Prince of Broadway

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday December 18, 2018
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Producer and director Harold Prince always hoped people leaving the theater would have a conversation about the show. Photo: Courtesy PBS
Producer and director Harold Prince always hoped people leaving the theater would have a conversation about the show. Photo: Courtesy PBS

What do Broadway shows "West Side Story," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Cabaret," "Company," "Sweeney Todd," "Evita," and "Phantom of the Opera" have in common? All these legendary musicals were either produced or directed by Harold (Hal) Prince. To commemorate his 90th birthday this year, director Lonny Price has made a rollicking documentary, "Harold Prince: The Director's Life," which premiered on PBS' Great Performances series at the end of November, and is available for free streaming until the end of December. By using archival clips (with performances) as well as commentary from many of Prince's collaborators, including Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Kander, Susan Stroman, and Angela Lansbury, and a detailed interview with Prince himself, we are given insights into the creative mind of the man critics consider the greatest Broadway musical director of the 20th century.

Prince believes that audiences, while wanting to be entertained, are also open to politics and controversy. Director-choreographer Stroman notes that Prince always hoped people leaving the theater would have a conversation about the show, "thinking things they might never have thought about previously." Composer Kander observes that Prince never did anything expected. Former NY Times critic Frank Rich remarks that Prince took chances, willing to be gutsy with no guarantee audiences or critics would like his work. Consequently, all young musical directors, according to Webber, look to him as their guiding star. Producer Jeffrey Seller exclaims that a production like "Hamilton" couldn't exist without Prince's innovative explorations in musicals. Prince says his guiding principle was seeing theater as an empty black box that you fill with your imagination, allowing the audience to complete any blank spaces.

Prince knew he wanted to work in the theater from a young age. When the Depression hit his family in 1937, eviscerating their wealth, attending shows became a means of escape. At age 14 he suffered a nervous breakdown, but pulled himself up and graduated college at 19. He visited a well-known producer, padding his resume with shows he wished he'd directed, and got his first assignment directing summer stock. He wrote a letter to famed director George Abbot, saying he was willing to work for nothing. He started as an assistant stage manager, but learned his craft in an apprenticeship model that no longer exists. After serving in the Korean War, he convinced Abbot to direct "The Pajama Game," which he produced. He produced "Damn Yankees," another hit. His best friend Sondheim asked him to produce "West Side Story," which changed everything with its interplay of song, dance, and serious subject. He also produced "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Fiddler on the Roof," both blockbusters.

His dream was to direct, though he said no when producer David Merrick asked him to direct "Hello Dolly!" He wanted to choose material that excited him. His first feat, the Kander musical "A Family Affair," was a flop despite his best efforts, but it put him on the map. He directed other musicals, but they failed. With "Cabaret" and its risqué subject, he directed a landmark production, getting the idea for the emcee satirizing the Nazis from a bar in a bombed-out church in Germany with a drag dwarf as ringmaster. "Company" was a hit. While "Follies" was a critical and artistic tour de force, it didn't make money in its initial run. "A Little Night Music," "Evita," and "Sweeney Todd" gained him rave reviews with critical acclaim. Eventually he won a career record of 21 Tony Awards. But after these masterpieces he entered the longest drought of his career. "I've been in this business for 70 years, and I still don't know how to predict if a show will succeed or not." He hit the mother lode with "Phantom of the Opera," which became the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

Why is Prince so great at what he does? He loves to collaborate, encouraging artists, especially LGBTQ ones, to do their best, talking through problems until a solution is found. He was always full of energy, with his rehearsal talks legendary. Lansbury claims Prince has a movie in his head of what he wants to see, though he failed as a film director. Sondheim sums him up best when he says, "Under Hal's influence, musical theater grew up." This documentary functions as a history of the musical from the late 50s through the late 80s. Prince challenged young directors to do something daring, an inspiration made possible by his own achievements.