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Hal Prince, Giant of Broadway and Reaper of Tonys, Dies at 91

By Bruce Weber

Hal Prince, the Broadway royal and prodigious Tony winner who produced or directed (and sometimes both) many of the most enduring musicals in theater history, including “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running show in Broadway history, died on Wednesday in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was 91.

A spokesman, Rick Miramontez, said Mr. Prince, who lived in Manhattan, had been on his way home from his residence in Switzerland when he died in Iceland after a brief illness.

Mr. Prince began working in the theater in the halcyon days of Broadway, when Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein were its songwriting kings, the stage musical was a robust American art form (not to mention an affordable entertainment option) and theater songs were staples of the airwaves.

His contributions were prolific, persisting through challenging eras — when rock ′n’ roll threatened to make show music irrelevant, when the decline of Times Square discouraged Broadway attendance, when the arrival of popular British musicals like “Phantom” pushed aside their American counterparts, and when corporations like Disney entered the Broadway sweepstakes and miniaturized the impact of the independent producer.

Mr. Prince’s singularly significant role in shaping the Broadway musical during the second half of the 20th century was attested to by the Tony award for lifetime achievement he received in 2006.

That was his 21st Tony, a number far surpassing that of anyone else in multiple categories. His count began with the 1955 best musical, “The Pajama Game,” which Mr. Prince co-produced with Frederick Brisson and Robert E. Griffith; it reached 20 in 1995 for his direction of an extravagant revival of “Show Boat,” the landmark 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein 2d adapted from Edna Ferber’s novel about life on a Mississippi steamship.

Often considered the foundation of the modern musical for its character development and melding of score and story, “Show Boat” was a fitting valedictory — though not quite his final show — for a man who helped expand the possibilities of narrative in the musical theater form.

Mr. Prince was known, especially in the first decades of his theater life, as a fiendish workaholic; at one point, in 1960, three shows that he produced were appearing on Broadway at the same time.

He was known, too, for his collaborations with a murderer’s row of creative talents, among them the choreographers Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett and Susan Stroman, the designers Boris Aronson, Eugene Lee, Patricia Zipprodt and Florence Klotz, and the composers Leonard Bernstein, John Kander, Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Mr. Sondheim was Mr. Prince’s most frequent confederate and Mr. Webber his most profit-generating, with their work together on “Evita,” about the opportunistic Argentine populist Eva Peron, and on “The Phantom of the Opera,” which Mr. Prince directed in London and on Broadway.

Mr. Prince was attracted to provocative material — he took on political prisoners and gay persecution in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1993) and anti-Semitism in “Parade” (1998) — that pushed the musical in an audience-challenging, as opposed to simply audience-pleasing, direction.

A showman of an old-fashioned stripe with an amalgam of skills and experience in both the business and the art of the theater, he began as a high-energy producer, motivated more by the efficient deployment of resources than by artistic vision or idiosyncrasy. But he grew into a formidable director with a commanding leadership style and strong ideas about what a show should look and sound like.

His productions were often large in every sense, their emotional resonance heightened by grandiose or otherwise audacious performances (Patti LuPone in “Evita,” Elaine Stritch in “Company”) and dazzling, opulent design; think of the swooping chandelier in “Phantom” or the Rube Goldberg-esque human-flesh-to-meat-pie mechanism in “Sweeney Todd.”

‘A Visual Imagination’

“The two things that characterize him most are energy and impatience,” Mr. Sondheim said in an interview for this obituary in 2016. At the time, Mr. Prince, at 89, was preparing to direct Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” (a show he directed on Broadway in 1982) for New York City Opera. “He trained as a stage manager,” Mr. Sondheim added, “and he learned the business from the ground up, so he knows how to order a pair of shoes, which many producers don’t.”

He continued: “A visual imagination is, if not his greatest strength, then one of them. He sees things visually first, and he knows what a show looks like in his head before he takes it on. In a certain sense, if Hal had his druthers, he’d direct operas only. His heroes are directors like Max Reinhardt” — the influential Austrian-born director from the first half of the 20th century — “the ones who pulled out all the stops.”

As both a producer and a director, Mr. Prince was a nurturer of unproved talent. Tom Bosley, for instance, later known as Howard Cunningham on the nostalgic television sitcom “Happy Days,” won a Tony in his first starring role in 1959 as the titular mayor of New York, La Guardia, in “Fiorello!” Liza Minnelli made her first Broadway appearance — and won a Tony — as the title character in “Flora, the Red Menace,” a 1965 politically-inflected musical set in 1935 about a spunky fashion designer who falls for a Communist. Produced by Mr. Prince and directed by George Abbott, “Flora” also featured the first Broadway score by the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, who later wrote “Chicago” and two shows produced and directed by Mr. Prince: “Zorba” and “Cabaret.”

A featured actor in “Cabaret,” Joel Grey, was a largely unknown nightclub performer with few theater credits when Mr. Prince hired him in 1966 for what turned out to be a career-defining role: the arch, leering M.C. of the bawdy Kit Kat Club in Weimar-era Berlin.

“Cabaret” was pivotal in Mr. Prince’s career, the first of his directorial efforts (after four others) to be a hit. Based on stories by Christopher Isherwood and John van Druten’s play “I Am a Camera,” it told the melancholy love story of Sally Bowles, a flighty, British expatriate singer, and a visiting American writer played out against the backdrop of rising Nazi menace. (In the 1972 film version, directed by Bob Fosse, Sally, played by Ms. Minnelli, was an American.)

It was Mr. Prince, the producer as well as the director, who originated the idea for “Cabaret,” which became known for, among other things, its strikingly layered atmospherics: the winking tawdriness and hint of societal mayhem in its score and its choreography (by Ronald Field), and especially in its scenic design, a mirrored set by Boris Aronson that reflected the audience back on itself and implicated it in the high concept of a population allowing itself to be co-opted. The show won eight Tonys, including two for Mr. Prince.

“Cabaret” was a turning point in the musical theater form at a time when the relevance of Broadway was at a low ebb. Times Square, the center of Manhattan’s — and hence the country’s — theater district, had begun its slide into forbidding disrepair. Rock ′n’ roll was in ascendance, taking over the airwaves and displacing show music as the soundtrack of American popular culture. And forces like the antiwar movement, civil rights, the sexual revolution and mind-expanding drugs had created a countercultural moment that made it easy for audiences — especially younger ones — to reject an art form associated with previous generations and a sunny acceptance of the status quo.

The ‘Concept Musical’ Dawns

“Cabaret” was among the first of the so-called concept musicals — shows organized around ideas rather than the telling of a pure story. It was a herald for a new era in the musical and a new strain in Mr. Prince’s work, one that became especially evident in his shows with Mr. Sondheim, which explored darker, more harrowing elements of the human experience than had generally been portrayed on the musical stage.

“Since the concept musical was still in a formative stage, this was a schizophrenic show,” the critic and Broadway historian Martin Gottfried later wrote. “One half of it was an orthodox musical play whose story unfolded in dramatic scenes with duly integrated book songs. The other half, however, startled and changed Broadway.”

The arc of Mr. Prince’s career was unusual, but it began like many show business careers did, with good fortune and a lift from an old hand. In his case the mentor was the great producer-director-writer George Abbott, for whom Mr. Prince worked in the late 1940s as an office assistant and later on shows Abbott directed.

Mr. Prince was an assistant stage manager on a 1949 Abbott presentation, the musical “Touch and Go.” And after a stint in the Army, he was the stage manager for “Wonderful Town” (1953), the Tony-winning musical, directed by Abbott, about a pair of sisters arriving in New York from Ohio. It starred Rosalind Russell and featured music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

When Mr. Prince and Robert Griffith, another stage manager in the Abbott stable, acquired the rights to a novel, “7½ Cents,” by Richard Bissell, Abbott and Robbins shared the directing chores for the show that emerged from the book, “The Pajama Game,” a romantic comedy set amid a labor dispute at a pajama factory. And when Mr. Prince and his fellow fledgling producers fell short in raising the money for the show — because neither they nor the choreographer, Bob Fosse, the composer, Richard Adler, nor one of the chorus girls, Shirley MacLaine, were as yet bankable names — Abbott kicked in the needed cash.

From there followed a remarkable string of musicals presided over by the Prince-Griffith producing team, among them the baseball fantasy story “Damn Yankees”; “New Girl in Town,” an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s lusty drama “Anna Christie”; and “Fiorello!,” the admiring stage bio of the Roosevelt-era three-term mayor of New York. All were directed by Abbott and each ran more than a year.

“I was grateful,” Mr. Prince told the reporter Rex Reed for an article in The New York Times in 1968, “but I still wanted to be a director, not just a fellow with a lot of bumbling enthusiasm who said, ‘Yeah’ and ‘Swell’ or ‘Great’ a lot. I was not creative, not an artist. I was doing interviews about box-office grosses. I didn’t want to be a business man. I am a good one, but only by default. I didn’t get into the business to keep books.”

By then Mr. Prince’s precocity and success were notable enough to have been lampooned: Mr. Bissell did so in “Say, Darling,” based on his “7½ Cents” experience on Broadway, and the book was adapted for the stage in 1958, produced by Jule Styne and Lester Osterman Jr. and directed by Abe Burrows. Robert Morse played the character based on Mr. Prince, presenting a caricature of the man himself — excitable, phone-obsessed, overly mannered, generally unpleasant.

“When I saw it I was furious,” Mr. Prince said. “But I was that way. I see it now. I was so nervous, so desperate for success.”

Teaming With Sondheim

Mr. Prince and Mr. Sondheim, whose mentor was Oscar Hammerstein, met in 1949 at the Broadway opening of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” and their friendship and aspirations ran parallel throughout the 1950s. Mr. Sondheim has said that the only autobiographical song he ever wrote was “Opening Doors,” from “Merrily We Roll Along,” a 1981 flop directed by Mr. Prince that was their final Broadway collaboration; the song, about two young men and a young woman looking to make their mark in New York City, was based, Mr. Sondheim acknowledged, on himself, Mr. Prince and their friend Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers.

The relationship between the two men became a professional one with “West Side Story” (1957), the now-famous urban adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet.” At the time, Mr. Sondheim was a still young Broadway lyricist working with venerable partners — the composer Leonard Bernstein, the book writer Arthur Laurents and the director Jerome Robbins — when he called his friend Mr. Prince to complain that the show was in trouble. Their producer, Cheryl Crawford, had dropped the project, Mr. Sondheim said.
Mr. Prince and Mr. Griffith took over the show, which ended up as a striking departure from the conventional book musicals of the day, with its tragic events, adventurous, modern score and the use of choreography (by Robbins) to propel the narrative. A harbinger of later developments in the stage musical, “West Side Story” was a landmark Broadway production, though it won only two Tony Awards, one for Robbins’s choreography and the other for Oliver Smith’s scenic design. (“The Music Man” was best musical.)

Few working partners have made such a mark on the theater as Mr. Prince and Mr. Sondheim. Mr. Prince produced “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), a hit farce set in ancient Rome that starred Zero Mostel and was the first Broadway show for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. In the 1970s and ′80s they collaborated, generally to critical praise but infrequent audience favor, on some of Broadway’s most ambitious and serious musicals.

The more successful shows included “Company” (1970), a mordant reflection on loneliness about a single man and his married friends; “Follies” (1972), an equally mordant reflection on aging and regret about the reunion of a musical revue company; “A Little Night Music” (1973), a period romantic comedy set in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden, based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night”; and “Sweeney Todd” (1979), perhaps Mr. Sondheim’s most ambitious work, an operatic grand guignol that told a lurid (though occasionally very funny) tale of vengeance. The title character is a murderous barber whose affectionate co-conspirator is a shop owner who stuffs her meat pies with Todd’s ground-up victims.

By then some critics had begun to find Mr. Prince’s directorial strokes overblown, his productions heavy-handed in theme and design. In a Times essay in 1982 with the headline “What Ails Today’s Broadway Musical?,” Frank Rich took issue with three of Mr. Prince’s efforts. In Mr. Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures,” (1976), about the American-influenced modernization of Japan, and Mr. Lloyd Webber’s “Evita,” which opened just a few months after “Sweeney Todd,” Mr. Prince indulged “in superficial seriousness,” Mr. Rich wrote.

Of “Sweeney Todd” itself, he wrote that the production, its eight Tony Awards notwithstanding, was wildly out of proportion to the material, an opinion that Mr. Sondheim has acknowledged he shared and whose validity has been underscored by subsequent, more modest productions.

“By inflating a Dickensian tale to cosmic proportions, the enormous production seemed to imply that the audience were guilty of the Victorian injustices that led to Sweeney’s murderous acts of revenge,” Mr. Rich wrote. “Might not the hero’s tragedy have better stood simply and intimately on its own?”

Mr. Prince would go on to direct two of his biggest successes, “Phantom” and “Showboat,” in the more-is-more mode that he had helped create and that came to represent a Broadway era characterized by spectacle.

But Mr. Rich was writing on the heels of one of Mr. Prince’s most calamitous failures, “A Doll’s Life,” a musical sequel to “A Doll’s House,” Henrik Ibsen’s domestic drama of a woman’s revolt against the stultifying expectations of womanhood. With book and lyrics by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and a score by Larry Grossman, huge sets and grandiose sound amplification, it closed after five performances, a victim of its outsize self-importance.

“How one wishes that this director,” Mr. Rich wrote of Mr. Prince, “who did so much to destroy the clichés of musical staging that existed on Broadway when he began his career, would once again leap ahead of the fray. His innovations of the 1960s and early ′70s have now become as calcified as the conventions he once helped to overthrow.”

A Comfortable Upbringing

Mr. Prince was born Harold Smith Jr. in Manhattan on Jan. 30, 1928, to Harold Sr. and Blanche (Stern) Smith. His parents divorced, and by the early 1930s his mother had remarried, to Milton Prince, a stockbroker. In a 1989 biography by Carol Ilson, “Harold Prince: A Director’s Journey,” Mr. Prince is quoted as saying that he had never liked his father and that they hadn’t seen each other much, though his father had had a long life; even so, into the early part of his career he was known as Harold Smith Prince.

His upbringing was affluent; his mother was an ardent theatergoer, and Mr. Prince recalled being taken as a boy to the Mercury Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar,” a polemical adaptation aimed at the time at rising European fascism, with Orson Welles as Brutus. Aspiring to be a playwright, Hal attended private school in Manhattan and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was active in the Penn Players, a still-extant student theater group. He ran the university radio station, directed one of his own plays and acted in a production of “Pride and Prejudice,” a theatrical adaptation of the Jane Austen classic.

After graduating he returned to New York, where he eventually found work in George Abbott’s office doing odd jobs, including some writing for Abbott’s television projects. The Army interrupted his early career for two years, a European hiatus that he judged afterward to have been beneficial.

“I was an ambitious and nervous fellow, and it slowed me down; it made me more rational, less nervous, more adult,” Mr. Prince said in a 1964 interview, though it was decades before he shook his reputation as a detail-obsessed control freak. His son, Charles, an orchestra conductor, was asked as a boy what his father did. “He works late and makes money,” the boy replied.

Mr. Prince married Judy Chaplin, daughter of the composer and lyricist Saul Chaplin, in 1962. In addition to her and to Charles Prince, he is survived by a daughter, Daisy Prince, a theater director; and three grandchildren.

At Thanksgiving 1960, the Griffith-Prince production team had three Broadway musicals running simultaneously: “Fiorello!,” “West Side Story” and “Tenderloin,” about an 1890s social reformer in a New York City red light district, with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, who also wrote “Fiorello!” But in June 1961, shortly after “Tenderloin” closed at a loss and a play they produced, “A Call on Kuprin,” shut down after just 12 performances, Mr. Griffith died, and Mr. Prince was on his own.

His career as a solo producer began with a comedy, “Take Her, She’s Mine,” about the conventional parents of a precocious young woman, written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron and based, at least in part, on their daughter Nora, the future writer and filmmaker.
The show ran for more than a year, but George Abbott was the director, and Mr. Prince was still laboring in his shadow. His first attempt at directing, “A Family Affair,” a 1962 musical about squabbles over wedding plans, was short-lived. Then came “Forum,” directed by Abbott, a show with big troubles on the road that Mr. Prince produced reluctantly but that was famously saved from oblivion by a new opening number written by Mr. Sondheim, “Comedy Tonight.”

“One quality Hal has is he refuses to accept defeat,” Mr. Sondheim said in the 2016 interview. “When we opened ‘Funny Thing’ in Washington and it got scathing reviews, we played to 50 people in a 1,200-seat auditorium. Almost any other producer would have closed it. Hal was willing to go ahead and take a chance on it. It wasn’t even that he loved the show that much, but once he was there, it was his baby, and he fought for it.”

Mr. Prince wore his dual hat for the first time in 1963, producing and directing “She Loves Me,” a frothy romantic comedy based on a Hungarian play that became a 1940 Hollywood film, “The Shop Around the Corner.” (Nora Ephron adapted it much later for her film “You’ve Got Mail,” making it a New York story.) “She Loves Me” didn’t make money, but critics praised it.

A Record With ‘Fiddler’

Mr. Prince’s next project was “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on stories by Sholom Aleichem. Produced by Mr. Prince, directed and choreographed by Robbins, with music by Bock and Harnick and a book by Joseph Stein, it won nine Tonys and ran for nearly eight years — more than 3,200 performances — the longest run in Broadway history at the time.
Mr. Prince’s astonishingly long résumé includes Off Broadway shows — he directed “Diamonds,” a 1984 baseball-themed revue, and “The Petrified Prince,” a historical fantasy with a score by Michael John LaChuisa — and a handful of operas, beginning in 1976 with his staging of “Ashmedai” by Joseph Tal and including Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in 1989, both for New York City Opera.

In the 1970s he was an artistic director of the New Phoenix Repertory Company, which presented several nonmusical revivals on Broadway, including O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown” and Friedrich Durrenmatt’s “The Visit,” both of which he directed. He produced “Side by Side by Sondheim,” a 1977 revue, and “On the Twentieth Century,” a Comden and Green musical with a Cy Coleman score; and co-produced and directed “Hollywood Arms” (2002), based on a memoir by Carol Burnett.

His penultimate Broadway project was “Lovemusik” (2007), a musical based on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, with a book by Alfred Uhry, with songs by Weill and others.

Mr. Prince was given a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1994 and a National Medal of Arts in 2000. Perhaps the tribute he most coveted, however, nearly didn’t happen and ended in disappointment. An elaborate musical retrospective of his career, “Prince of Broadway,” directed by Mr. Prince himself along with Susan Stroman, was presented in Japan in 2015, but it struggled at first to find sufficient financing for a Broadway opening. It took place at last in August 2017. Critics were cool to the production, which skated across the narrative of Mr. Prince’s career without offering much introspection, and it closed in just over two months. It was his last Broadway production.

It wasn’t Mr. Prince’s only brush with musical failure. His flops included “It’s a Bird ... It’s a Plane ... It’s Superman,” in the 1960s, and “Grind” and “Roza” in the 1980s. But no failure was perhaps so poignant as “

We Roll Along.” Written by Mr. Sondheim with a book by George Furth (who also wrote “Follies”), “Merrily” is a show business story that rewinds the lives of its three main characters, from success and bitterness back to the innocence and aspirations of youth. It was criticized for, among other things, its unpleasant tone and Mr. Prince’s decision to have youthful actors play the roles throughout, even at the start, when the characters are older.

The storytelling problems were never adequately solved, and it closed after just 16 performances in 1981. (An Off Broadway revival was mounted this year at the Laura Pels Theater.) Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Prince never worked together on Broadway again, though more than 20 years later they collaborated on another troublesome musical — its various titles included “Wise Guys,” “Bounce” and “Road Show” — that never made it to Broadway.
Mr. Sondheim denied that there had been a falling out.

“The show was a failure,” he said. “We were both bitter about the experience, and there was a lot of Broadway bitchery, but the show failed because people didn’t like it.”

Then he added:

“If there’s a burning plane, I want Hal to be the pilot. He’s just great faced with difficulties, and he’s a terrific leader. I watched him after ‘Pacific Overtures’ had been massacred by critics. And he had to address the cast, give them courage, even though he was hurting just as much.

“I thought, This is a captain!”

Now only Stephen Sondheim is left of the original group
Tags: 1957 broadway, hal prince
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