Sense of Occasion

Harold Prince

Applause Theatre Books

Released 03 October 2017

Review by Philip Fisher

This new publication by the man more familiarly known as Hal Prince will delight anyone with an interest in American theatre over the last half-century and more.

The first half of this volume consists of material originally published in Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, a memoir that first saw the light of day in 1974. 

Rather than merely repeating himself, Prince provides commentary and updates on each chapter from the perspective of mid-2017, not far short of his 90th birthday.

In broad terms, each chapter represents a play or musical. In the early years, working with the legendary George Abbott, Prince learned the trade of producing and then took it up on his own account with a vengeance.

Subsequently, in the work covered by the later chapters of the first book and in the second half of this one, bringing matters up to date, he worked far more as a director than a producer.

As most readers will already know, Hal Prince was involved in some of the greatest productions of the mid-to-late 20th century, working closely with Stephen Sondheim and Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber.

The litany starts with The Pyjama Game and Damn Yankees and also includes amongst other choice examples of the art, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Follies, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd.

Hal Prince is clearly a feisty fellow, which must inevitably be a requisite quality for success as either a theatre producer or director. He regularly seems to have found himself in fights with writers, actors and unions as the need arose. In addition, he is a man steeped in the theatre who has always maintained the highest standards. He is also deeply moral and committed, occasionally backing losers for the right reasons and accepting his fate equably. 

Sense of Occasion gives readers a fantastic insight into life on Broadway across the whole period, discussing finance, artistic decisions and the effort involved in getting a production on to the stage and then selling it. It will undoubtedly be seen by fans as an opportunity to wallow in nostalgia, but there is more to it since Harold Prince is an eternally optimistic producer / director who is always looking forward to the next project, even at today’s august age.

The book, first published in October 2017 by Applause in the United States but also available in the United Kingdom, is not only a fine tribute to a man who has done so much to promote musical theatre and also, to a lesser extent, straight plays in America and across the globe but also a real page turner.