Theatre yesterday and today



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Hal Prince died today. And if you love musical theatre, it is impossible to imagine it without his creative input and generosity of spirit. In the world of theatre, there was no one I personally admired more. Not only for this many contributions as a producer and director, but also as the “prince” that he was. He mentored and aided in the careers of thousands of people over his nearly seventy-year career. It is no exaggeration when he was often referred to as the most important person in the musical theatre in the second half of the twentieth century.

Harold S. Prince (1928–2019)

For anyone unfamiliar with his accomplishments, prior to his first producing effort Harold S. Prince was a stage manager and moonlighted as a casting director. Then at age twenty-six he was responsible for co-producing The Pajama Game. Though an overnight hit, he still insisted on carrying on his duties as stage manager. Humbling to be sure, but then again the plain truth was he needed the salary (his producer points wouldn’t kick in immediately, though kick in they did). After that, he followed up with such career highlights as Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me (the first show he ever produced and directed) and Fiddler on the Roof.

Each of these shows won the Tony Award for Best Musical.

Prince himself received twenty-one Tonys, more than any other individual.

Even Audra McDonald will have a hard time catching up to that record.

In 1962, Prince first established himself as a director with the musical A Family Affair, taking over its reigns during a troubled out of town run. It wasn’t a success, nor was his second time at bat in 1965 with the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street, or a musical about another fictional hero It’s a Bird… It’s a plane… It’s Superman (but oh how I wish I’d seen it!) It wasn’t until his fourth directing effort in 1966 that he struck gold, as well as breaking entirely new ground, with Cabaret. Then over the next twenty-two years, he brilliantly staged (and cast) among others: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, On the 20th Century, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Staggering.

So smart, so brave, so passionate. And age did little to diminish those primary aspects of his personalty. When I sat down to talk with him in 2014 for Up in the Cheap Seats, he was eighty-six and sharp as a tack. I had so looked forward to it, if for nothing else that it would afford me the opportunity to personally thank him for making it possible to see all his shows back in the day for so little. When I brought up the $2 seats he made available all the way to 1973 and A Little Night Music, to my surprise, he told me, “Not many people took advantage of those seats, whether you think they did or didn’t. They went begging night after night after night.”

Glynis Johns and Len Cariou in A Little Night Music (1973).