What I learned from Hal Prince and Steven Spielberg.

I watched Schindler’s List again last night.

Schindler’s List is Mr. Spielberg’s most criticially acclaimed film.  It won a total of 7 Oscars, including one for his own personal mantlepiece and is #9 on The American Film Institute’s list of Top 100 films of all time.
And although I’ve never met Spielberg, I’d bet money that if he could be remembered for only one movie, Schindler’s List would be the one.
It’s the kind of piece so many artists want to make.
And Spielberg did it . . . when he was 47 years old, and after making movies for well over 20 years.
Seeing Schindler’s, and looking at Spielberg’s career, reminded me of some great advice Hal Prince gave me once.
I was fortunate enough to work on three of Hal’s shows (Show Boat, Candide and the workshop of Parade).  One day, I found myself in Hal’s office, telling him that while Company Management was a fantastic day job, and teaching me a ton, what I really wanted to do was produce.
And I wanted to produce the Great American Broadway Musical.
So I pitched Hal everything I had ever thought of for a show.  The biggest ideas you can imagine.  And in the middle of pitching something that I probably thought could have the musical significance of a Schindler’s List, Hal smartly shut me up . . . and he asked me if I remembered what the first show he produced was?
I couldn’t remember.  (Tip of the “Duh” – read important people’s biographies BEFORE meeting them one-on-one).
“It was Pajama Game,” Hal said.  “Don’t come out of the box trying to produce West Side Story.  That was my 4th show.  Be happy if you get the Pajama Game.  It ran for over two years, made a lot of people money and made a lot of people laugh.”
I’m sure the Pajama Game isn’t the one show Hal would want to be remembered for, just like I’m sure Jaws or Duel (or his real first . . . Amblin’) aren’t the movies Spielberg would choose.
The masterpieces for both of these gentlemen came later.  (Non-coincidental side note:  Spielberg named his production company, the one that produced Schnidler’s, after Amblin:  Amblin Entertainment).
As young artists we all want to change the world, and create the next great thing that will be remembered forever.  The truth is, we should just worry about creating the next thing . . . period.
I went home that afternoon after meeting with Hal and started working on The Awesome 80s Prom; a show that I had come up with the idea for about five years earlier, but never started because I didn’t wanted to be remembered for an interactive show that was about drinking, and dancing, and bachelorette parties.  It didn’t seem “important” enough to start.
Looking back?  Starting The “Unimportant” 80s Prom, was the most important thing I ever did in my entire life.
The masterpiece will come later.  🙂  As it will for all of you . . . once you get started.
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  • This is very thoughtful and useful advice, Ken. Thanks for sharing your perspective. We all want to be prolific at whatever it is that we do. Yet we must stay focused on the practice of our passion. Only then can we let go and allow the outcome to take care of itself.
    Lady Dove aka Pheralyn Dove

  • I think that also very important for writers. You have to hone your craft on the traditional before you can create something daring and innovative. It’s the whole walk before you can run thing.
    It’s hard because as a writer, everyone wants to see something innovative and daring, but you need the practice of seeing your work before an audience before you can get that far.

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