but as something brand new that would provide a different perspective on the shows and a broad idea of what it means when the name Harold Prince is on the marquee. He’s got quite a list to choose from: he’s been responsible for some of the most iconic musicals in the history of Broadway, and his contribution to the development of the art form either as producer or director is immense. But backers were understandably wary. It’s a lot easier to understand a show centered on a choreographer or songwriter or performer than on a director, whose input is not as obvious. A Prince recap seemed a fantastic chance to give the rest of us an idea of what the director’s function actually is, though I’m not sure if that would be so interesting to anyone other than us musical freaks.
In any case, it was Hankyu, an Osaka-based conglomerate, that came to the rescue on condition that the work premiere in Japan, which I imagine Prince jumped on right away. It’s certainly a prestigious venture, jam-packed as it is with Broadway veterans both backstage, like Susan Stroman and William Ivey Long, and onstage, including a number of big-name performers (with a popular star from Hankyu’s all-female Takarazuka troupe thrown into the mix). But I can’t imagine they can recoup just from the Tokyo/Osaka runs, regardless of how successful it is, and Japan is not generally a great place to preview a Broadway show given the very different tastes and expectations of the audience here. Still, that’s not my problem, and I figured it would be a good chance to see what Prince has in mind for this long-aborning work, even if he’s just going through the motions for a promise of a New York production.
So it’s dispiriting to report that Prince of Broadway is utterly misconceived and not even well directed within that mistaken context. It’s nothing more than one famous song after another, exactly what Prince had promised it wouldn’t be. That’s signaled before the curtain even opens: the titles of his shows are projected blandly in succession on the curtain during the (excellent) overture up through the title of this show, a sequence neither visually appealing – I have to assume the logos were tied up in copyright issues or too expensive – nor original.
The show opens promisingly with a lesser-known number, “All I Need Is One Good Break”, from a lesser-known show, Flora the Red Menace. One actress enters and sings about getting her chance in the spotlight, then others gradually join her in a way that nicely introduces the cast (to excited applause for each) and offers a potential theme. Being fairly obscure, the number is a new experience for most of us and suggests a new perspective on Prince’s work.
Then it all goes downhill. Prince (voiced here by veteran actor Ichimura Masachika) says a few words about his first production, The Pajama Game, then skips that completely as the scene opens on a locker room from his next show, Damn Yankees, where four guys all of a sudden sing and act out “Heart” – no context, no explanation. It’s a very funny song in its own musical, but without knowing the characters or situation, it falls flat, relying basically on our knowledge of the original to fill in the blanks. And that pretty much typifies the rest of the night. The numbers are nearly all famous songs presented with costumes and scenery reminiscent of their shows but no background whatsoever. So we get an old guy with a milk cart wishing he were rich, a painted emcee welcoming us to a nightclub, a woman in a chair pouting about clowns, a gravelly voiced woman who wants to propose a toast, a man in a prison cell babbling about dressing up mannequins, and so forth. Not remotely interesting to anyone who doesn’t know these shows and songs – much of the audience here, I would say, which seemed dominated by Takarazuka devotees wanting to see their recently retired idol Yuzuki Reon – and not particularly interesting to me, a big musical buff who’s seen this all before. Some of the songs suffer badly from this treatment: “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes” is actually offensive without some knowledge of the circumstances behind the closing Jewish reference.
Prince had indicated that he would stage the numbers differently than in the original versions, which he claims not to remember, but you could have fooled me with the generic presentations on view here. The sets are reminiscent of the originals, but why? “Whatever Lola Wants”, for instance, isn’t in itself about baseball, and unless there’s some commentary either in the narrative or dialogue, the locker-room scene is meaningless. It doesn’t tell us anything about how the song was conceived or where Prince fits in; again, it’s just a nostalgia trip for a small subset of modern audiences. I was sure he was going to mention his story about switching the focus in the Damn Yankees ads from baseball to sex, which evidently turned the show into a hit. That would have helped highlight his role as producer and put him into the narrative. But the song simply finished and moved onto the next song.
Also, there seems some confusion time-wise, as the first act moves chronologically at first, then inexplicably jumps to the 1970s (Follies and A Little Night Music), before snapping back to the mid 1960s (Fiddler and Cabaret). Why? The second act is a similar jumble of unrelated songs. There was no reflection on how these musicals fit in the context of Broadway at the time, even for ground-breaking works like West Side Story, the Sondheim collaboration or Evita; how he chose his material; any distinction between hits and flops; or any other themes. Without something to tie this together, it amounts effectively to a Greatest Hits concert.
What’s missing here is Prince. What was his part in all this? Prince was surely as much a creator as the authors themselves, but that was not evident on the stage tonight. I had been hoping for a fresh approach. I somehow had visions of the curtains opening to a bunch of characters from various Prince shows singing each other’s songs – a masked phantom singing “Sunrise Sunset”, a Fleet Street barber doing “Hey There” and such – but, okay, I’m no artist. Still, there were plenty of options. Say, a look at the numerous introductory openings in Prince shows tied only thematically to the actual story (e.g. “Comedy Tonight”, “Tradition”, “Wilkommen”, “In the Middle of the Sea”, “Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) and how those work, the many varied forms of his shows (dance in West Side Story, farce in Forum, emcee in Cabaret, story-free in Company, Kabuki in Pacific Overtures, Grand Guignol in Sweeney Todd, romantic spectacle in Phantom), his process of bringing concepts from page to stage (in his own head? collaboration with other creative staff? workshops with actors?), or even the many locales of his musicals (NY, London, Paris, Berlin, Kanagawa, Russia, Buenos Aires, etc). In other words, they could take a more kaleidoscopic view of the numbers, tying them together by theme, rather than a he-sang-this and she-danced-that style. Anything, really, to give us a view of Prince as an active presence in the shows as opposed to a name on the Playbill. These songs and brief snippets of scenes tell us nothing about the shows they were in or the role of a producer or director.
Nothing wrong with those songs, of course, but I don’t know that I needed to sit through yet another version of “Wilkommen” or “Music of the Night” in the usual staging. Those of us that know the shows would enjoy something new, and those that don’t know the shows wouldn’t care. The song selection was questionable in any case in terms of shining some light on the shows themselves: for example, there would be no way of knowing that West Side Story has any dance at all from the numbers here (“Something’s Coming” and “Tonight”). I was happier with songs that I wasn’t as familiar with, such as the numbers from Grind and Flora. One exception was the superb staging of “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs”, a virtually self-contained mini-drama that made the relations among the characters and the ghosts crystal clear (or am I just drawing from my knowledge of the show?). I’m assuming that was mostly Prince’s work as opposed to the choreographer, though it would have been nice if they had told us where that line is drawn. “The Right Girl” immediately thereafter was also terrific. Another highlight was the ballet stuck onto “Broadway Baby” and strung together from flop-show songs like Grind and Tenderloin, which told a story of sorts – starry-eyed girl (Reon) arrives in NY with suitcase and dreams of stardom – with great flair. More scenes like that would have been welcome. The finale was a forgettable original number by Jason Robert Brown. His overture was quite good, and I was hoping for a similar medley of Prince numbers creatively arranged for the cast – this is where well-known numbers might have been useful, sending us out singing. But the show was too late to save at that point anyway.
As an aside, I also noted that the subtitles were way off in many cases, especially the Sondheim numbers, Company chief among them. That’s not unusual in Japan, unfortunately, but these are mostly famous numbers from shows that have played Japan in the past. I suppose there’s no way for the translator to understand what’s being sung without knowing the story, though that doesn’t explain why they didn’t hire someone who did.
The performers were fine, though the material gave them no chance to establish a real personality. Certainly no complaints about Shuler Hensley’s Sweeney bits, Tony Yazbeck’s energetic rendition of “The Right Girl”, Nancy Opel’s thrilling “So What?”, Josh Grisetti’s charming “Tonight at Eight” (I’d love to see him in that show based on this number) and more, with Emily Skinner and Ramin Karimloo among the others. Most surprising was Yuzuki Reon, who turned out to be an engaging dancer in “Whatever Lola Wants”, the “Broadway Baby” ballet, and Kiss of the Spider Woman’s title song (which she sang, to terrific effect for this audience, in Japanese). While her singing voice is typical Takarazuka and best left unmentioned, she brought a lot of energy and unexpected humor to her dancing. I had assumed she was just part of the package when Hankyu negotiated the deal, but she was a definite asset to the show. She earned by far the most applause and squeals from the opening night audience, and I have to admit that she deserved it. Whether she’s ready for Broadway is another question, but I do hope she does more dance-centered pieces here in the future.
All in all, a wasted opportunity. I’d be shocked if this makes it to Broadway in anything close to this form. Here’s hoping that the creators take a hard look at this and come up with something more worthy of Prince’s name.