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Prince of Broadway: 10 Unforgettable Musicals Directed by Harold Prince

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |

The quintessential musicals helmed by the late, great director

On July 31, 2019, Broadway lost one of its greatest and most awe-inspiring artists, director and producer Harold Prince. Boasting a prolific career that spanned over six decades, Harold Prince was an indelible part of the history of the American musical, leaving his fingerprints on an array of shows that were often revolutionary landmarks of the form. Prince started out as the producer of such iconic shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof. It was, however, as a director that Prince truly impressed, often finding breathtaking and novel approaches while ushering to the stage some of Broadway’s greatest musicals. Sure, he had a few shows along the way that presented challenges, and refused to work in their initial (and/or only) productions (Merrily We Roll Along, A Doll’s Life, Grind, Roza, Parade), but these were far outshined by a watershed of critical and artistic successes. Today, we celebrate ten of his best, the shows that truly awed and inspired thanks to his abounding talent, his astute vision, and his generosity of spirit.

Harold Prince passed away on July 31st, but his legacy lives on through musicals like ‘Phantom’ (Photos: Walter McBridge/Getty Images; ‘The Phantom of the Opera’)

Harold Prince passed away on July 31st, but his legacy lives on through musicals like ‘Phantom’ (Photos: Walter McBridge/Getty Images; ‘The Phantom of the Opera’)

She Loves Me
Prince’s first foray into directing for the Broadway musical stage was Family Affair, a mostly forgotten show. His next outing, however, came in the form of a gentle little gem, the 1963 musical valentine She Loves Me. Based on Miklos Laszlo’s 1937 play Parfumerie, itself adapted into the films The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime. She Loves Me had a score by the team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who would go on to write the score for Fiddler on the Roof, and a book by Joe Masteroff, who would write the book for Cabaret. For She Loves Me, Prince understood the quaint nature of the story. He judiciously kept the tale about a pair of co-workers who hate each other at the Budapest parfumerie where they work, but who are in love with each other as anonymous pen pals, intimate and understated. She Loves Me enjoyed a modest run, but would emerge over time as revered bijou of the canon of American musicals.

If She Loves Me was Prince’s indoctrination into successfully directing for the musical theaterstage, it was with the 1966 Tony-winning Cabaret that he cemented his stature as a mover and shaker. The musical featured a score by the composing team of Kander and Ebb and a book by Joe Masteroff, adapted from John Van Druten’s play I Am A Camera. Set in and around the seedy Kit Kat Klub in Berlin, during the Nazi rise to power, Cabaret was a show-within-a-show musical. Its creators used the acts within the nightclub to make commentary on the darkness that was taking over the world outside its doors. Prince masterfully wended his way from backstage to onstage, vice-versa, and sometimes presented those worlds simultaneously, and did so with such aplomb that he won his first Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical.

Harold Prince had worked with Stephen Sondheim before, Prince having been a producer on musicals such as West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. With Company (1970), the duo would launch a decade-long partnership of director and composer/lyricist that would yield some of the most unconventional and form-evolving musicals of American theater. Company has come to be known as one of the first successful “concept musicals,” where a theme is explored instead of following a traditional story arc of a linear plot. Set in a contemporary New York City, Company followed the bachelor Bobby and his interactions with various married couples as he questioned his own perspectives on commitment. Prince would (once again) win a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical, and the show won Best Musical.

Continuing his partnership with Sondheim, and adding book writer/playwright James Goldman to the collaboration, Prince’s next Broadway outing would be the ambitious Follies (1971), which he would co-direct with Michael Bennett. A musical that takes place at the reunion of the Weismann Follies (think Ziegfeld) where former stars of the series convene for one last time before the theater of their salad days is demolished. The ghosts of their past are also in attendance as well. Prince and Bennett staged an intricate telling of parallel stories, moving back and forth through time, that sometimes saw past and present meet. Many will point to Follies as Prince’s greatest work (though the musical had a relatively short run for a Prince show), with Prince and Bennett winning the Tony Award for Best Direction. Best Musical, however, went to Two Gentlemen of Verona

A Little Night Music
Prince and Sondheim’s most elegant collaboration was the 1973 romantic comedy of errors, A Little Night Music. Hugh Wheeler was tasked with crafting a libretto from Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay for the film Smiles of a Summer Night, upon which the musical was based. For the musical, Sondheim wrote all of the score in waltz time (or variations of), a symbolic representation of the many love triangles that are at the center of the musical’s plot. Prince staged the show with a breezy sweep and a hint of melancholy, perfectly capturing the themes of hope and regret where the pursuit of love are concerned. A Little Night Music won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and also enjoyed a breakout hit in the song “Send in the Clowns.”

Sometimes when a musical fails to resonate, it just needs a different mind with a unique perspective to make it work. This was the case when Prince breathed new life into the 1956 “floperetta” Candide, based on the oft-read Age of Enlightenment novella by Voltaire. The story follows an optimist who sets on journey to find “The Best of All Possible Worlds.” Prince practically overhauled Candide for a 1973 revival, employing Hugh Wheeler to rewrite Lillian Hellman’s libretto (Hellman refused to let her work be used), excising about half of the musical numbers, and then staging it in an environmental production that required the gutting of the Broadway Theatre. The staging involved islands of performing spaces connected by bridges that filled the auditorium, and the action took the actors into the audience. Prince resurrected Candide and turned it into a critical hit. Prince, in turn, received his next Tony Award for this clever magic.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Though arguments can be made for many musicals that represent Harold Prince at his most innovative, it is hard to overlook the shear brilliance and riveting nature of his work on the 1979 Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as his most career-defining. Once again working with Sondheim and Wheeler, Prince was instrumental in shaping this macabre musical about a murderous barber out to seek justice for his wrongful imprisonment by a lecherous judge who was after Sweeney’s wife, and ultimately his daughter). Sweeney unleashes his rage on mid-19th-century London, contemptuous of mankind, killing the customers who visit his parlor, then conspiring with a local meat pie shop proprietress to hide the bodies inside her wares. As gory as it sounds, Prince saw it as a metaphor for society where man eats man, the unforgiving world a factory that churns out Sweeney Todds. To make this metaphor tangible, Prince chose a staging that evoked the Industrial Revolution, everything unfolding as a large, cold machine with a Brechtian, in-your-face, starkness. Both the musical and Prince won Tony Awards.

Taking a 1976 musical concept album, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, Harold Prince had to summon all the tools of his creative arsenal and employ them in bringing the musical Evita to the stage. The album told the story of the Argentine actress Eva Duarte, who climbed her way out of poverty to become the wife of her nation’s president, often manipulating the system to her advantage along the way. Using projections as well as loads of pomp, circumstance and pageantry, Prince constructed what was not just a compelling story, but also a must-see spectacular event. Evita premiered in London’s West End in 1978, and came to Broadway the following year, where it (surprise!) won the Best Musical Tony Award and Best Direction. The show also made a star out of Patti LuPone, who played Eva for the Broadway berth.

The Phantom of the Opera
Of course, one of Prince’s most monumental projects was helming Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. Prince took this musical boasting a lush score, but that was relatively thin on plot, and transformed it into a startling visual feast with an almost cinematic storytelling utilizing spectacle, special effects, and visual hypnosis. Prince would win a Tony for his efforts and this piece about an opera ghost and his obsession with a certain ingenue would go on to become Broadway’s longest-running musical, a record still held today after over three decades of enchanting audiences. The Phantom of the Opera was an enormous success in London’s West End before crossing the pond to Broadway’s Majestic Theatre in 1988 where it settled-in and continues to play to this day. 

Kiss of the Spider Woman
1993 would bring one of Prince’s most courageous and daring projects, the stage musical adaptation of Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. The musical had been the inaugural project of the New Musicals workshop at SUNY Purchase in 1990, intended as a safe place for gestating musicals to evolve outside of the eye of NYC critics. That didn’t stop them from coming and writing about the early version of Kiss of the Spider Woman, tearing it to shreds and destroying the New Musicals program in its infancy. Despite this setback, Prince stuck by Kiss of the Spider Woman, helping to sort out its troubles by shaping it in Toronto, then in London’s West End, before it came to Broadway in 1993, where it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. With a score by Kander and Ebb and a book by Terrence McNally, the story is that of a gay window dresser who shares a South American prison cell with a radical revolutionary.  To help them pass the time and endure torture, he recalls his favorite movie musicals, escaping into their fantasy and romance, all while being pursued by an angel of death. Prince always did his best to find a way to make a story work, and with Kiss of the Spider Woman he found a way to seamlessly stage transitions between stark reality and escapist fantasy.

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