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Editor's note: In the summer of 2021, the author of this piece, Christopher Massimine, was exposed as a fabulist with a résumé riddled with lies. He subsequently resigned from his position at Arizona's Pioneer Theatre, citing mental illness. When editing this essay in 2019, I removed multiple "facts" that I could not verify regarding his theatre credits. Admittedly, there's no way to confirm his alleged reminiscences and I suspect some of his interactions with Hal Prince were embellished or downright fabricated (sadly, we cannot ask Mr. Prince). However, his celebration of Prince and the joy the legend inspired in artists and audiences alike rings true, even if Massimine used fibs in his story.
A former producer of Yiddish Fiddler recalls his quarter-century friendship with the late legend
A Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish -- sounds crazy, no? No crazier than the story of how I, a nice Catholic boy, ended up running the century-old National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and executive producing the show at the Museum of Jewish Heritage last summer. I have the late Hal Prince to thank for that and, frankly, my entire theatrical career.
When I was a sprout, my parents took me to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Even though I was already working as a professional child actor, the production blew my mind. I remember thinking to myself, who put this together and made it into such a wonderfully moving piece of art? Over the months that followed, I researched everyone involved in bringing Phantom to fruition, but I was especially fascinated by the contributions of Harold Prince. I quickly learned that Hal had an indelible impact on every project he touched, be it as director or producer. No other individual seemed able to draw out so much inspiration on stage. Even though every show requires hundreds of wildly skilled professionals, everything is meaningless if there isn't someone in the driver's seat who can see the project through. I craved to know more. So I did what all precocious children do -- I wrote to my hero:
Dear Mr. Prince,
I am 8 years old and interested in what you do. Maybe when my show is over one night we can talk. I would like that, and I think you would like that, too.
Your biggest fan,
PS - I am acting in New York!
Eloquent, right? Within a few days I heard back from him. By the end of the week, I was in Hal's office, sitting behind his desk in a large chair from which I could barely see him. With extraordinary kindness and infinite patience, he answered every question I threw at him, from the mundane to the audacious. He smiled and laughed, and years later told me he got a "hoot" out of that day.
Over the next year, I continued to write my hero and he always responded. Then, for a period of about a decade, our letters stopped. I was growing up and out of touch. My senior year, I decided to go to NYU to become a biochemical engineer. By then my memories of Hal were as hazy as my childhood on stage. But that changed one night during my freshman year.
My RA had scored a floor's worth of complimentary tickets to the Alfred Molina-led revival of Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. It was my first Fiddler and to me it felt like the perfect musical. It resonated in a way so true and universal.
When I got back to my dorm, I enthusiastically thumbed through the program. On the title page, below the authors' names, I spied "Originally produced by Harold S. Prince," and I was suddenly plunged into a panic. Seeing his name awakened the artist in me and, over the next week, my mind raced back and forth, questioning whether my passion for science was genuine or whether I was just scared of the instability of the stage. It was a midlife crisis before my life had really begun. So, I did what all newly maturing people who don't have a clue do -- I penned an old acquaintance for advice. Within in a few days, I received a charmingly concise response:
You should come to my office this week.
A blast from the past,
Again, with extraordinary kindness and infinite patience, Hal answered every question I threw at him. I left that meeting thinking this man must think I'm insane, and will never speak with me again. How wrong I was. Hal wrote me the next day with four sentences that changed my life:
Over the last several hours I have given your dilemma considerable thought. If you can make theatre your life, you should. Author a story from which you can stand tall. Of course, this is none of my damn business.
I switched my major and set forth to become a producer. Hal wrote me every month for the remainder of college. When I graduated, I went into general management, marketing and production. By 25, I was co-producing the Tony-nominated musical American Idiot. At 27, I became the chief operating officer of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF) and by 29, I was its CEO.
The idea for Yiddish Fiddler was hatched during my tenure. In 2013, our executive team was planning our annual gala. We were all aware that it was Fiddler's 50th anniversary and a colleague noted that the show's lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, was also turning 90. NYTF's artistic director, Zalmen Mlotek, recommended we stage a concert version of the musical in its original English, and our executive director, Bryna Wasserman, suggested we invite cast members from past productions to take part.
We visited Hal to see if he could help make this event happen. As usual, he quickly worked to connect the dots. Before I knew it, I was surrounded with people who all knew and had great affection for Hal and Fiddler. The gala was, as Hal put it, "first-rate." At the after-party, Zalmen and I talked about how powerful doing the show in Yiddish -- the language the Jewish characters would have actually spoken in turn-of-the-20th-century Russia -- would be.
Following my appointment as CEO, I set my sights on making Yiddish Fiddler a reality. It was to be as authentic and simple as possible -- the beauty of the story had so often been overshadowed by spectacle in other productions. We had honored Tony and Oscar winner Joel Grey at a gala a few years earlier, and I thought he would be the perfect director. Zalmen and I each consulted with Hal, who was in agreement. Zalmen and I invited Joel to do it, explaining how necessary a Yiddish Fiddler would be in a world caving to hate, fear and anti-immigrant sentiment. It was the ideal opportunity for the theatre to take an active role in restoring human decency and togetherness through identifying commonality. "Everyone has had their version of Anatevka," Hal once told me. "We all have been strangers in our home."
After Joel accepted, I called to thank Hal for helping to convince him. Hal corrected me, insisting there was no convincing involved, just a shared vision. "To do that takes two things, pal: You must listen and hear. It is only after that you will be heard. And pal, you will be heard." My mind hadn't been blown like that since I first saw Phantom. In those few sentences, Hal's secret to success was revealed.
I took Hal's advice and, one conversation at a time, built a team unlike any I'd previously collaborated with. We all had the same aim with Yiddish Fiddler: to create an experience that would link every audience member to their family history as well as to each other, and to send them out the doors with the motivation to create a better tomorrow. While I was at NYTF, we sold out every performance of Yiddish Fiddler at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and now that the production has transferred uptown to Stage 42, it continues to move audiences.
It took hundreds of wildly skilled professionals to get this show up on its feet. But it took just one man's interest in me to set this journey in motion. I wish he were still here so I could write him the following letter:
Dear Mr. Prince,
I am now 33 and am managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company and a senior administrator at the University of Utah. Before I left New York, I helped produce the theatre industry's most unlikely hit, as you well know. I should be on cloud nine, and yet I am in great agony, suffering from the loss of my mentor, and my friend. I am sitting here at my desk wondering how I can honor -- correction celebrate your memory. Maybe when my time is over, you and I can talk again. I would like that, and I think you would like that, too.
Your biggest fan,
Christopher Massimine is the managing director of Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC), the former CEO of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene (NYTF), co-founder of the Immigrant Arts Coalition and a Broadway producer. When he's not co-running PTC's creative business operations with artistic director Karen Azenberg, he is wearing the hat of general manager for each production. His wife Maggie has the patience of a saint.
Top image: Christopher Massimine and Hal Prince outside the Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2018. Photo courtesy of the author.
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