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).
Born January 30, 1928, he was lucky enough from a very young age to have been treated by his parents to the theatre, where he found not only true delight, but his true calling. At fourteen, when he saw Porgy and Bess, he intuitively saw something in it that spoke to him and told him to keep coming back. Even after becoming a successful producer, the theatre thrilled him the same way it did as a child, evidenced when he told me that he saw the original production of Long Day’s Journey into Night five times in the first ten days (and whether that’s an exaggeration or not, we’ll never know, but I choose to believe it).
That enthusiasm never diminished. I was fortunate to see a limited engagement of Candide presented by the New York City Opera in January of 2017. Having first rescued this show out of purgatory, where it had been waylaid since its unsuccessful original Broadway production in 1956, Prince’s initial reimagining of it downtown (prior to its moving to Broadway) in 1973 was a critical triumph. Over the years, the show would become something of a talisman for him, as he returned to it time and again. Giving a rebirth to Bernstein’s ingenious score, Prince turned it into the playful romp it was always made to be, made extra joyous by way of his deft touch.
The stories are endless of the grace and wisdom he displayed not only towards his own shows, but those of his contemporaries, as Prince was always willing to lend a supportive eye and ear. Mentored by George Abbott, one of the most prolific men of the theatre in the first half of the twentieth century, Prince was taught by a master how to give of himself selflessly. When I asked Prince the greatest lesson learned at the feet of Mr. Abbott (as he was known to one and all), he said, “Discipline; don’t think of the theatre as some sort of place to indulge your artistic whims, emotionally. Deliver! It’s a job. Go to work and do it.”
And now Prince’s work is finally done. What began with his first duties as an assistant stage manager on Tickets, Please!, a 1950 Broadway revue ended with 2017's Prince of Broadway, a revue consisting of musical numbers from shows he produced or directed over sixty-seven years of near-constant creative activity: a career in the theatre that he never left and gave his life to with steadfast devotion.
However, there was one honor which escaped his illustrious career — and that was to have had a Broadway theatre named for him. Why the powers-that-be did not make that effort on his behalf these many hears is a head-scratcher to me. Especially considering that (until today) there was no living person more worthy. To my mind, the most appropriate candidate for a name change has always been the Majestic Theatre, the longtime home to Phantom of the Opera, Prince’s most lucrative success. I often half-joked that if the Shubert Organization didn’t want to lose the Majestic entirely, they could have renamed it “The Prince-Majestic.” The words fit, and it is only fitting that Prince should have seen his name in lights in a permanent way, so that generations to come would know that along with that name came a majestic quality to practically all he touched.
The world of the theatre is now a sadder place with Hal Prince no longer being being an active part of it. We will rarely, oh so rarely, see his likes again.
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