A Prince among men
He’s not as famous as many of the people he directed over the years, but in the theatre world, Harold Prince is a name that practically everyone knows. Prince, who passed away last week at the age of 91, was a renowned theatre producer and director who worked on too many productions to list here, and won Tony Awards for many of them.
Not being the calibre of actress with whom Mr. Prince would likely have preferred to work, I am still able to say that he afforded me one of the highlights of my entire life to date.
Way back in my university days, two friends and I decided that we would try to get standing room only tickets to the production of The Phantom of the Opera that was playing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa one Thursday night. We dressed up in our student finest and headed down to the theatre, only to find a line-up at the box office – we apparently were not the only students trying to score cheap tickets.
As luck would have it, we three were the very next in line when NAC staff came out to tell everyone still waiting that all the tickets were gone, the evening was sold out, standing room included. My friends and I were heartily dismayed, to say the least, and decided that, since we’d dressed up, we might as well go somewhere and treat ourselves out of our disappointment.
We wandered across the road and into the Chateau Laurier, figuring we may as well spend our ticket money on a drink, whine a little at our misfortune, and then head home. We sat down at the bar, ordered our beverages, and commenced our pity party. The bartender arrived with drinks, but they weren’t what we had ordered. Instead, three glasses of champagne – Veuve Clicquot, if you will – were set down in front of us, along with a shiny, silver bowl brimming with fresh strawberries.
We tried to tell the bartender that we had the wrong order, and he insisted that, no, it was correct, the man there was paying for it. He pointed to a lone gentleman sitting further down the bar who simply waved at as, said we looked like we could use a pick-me-up, and never asked for anything more than our profuse thanks.
Not believing our luck, we tucked into the berries and champagne, thinking the night’s fortunes were definitely swaying back the other way. As I stuffed a plump berry in my mouth, I glanced towards the entrance to the bar, and then whipped around to face my friends.
“That’s Harold Prince!” I half-spat, half-whispered. “Harold Prince just walked in!”
My bewildered friends listened while I explained his greatness to them, and encouraged me to go talk to him. Never could I approach him, I argued! But the champagne won. I boldly but respectfully walked up to his table for two, excused myself for bothering him, and told him that I simply adored the work that he had done with Phantom. We exchanged a couple of pleasantries, and he invited me sit with him a moment.
I sat. He asked had I seen the NAC production, and I relayed our tale from earlier in the evening. He suggested that, if we could, the following evening, go to the stage door and he would try to set aside three standing room tickets for us, we could pay the door man.
Gobsmacked, I went back to tell my friends the news, and we all rearranged work schedules for the following night, then finished our champagne. Mr. Prince said a cheery “Good night!” to us as he left, and we floated home.
As instructed, the following evening we arrived at the stage door at the appointed time and stated our business. After a wait that seemed a little too long, the door man presented me with a grey envelope. We went to give him our money, but he refused, saying that Mr. Prince had insisted we be his guests.
We peeked in the envelope and found that two seats were together in the orchestra, and another was in the front row of the first balcony. Since my friends hadn’t seen the show, we agreed they should sit together. It was my fourth time, I could go it alone.
My friends were in the eighth row. I sat with the understudies, the swing cast, and other members of the production who had nowhere else to be that night, but weren’t needed on stage, either. When one said to me, “Hey, you’re not Hal,” I realized that I had his seat. His. Seat.
If we had floated home the night before, we soared home that Friday night. The following day the show was closing, so we made haste in buying a thank you card for Mr. Prince, and we delivered it to the Chateau Laurier, along with a single, long-stemmed red rose, a reference to the Phantom playbill at the time.
He will never know how much three “starving students” appreciated his gesture. He didn’t need to speak to me at the hotel, he could have shushed me away. He didn’t need to secure us tickets, let alone the best seats in the house.
I have thought of his kindness often, and hope it rewards him now that he’s gone.