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A Tribute to Broadway’s Prince

Category Broadway

|by Ron Fassler |

‘Up In the Cheap Seats’ author Ron Fassler looks back on Hal Prince’s immeasurable contribution to Broadway

The Pajama Game (1954), Damn Yankees (1955), Fiorello! (1960), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Evita (1980), The Phantom of the Opera (1987), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1993).

Each of these dozen Hal Prince Broadway shows won the Tony for Best Musical. Nine of them he produced; four he produced and directed, and four he directed without producing. And this list doesn’t include additional Tonys he won as Best Director – for Follies (1972), Candide (1974) and Showboat (1995).

And that’s only a partial list of his accomplishments. In all, he received twenty-one Tony Awards, an achievement unlikely to ever be topped. If this were baseball instead of the theater, he’d be Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays rolled into one.

Hal Prince on the set of his record-breaking hit, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev\TASS via Getty Images)

Hal Prince on the set of his record-breaking hit, ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (Photo by Vyacheslav Prokofyev\TASS via Getty Images)

Hal Prince died last week at the age of ninety-one. If you love musical theater, it is impossible to imagine it without his creative input and generosity of spirit. In the world of theater, 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 that he was often referred to as the most important person in musical theater in the second half of the twentieth century.

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. At the early age of twenty-six, he was responsible for co-producing The Pajama Game. Though an overnight hit, he still insisted on carrying on his duties as an assistant 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 produced Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, all of them enormous hits. For a time, Fiddler earned the status as the longest running show in Broadway history. That record now belongs to Phantom of the Opera, which Prince directed, and will in September begin its 33rd year at the Majestic Theatre.

Prince started his directing career in earnest in 1962. Though he did excellent work on a few shows, it wasn’t until 1966 that critics stood up and took notice with Cabaret. Breaking entirely new ground, Prince’s bold building of his now-legendary “concept musicals” led the way for a surge of shows over the next three decades that included a simply staggering array of brilliance. Working alongside the likes of such collaborators as Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett, Boris Aronson, Andrew Lloyd Webber and so many others, Prince helped all of them to produce some of their greatest works.

Born January 30, 1928, he was lucky enough from a very young age to have been treated by his parents to the theater, where he found not only true delight, but his true calling. At fourteen, when he took in a performance of 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 theater thrilled him the same way it did as a child, evidenced when he told me in a 2013 interview I conducted with him that he saw the original production of Long Day’s Journey into Night five times in the first ten days. Whether that’s an exaggeration or not, we’ll never know, but I choose to believe it.

That enthusiasm never diminished. The stories of the grace and wisdom he displayed, not only towards his own shows, but also those of his contemporaries, are endless. Prince was always willing to lend a supportive eye and ear. It was extraordinary to go on Twitter this past week and read the beautiful tributes that poured in from the Broadway community.

“RIP Hal Prince…” wrote playwright Paul Rudnick. “He was what Broadway meant, in the very best sense, because he thrilled and challenged audiences and made his shows matter.”

From Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Hal Prince was a giant. Every footprint he left in our world changed its landscape forever. His friendship meant everything. To all of us. What a life. What a light. What a tremendous loss.”

“I performed on Broadway in seven shows, and had the honor and good fortune to work with Hal Prince in a personal and deeply loving way,” wrote Tony-nominated actress Patti Cohenour, who appeared in three of Prince’s shows. “He was an enigma, and extremely bright. That could be intimidating, but to me, it was just exciting. You know that you were in the presence of greatness, and not many people have that chance.”

All those words are beautiful, but then there was Audra McDonald’s tribute: “No words.”

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