I hadn’t seen Hal’s death notice up north here in the woods by the sea when an e-mail came in from Graydon with the subject line “Hal Prince.”
“I don’t suppose your mom could write a short piece for us?”
“Would an interview work?”
“Whatever form you think works best.”
My mother, Patricia Birch, choreographed a half-dozen shows that Hal Prince directed, starting in 1973 with A Little Night Music. They’d met sometime in the 1950s. My father, A. William J. Becker III, was then a drama critic writing at The Hudson Review and elsewhere and working in junior partnership with Roger L. Stevens. Stevens was a giant figure in the arts and real estate both, famously buying and selling the Empire State Building and producing Broadway shows, including West Side Story, with the proceeds of such ventures. In 1961, he was appointed by President Kennedy to found what would become the Kennedy Center. My father had been something of a wunderkind: Harvard, Rhodes scholar, Oxford doctoral thesis on Yeats. In 1950, my mother was a 21-year-old prima dancer with Martha Graham. The wunderkind introduced himself to the dancer backstage in Paris after a Graham performance. They moved to New York. A gay friend gave them a pair of dachshunds on the boat ride over. The family expanded once again when I was born, in 1954. My mother’s work with Hal started when I was about six years old. He hired her to play Anybodys, the Jets’ tomboy, in West Side Story. I remember Officer Krupke, and playing backstage with stage-rigged stiletto knives and practicing the fight-scene knee slides in some kneepads the Jets had given to me. I dialed her number and waited.
August 5, 2019
Pat Birch: You’re a photographer. Why are you doing this?
J.B.: Oh, boy. Here we go. I’m doing it.
P.B.: I miss him already. That’s all you need to say.
J.B.: Come on.
P.B.: Hal gave me my big break.
J.B.: What do you mean? You started with Merce Cunningham at 12 years old. You were a foremost, featured dancer, a favorite in the Martha Graham company, she was choreographing dances around your parts and you did her own part—Empress of the Arena—in Every Soul Is A Circus and …
P.B.: I was perfectly happy with that, and then I wasn’t so happy with that. I wanted to get the hell out of concert dance. Too many intermissions. I yearned to do musical theater.
J.B.: Too many intermissions? What kind of a reason is that?
P.B.: It was all start and stop. I just wanted to have more fun onstage. I auditioned for parts but stayed on with Martha because I never got any.
J.B.: Did you tell Martha you were auditioning?
P.B.: I don’t think she would have approved.
J.B.: More auditions?
P.B.: I finally got chorus parts from Agnes de Mille in her revivals—Brigadoon, Carousel, and so forth. Someone [Harry Haun in the Observer] wrote that my career was like the trajectory in a pinball machine. The title of that article was “From Anybodys to Somebody.”
J.B.: And Hal?
P.B.: I kept auditioning for the part of Anybodys in 1957, but Jerry [Jerome Robbins] finally gave it to Lee Theodore. The show went out on the road and came back to New York at the Winter Garden in 1960. Lee had been injured, so I auditioned some more. Jerry wasn’t around. Hal hired me. My first part in a Broadway show.
J.B.: Did this have something to do with Dad and Roger Stevens?
P.B.: Hell, no. We didn’t know Hal that well.
J.B.: But you got closer to Hal.
P.B.: Sure. He was the producer. We had kind of a silly-flirty rapport. Said that we were going to run off to California together. Never happened.
J.B.: You got friendly with Hal.
P.B.: He respected your father, and we saw him socially in the 1960s. Hal and Judy entertained. Not close-close friends, never part of his posse of courtiers—Hal needed that—but good friends.
J.B.: How long did you stay in West Side? Till the end of the run?
P.B.: Yeah. All 249 performances. Till it closed. Mornings teaching up at Julliard. Sometimes matinees, run home to give you a bath, and back to the Winter Garden.
J.B.: And then?
P.B.: I started staging and choreographing Off Broadway. The Me Nobody Knows; You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown … Don’t you remember?
J.B.: And Hal?
P.B.: After I did Grease on Broadway in 1972, Hal called and asked if I would do A Little Night Music. Sondheim’s idea for a show. What a great pair they were. Great music, but it was a singers’ show. Not fancy-dancy choreography. Musical-theater staging. I asked Hal why he wanted me to do this. I’ll always remember what he said: “Because you have more fun on the stage than anyone I know.” Treasure that line.
J.B.: Great line. What then?
P.B.: The next thing we did was Candide, and then we did … Don’t you have a list of stuff I did with Hal?
P.B.: Well, why don’t you?
J.B.: Hold on a second, let me look it up. Here it is on Wikipedia: Stage productions. It says Over Here, 1974, and then Candide, 1997. Must have been the revival.
P.B.: Hal didn’t do Over Here. I think Candide was 1973.
J.B.: Right after A Little Night Music?
P.B.: I think so.
J.B.: Pacific Overtures was 1976.
P.B.: But first Candide, and then we did Night Music in London. I hung out over there mostly with dear Hugh Wheeler [the librettist].
J.B.: I’ve got a sweet picture of you and Hugh at a London coffee shop near the Adelphi. I came over from Paris for the opening in 1975, remember?
P.B.: Poor Hugh. The trouble was Hal never paid enough attention to him. I had to take care of him. Then I had to run back to the States for a road show of Grease.
J.B.: Hugh was a great collaborator-dramatist for Hal: Sweeney Todd, Candide, Pacific Overtures, and more. And then—it was rumored—he fell down with AIDS, right?
P.B.: Unfortunately, yes. I gotta go. You gotta go. My head’s getting woozy with all this.
P.B.: I love you so much. Talk to you later.
J.B.: Hugh Wheeler?
P.B.: He was some book writer. And always around the house. Remember? During Candide?
J.B.: And Hal?
P.B.: He was the spirit of the musical theater. Irreplaceable. Great producer. Fine director.
P.B.: Just say, “I miss him already.” That’s enough.
J.B.: Candide? Hal?
P.B.: Just say, “Great producer, intuitive and inspired director.” That’s all you need to say.
J.B.: I need 600 words.
P.B.: I think we’ve done it. I think we’re done.
J.B.: Let me see.
P.B.: See, and I’ll think some more. Call me tomorrow if you want.
The next day
P.B.: No proscenium. In the round with little stages all between the audience. Complicated staging.
P.B.: We made it work together. We barely spoke.
P.B.: We didn’t have to finish each other’s sentences. He came up with ideas. We just made it happen. I need context in choreography. Hal had vision. Bravery and intuition. As soon as he had the context and he knew that I knew what we were doing, he’d hand off that part of the show to me. And that would be that. It would either work, or if it didn’t, I’d re-do it for him.
J.B.: He left you to your devices?
P.B.: Oh, yeah, totally.
P.B.: Oh, yeah. He fancied himself a great planner, but really, he was intuitive. Irreplaceable.
J.B.: Irreplaceable intuition?
P.B.: Irreplaceable bravery and intuition.
J.B.: And so prolific.
P.B.: This is true.
J.B.: And driven.
P.B.: He loved working. He was happiest on the stage preparing a show. That’s where both of us—that’s where I am happiest, as you know. It’s where I live. It’s where he lived. Not working is unthinkable. We always need to be on to the next show.
“He fancied himself a great planner, but really, he was intuitive.”
J.B.: At one point, you had four shows with Hal running concurrently on Broadway?
P.B.: At one point, I had four shows running, but I don’t think they were all Hal. I worked on Grease, Night Music, Candide, Over Here. Two were Hal’s. Pacific Overtures was a little later.
J.B.: Pacific Overtures?
P.B.: Huge production. Enormous cast playing the Japanese and the Brits. Amazing costumes by Flossie [Florence Klotz]. A big, big wonderful show, in every sense.
J.B.: And the other shows with Hal—Roza , Parade , LoveMusik , and the one you keep talking about that was just in the works?
P.B.: Roza flopped at the Royale Theatre. Sometimes they just don’t pan out. Parade at Lincoln Center, about the lynching of Leo Frank down South, was next. You saw that in rehearsal and loved it. You said it maybe got over-produced onstage with the big-hanging-tree set looming over the whole show. Hal was a great producer who loved to direct. Sometimes one got in the way of the other.
J.B.: It seemed Hal got more socially conscientious as he got older.
P.B.: He always had a string of that, but it increased.
J.B.: LoveMusik and the show you two were planning?
P.B.: LoveMusik, about Kurt Weill, was O.K. I don’t remember it so well. Hal had all kinds of ideas all the time. This new one was about kids with Asperger’s.
J.B.: A musical about kids with Asperger’s?
P.B.: I know. Hal and I just talked about it. Not sure where that was going.
J.B.: Maybe we can wrap this up.
P.B.: Look, I’m passionate about Hal. I don’t think there would even be a musical theater without him. I’m talking about conceptual musical theater. I’m not just talking about songs and dances stuck into the shows. Hal would never let that happen. Just say I miss him already. That’s enough.
Jonathan Becker is a photographer living in New York