The director whistles a different tune Theater: In 'Whistle Down the Wind,' Harold Prince brings his touch for the first time to the topic of religion.


Director Harold Prince has a penchant for not repeating himself.

And now he's at it again.

"I've never done anything like this. It's what gets me going," he says of the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, "Whistle Down the Wind," which begins previews Friday at Washington's National Theatre before an April 17 Broadway opening.

"Whistle Down the Wind" is the third Lloyd Webber musical Prince has directed. The others -- "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera" -- garnered two of his record 20 Tony Awards.

But what sets this latest show apart is that it deals with a new subject for Prince -- religion. Based on a 1961 British movie and 1958 novel of the same name, the musical tells the story of three children who discover a stranger they believe to be Jesus Christ.

A week ago, the cast rehearsed on the set for the first time. In the early afternoon, only the main three child actors were on stage, but the orchestra section of the National looked more like mission control at NASA than a theater. On top of the seats, a half-dozen tables were loaded down with as many as three computer terminals apiece. Manning these stations were the show's lighting, sound and set designers, the stage manager, director and their staffs -- many of whom were busy talking into telephones or headsets.

The field commander of this space-age theatrical maneuver was Prince -- a trim, white-bearded, 68-year-old man with a baseball cap on his head, whistle around his neck and wireless microphone in his hand. Whether objecting to a sound effect that sounded like a train instead of a chiming clock or affectionately addressing one of the children as "darling," there was no question that: 1) he brooked no nonsense; 2) he knew what he wanted; and 3) he was going to get it.

"He has a great knack for seeing the big picture before any of us see it. He sees the piece as a whole in his head, and he knows exactly what it should look like and what it should say and where it should go before we start," says Davis Gaines. Gaines, who plays the stranger, has worked with Prince before: He holds the record for the most performances in the title role of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Yet Prince claims that not until he turned 60 did he allow himself to admit, "You really know what you're doing." It's a surprising statement coming from a man who exudes self-confidence, a man who produced his first show, "The Pajama Game," in 1954 and directed his first play, a New York State Arts Council production of "The Matchmaker" (for Baltimore-born producer T. Edward Hambleton), in 1962.

Not that some of his subsequent shows haven't flopped, among them "Grind" and "Roza," both of which played pre-Broadway runs in Baltimore in the mid-1980s. But with producing and/or directing credits including such landmark shows as "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Sweeney Todd" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman," he has had a greater influence on the American musical than any other living director.

Central issue

Though the theme of "Whistle Down the Wind" may be new to Prince, he describes it as "an issue which is central right now to our thinking, which is spirituality, vis-a-vis organized religion."

A year and a half ago, when Lloyd Webber gave him a videotape of a workshop production of "Whistle Down the Wind," Prince recalls religion suddenly cropping up on the covers of national magazines. Since then, the subject has captured the attention of television viewers with programs such as Bill Moyers' PBS series on the book of Genesis.

That was part of the appeal for Prince. Another part was that Lloyd Webber and his collaborators -- Patricia Knop, with whom the composer co-wrote the book, and lyricist Jim Steinman -- moved the setting from northern England to rural Louisiana in the 1950s.

Initially, Lloyd Webber, Knop and Steinman planned to make "Whistle Down the Wind" a movie musical. But after the #i workshop, a number of the composer's friends told him it belonged on stage. When Prince watched the videotape, he agreed. He also was struck by the composer's use of a more traditional American book-musical format, instead of the operatic, through-composed structure of most of Lloyd Webber's shows.

The traditional American musical format is one reason Prince feels the show is well-suited to make its world premiere in the United States -- Lloyd Webber's first U.S. premiere since "Jesus Christ Superstar" 25 years ago. The Louisiana setting is an even more obvious reason, and has given Lloyd Webber the opportunity to create a score influenced by gospel music, country and rock and roll.

The Louisiana setting was also "a big inducement" for Prince as a director. Textually, it offers a range of religious denominations stretching from Southern Baptist to snake handling. Inherent in the latter is the sense of danger Prince believes is crucial to the production. He acknowledges that this dark sensibility is the one element "Whistle Down the Wind" shares with much of his earlier work.

Visually, the setting led Prince to make two suggestions to set designer Andrew Jackness: The stark paintings of Edward Hopper and one of the most basic types of scenery -- scrims, transparent theatrical curtains that can be layered in front of scenes.

Symbolically, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't effect of the scrims reinforces the illusory nature of faith.

In addition, Prince says, they typify Lloyd Webber's reaction to the high-tech shows with which the composer has long been associated. Despite the mission-control setup at rehearsals and a budget the director hopes to keep under the projected $10 million, Prince insists what the audience sees -- a farm house, a kitchen, a barn or a Hopper-esque row of storefronts -- represents a return to a more simplified look.

Designer Jackness clarifies: "Hal calls this a minimalistic show, but it's not quite what I would call minimalistic. It's definitely simpler than a 'Starlight Express' or a 'Cats,' but sometimes the stage mechanics that are required to make something simple work smoothly and cleanly are just as complex."

A visual director

Jackness, who is working with Prince for the first time, describes the director as "extremely visual. The scenery is one of his favorite things to help tell a story." And he appreciates the artistic freedom Prince granted him in designing the set. "He was able to give me a very clear guide that made perfect sense to me," he says. "He's a springboard, and then he lets you do your own dive."

Similarly, Gaines has found that trust and a strong visual sense characterize the director's approach with actors. Prince, he explains, is concerned "very much about the physical aspect of the show -- how it looks and the blocking -- and he leaves the emotional life [of the character] up to the actor."

Although this is Prince's third Lloyd Webber show, his relationship with the composer dates back to "Jesus Christ Superstar," before Lloyd Webber became an international megamusical hit maker. After hearing the "Superstar" album, Prince sent Lloyd Webber a cable asking if it were available for the stage. But the cable was lost before Lloyd Webber saw it, only to resurface years later.

Prince wrote to Lloyd Webber again in 1975 when the composer's first musical flop, "Jeeves," was in London's West End (a revised version called "By Jeeves," is currently making its American premiere at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House). "It was clear that he was in trouble, and I said, 'Don't let this one get you down,' " Prince recalls.

Some years later, when Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice were working on the album of "Evita," they asked Prince to direct it on stage. "They didn't realize I was going to have so much to say about what they had to do," the director says, explaining that he sent them a letter several thousand words long. A year and a half went by and Prince "forgot all about it. I thought they hated that letter." Then Lloyd Webber and Rice showed up at his office with the completed album. "They said, 'Now we can talk, if you're still interested,' " he recalls.

Prince wasn't involved in the forthcoming movie of "Evita." But referring to his original concept of the musical as a comment on media exploitation, he says casting Madonna "seems sort of appropriate to me. It's all smoke and mirrors, isn't it?"

Prince passed up the opportunity to direct Lloyd Webber's longest-running show, "Cats." He admits he didn't understand it.

"I was looking for some deep meaning," the director says. "I said, 'Fun, but I'm not English, so I don't get it. Is one of these cats Queen Victoria and another Disraeli or Gladstone?' [Lloyd Webber] looked at me like I'd lost my mind and said, 'Hal, it's about cats.' He never asked me to do it again."

'Cats' revival

"Whistle Down the Wind" isn't the only musical Prince is working on. He's also directing a revival of "Candide" that opens on Broadway April 29. This will be Prince's third "Candide" revival. In 1974 he directed an environmentally staged Broadway version. He then directed it on a proscenium stage for the New York City Opera in 1982 and for Chicago's Lyric Opera in 1994.

The Chicago version -- with cast changes, including Jim Dale in the double role of Dr. Pangloss and Voltaire -- is essentially the one he's taking to Broadway. Unlike its environmental predecessor, this proscenium version, he feels, does full justice to Leonard Bernstein's lush score.

His other project is an original musical called "I Love a Parade," with a book by Alfred Uhry and a score by a young composer named Jason Robert Brown. Based on the true story of Leo Frank, an Atlanta Jew lynched in 1913, the musical is expected to open a year from now.

The day before the cast of "Whistle Down the Wind" arrived in Washington, Prince visited the National Portrait Gallery exhibit "Red, Hot & Blue: A Salute to American Musicals." A case on one wall holds both his first and most recent Tony Awards (as producer of "The Pajama Game" and director of the current revival of "Show Boat," respectively). Another wall displays a Life magazine photo of an exuberant Leonard Bernstein outside the National Theatre during the pre-Broadway run of "West Side Story," a show Prince produced early in his career.

"Forty years ago next year in this theater -- 'West Side Story,' " the director says with a mixture of awe and disbelief. "It feels like five years ago."

'Whistle Down the Wind'

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington

When: Dec. 6-Feb. 9. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and Dec. 23 and Dec. 30 (no performance Dec. 24-25 or Jan. 1), 7 p.m. Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (no performance Dec. 7) and 3 p.m. Dec. 26

Tickets: $20-$70 Call: (202) 628-6161

Hear the music

To hear an excerpt from "Whistle Down the Wind," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four digit code 6136. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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