Book Review: Harold Prince — Sense of Occasion
The new book Sense of Occasion by theatrical director and producer Harold Prince is a memoir wherein he explores his vast career in theatre starting with The Pajama Game and then brings us up to date with his plans for the future. It is a curious book. For the first half, it is a reprint of Prince’s 1974 biography Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, with a page or two at the end of each chapter adding additional reflections and making new observations that only time and distance can make space for. The second half is a continuation of Prince’s story, walking us through all his productions post Candide (1974), giving most of the shows in that section the similar treatment of telling us how they came to fruition. More exciting than the fascinating history itself are Prince’s candid observations and assessments of his own work. He is his own worst critic, but he is also a conscientious man who takes his obligations to artists and audiences seriously.
The book has some particularly entertaining chapters on musicals that you don’t often get to read about. Carrying over from Contradictions, the lessons learned on shows such as Tenderloin, She Loves Me and Zorba make for compelling preservations of how these musicals and Prince’s career evolved. The reader will wish, however, that in the newer section of Sense of Occasion, Prince had deigned it worthy to tell us more about the stories behind the shows that were a challenge. Musicals like Roza and Grind are glossed over quickly and not given the treatment that other titles are. This is unfortunate as the chapters on Roza and Grind started out riveting and then quickly jumped to the end without a whole lot of details. Mr. Prince, we are hanging on every word, please don’t leave us hanging!
The best written chapter is Prince’s story about his work on The Phantom of the Opera. I have never been a huge fan of the show, but after having read the story about how it came to be, I have a gained a whole new respect for its complexity. In fact, it makes me want to revisit the show to look for some of the details and nuances that Mr. Prince tells of. I wish the same could be said of the chapter on Kiss of the Spider Woman, a musical that really went from being a disaster to a triumph. Little has been written on how that musical evolved, I wish Prince was more forthcoming about the decisions behind changes and how they made the show work differently. Is it such a bad quibble that the book entertains but makes us yearn to hear much more? Prince is niggardly with details where we want them the most.
Sense of Occasion is a fine read. I kept turning the pages and enjoying every crumb that was spared on facts and anecdotes of this career that is full of both trials and tribulations. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t always answer the questions we most want to know the answers to. Prince can be generous in one chapter and stingy in another. I highly recommend reading it because where it is good, it is unlike any other show business biography. Perhaps Prince, who is a consummate impresario of entertainment and keeping an audience engaged, is afraid we will be bored by the stories behind the shows that didn’t work. We will not be bored, Mr. Prince. We want to know as much as we can.