I woke up last week to the news that Harold Prince had died. For many I am certain this was nothing more than a news item of passing interest. However for me, it was so much more.
Should I have been surprised? Not really. After all, the man was in his 90s. Nonetheless, for me he was one of those people who would, or at least should, always be there, you know? I marked my professional life in the theater by Hal Prince.
Just in case you don’t know, Harold ‘Hal’ Prince was the greatest producer and director of the last 70 years. That’s more than just my opinion. Think of any great musical from the last half-century, at least, and chances are it was a Hal Prince musical. Upon his death Andrew Lloyd Webber called the “Prince of Broadway,” as Prince was known throughout the industry, the “crowned head” of musicals. Without a doubt he was.
I grew up with musicals. When I was young we had an old RCA Hi-Fi, and on early Saturday mornings before the rest of the family arose, my dad and I would sit and listen to the vinyl musical albums he had. I cherished those times. There began my love affair with musical theater. One of the earliest I recall is “The Pajama Game.” Another was “Damn Yankees.” Yet another was “”West Side Story.” We were from New York City and my parents saw these marvelous shows. Dad bought the albums and we listened and listened. I knew them by heart. They were pure magic, and they were all produced by Hal Prince.
By the time I was old enough to really know about these things, Hal Prince had become my idol. He had his finger in … no, more than that. He was the organizing creative genius that drove one musical after another onto the Broadway stage, collaborating with such luminaries as Kander and Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Bock and Harnick, Bob Fosse, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Bennett, Webber and Rice, Boris Aronson, Patty Zipprodt … the list goes on and on. He lifted them up. He opened doors. He changed the trajectory of American, even World musical theater.
In the early 1960s he produced “Flora, the Red Menace,” introducing Liza Minelli, “She Loves Me” with Barbara Cook and “Fiddler on the Roof,” which set Broadway on its collective ear. But Prince wanted to do more than produce; he wanted to direct. With his next show, he did both. “Cabaret” was something different still. It was the establishment of the concept musical, a style that had yet to find a place on the American stage. He made the concept musical something audiences and practitioners would contend with for the next 50 years. He would never just produce again. His establishment as a director was secured.
But it was the ‘70s that saw his greatest work, and his greatest collaboration with Stephen Sondheim. It was the earthshaking explosion of “Company” that changed everything. It changed Broadway. It changed the way concept musicals were perceived. It forever changed the American Musical Theater. Prince and Sondheim changed it and the musical would never be the same.
It changed me, too, and my very understanding of musical theater and what it was capable of accomplishing. I, too, wanted to direct musicals. Soon I was doing just that. Working within the structure of the concept musical. Later, I would even get to perform my dream role and appear onstage as Bobby in a production of “Company” on the stage of the Old Town Playhouse. I would also direct a number of musicals that my directorial role model had created, including the one I consider his greatest — “Sweeney Todd” — also at the OTP.
The arc of my professional life in the theater has been shaped by my study of Hal Prince, the director. In his lifetime he won 21 Tony awards; the most in the history of the awards. His production of “Phantom of the Opera” is the longest-running musical in Broadway history and in London, where it continues running.
Prince said, “The perfect expression of receiving a lifetime award is to be working when they’re handing it out.” He was. He also said, “I really don’t spend time thinking about the past. I think about the future. I’m not stopping.”
Hal Prince died at the age of 91. He was still working.