On July 31, 2019, the theatre community lost one of its most influential artists. Producer and director Hal Prince worked on some of the most important shows in musical theatre history, from Cabaret to The Phantom of the Opera.

In 2017, Jeffrey Sweet covered the revue Prince of Broadway for Dramatics, offering a retrospective of both the show and of Prince’s career.

PRINCE OF BROADWAY, recently produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, attempted to do for Harold Prince what Jerome Robbins’ Broadway did for Robbins in 1989. It didn’t.

It couldn’t.

Hal Prince

Hal Prince

The Robbins retrospective offered a large cast of dancers and singers recreating a bumper crop of songs and dances he had choreographed, including material from On the Town, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Peter Pan, The King and I, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Prince offered numbers from shows that Hal Prince directed or produced, but the show can only suggest how his involvement influenced the final product. Unlike Robbins, he didn’t choreograph any of the excerpts presented. The sole concrete insight Prince delivered was a story about how a shabby entertainer in Germany in the early 1950s inspired the seedy but charismatic Master of Ceremonies of Cabaret. That character addition led to the show’s reconception as the work we know now. I would have welcomed more stories like this, but I suppose for that I’ll have to read Prince’s recently published memoir, Sense of Occasion.

So, yes, Prince of Broadway disappointed. Yet, I couldn’t help enjoying how it triggered memory after memory of a lifetime of theatre-going, beginning when I was 9 and saw the national touring company of West Side Story in Chicago. If my memories generally seemed richer than the samplings in Prince, well, those memories are pretty rich.

There were still considerable compensations within Prince. The only thing wrong with Karen Ziemba was that she wasn’t featured more — she did a terrific job singing “So What?” from Cabaret and “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd. Tony Yazbeck had a breakout turn dancing up a storm doing “The Right Girl” from Follies and generally represented a New York street sensibility. Finally, Bryonha Marie Parham’s versatility was on display in three numbers representing wildly different roles — Show Boat’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” She Loves Me’s “Will He Like Me?” and the title song from Cabaret.

Overall, this tribute could not do justice to a subject who has inspired such depth and breadth of influence. To state it simply, what Prince did was continue the revolution begun by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Early musicals were mostly collections of diverting songs and dances distracting from wafer-thin plots. Hammerstein decided to push the form to engage more serious concerns. He first did this by writing the book and most of the lyrics for Show Boat, a 1927 musical that contrasted white versus black lives on the Mississippi River. (Prince directed a notable revival of this on Broadway in 1994.) Then, with composer Richard Rodgers, Hammerstein created a series of masterpieces that continued to explore substantial subjects and feature characters of psychological complexity — most notably Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music.

Prince began producing as a very young man. Two of his early hits were frothy but durable concoctions called The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. The turning point came when a show involving a friend lost its producer, and Prince took over. The friend was Stephen Sondheim, and the show was West Side Story. It is hard to overestimate the impact West Side Story had when it opened in 1957. It seemed to announce, “See? The musical can be Art!” Sondheim provided the link between Prince and Hammerstein; Hammerstein served as a surrogate father figure to the young
Sondheim and schooled him in musical theatre theory.

After depicting the racism and gang violence of West Side Story, Prince produced Fiddler on the Roof, another show dealing with tragedy rooted in intolerance. Then came Cabaret, with the unlikely subject of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s.

Cabaret began life as a fairly conventional book musical based on John Van Druten’s play I Am a Camera (in turn based on the semiautobiographical novel Goodbye to Berlin, by Christopher Isherwood). The show depicted two young English visitors to Germany — an aspiring writer named Cliff and a nightclub singer of limited talent named Sally Bowles — who rent a flat in a Berlin rooming house from an older woman being courted by a Jewish grocer.

In early drafts, song followed scene in the standard Rodgers and Hammerstein model. Then Prince recalled that shabby German entertainer and had songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb write a series of nightclub songs through which the Master of Ceremonies provides oblique commentary on the unfolding plot. When I saw the original production in 1967, it struck me that a domestic war was being waged onstage between two sister shows, and the Master of Ceremonies’ material was winning.

In 1970, Prince produced and directed Company, which takes place in the mind of Bobby, a 35-year-old single guy wrestling with emotional commitment and urban alienation. (Another thing Prince of Broadway fails to mention is that it was Prince who conceived the character of Bobby, to tie together what began as a series of short scenes about married couples by George Furth.) Company sparked a series of Prince-Sondheim collaborations that experimented with the form and subject matter of musicals, culminating in a show set in Victorian London, the unlikely hero of which is a barber who slaughters customers so his lady friend can bake them into pies. Sweeney Todd had come a long way from the giddy pleasures of, say, Anything Goes.

Meanwhile, generally speaking, we have come a long way from the 1988-89 season, back when Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opened. That season was so bad for musicals that the Tony category for best book and best score for a musical were both eliminated. There wasn’t anything worth nominating.

In contrast, all four musicals vying for last season’s best musical Tony were very much worth nominating. At this writing, two are still thriving at the box office: Dear Evan Hansen (which won the Tony) and Come from Away, about 7,000 travelers who got temporarily stranded in Newfoundland in reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11.

This motif of being stuck in a small town is central not only to Come from Away but also two other musicals (both adapted from films) that opened last season: Groundhog Day (which may be the funniest musical I’ve seen since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum but which was expensive to run and closed prematurely) and The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian military band scheduled to perform in Israel that ends up in the wrong town. Following a successful Off-Broadway run, the latter, directed by David Cromer, is scheduled to open on Broadway on November 9.

As it happens, the director of The Band’s Visit was originally supposed to be Harold Prince. I’m not privy to how Prince left and Cromer stepped in, but this is not the only currently running show that Prince was originally approached to direct. David Merrick was producing a musical based on a play by Thornton Wilder called The Matchmaker. Prince listened to the score and replied that one song in particular didn’t make dramatic sense. Prince said, “This is for a scene where a woman who doesn’t go out decides to visit a restaurant?” That is how Hal Prince did not end up directing the premiere of Hello, Dolly!

As you probably know, the Broadway return of Hello, Dolly! is a smash hit all over again, with Bette Midler giving a Tony-winning performance in the title role. Midler plays Dolly as an extension of herself: the joyous, welcoming party hostess who happens to have a story. One night a week, Dolly is played by another star, Donna Murphy, herself a double Tony winner. Murphy is musical theatre’s great chameleon, having played very different leads in PassionThe King and I, and Wonderful Town. Both Midler and Murphy are remarkable in the role.

Oh, another interesting fact: Murphy also played the role of Lotte Lenya in LoveMusik, a show directed by … you guessed it, Hal Prince.

The man does make his presence felt.

This story appeared in the December 2017 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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