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Harold “Hal” Prince, the masterful producer and director who served as the driving force behind such acclaimed Broadway musicals as Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Cabaret and Sweeney Todd, just to name a few, has died. He was 91.
Prince died Wednesday morning after a brief illness in Reykjavik, Iceland, his rep announced.
“He is missed and loved by his family — Judy, his wife of 56 years; his daughter, Daisy; his son, Charles; and his grandchildren, Phoebe, Lucy and Felix,” a statement said. “As per his wishes, there will be no funeral but there will be a celebration of his life this fall with the people he loved most, the members of the theatrical community that he was a part of for seven decades.”
It’s hard to name another creative force who had more of an impact on American theater during the 20th century than Prince. For more than seven decades, he was either producing or directing a Broadway production, and it wasn’t unusual for him to be doing both.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Prince produced such iconic shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof.
In 1962, Prince added directing to his résumé with A Family Affair. As a producer-director, his hits included She Loves Me, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures and Merrily We Roll Along.
Wearing just his director’s hat, Prince did On the Twentieth Century, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Kiss of the Spider Woman. He also guided revivals of The Visit, Cabaret, Show Boat and Candide.
Prince was one of the most honored individuals in theater history. His productions earned 16 best musical Tony nominations, and eight won. He himself garnered another 19 noms — 16 for best direction (winning eight) and three for producer (winning two). He received special Tony Awards in 1972 for Fiddler on the Roof and in 1974 for Candide. Fiorello! in 1960 accomplished the rare feat of winning a Pulitzer Prize for drama, almost unheard of for a musical. Prince also took home 10 Drama Desk Awards for directing, and in 2006, the Tonys honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2017, Prince teamed with Susan Stroman to co-direct Prince of Broadway, a musical retrospective featuring songs from his productions.
“What Hal has achieved has been groundbreaking,” Stroman told Backstage in 2017. “He really has guided us all in his choices and done pieces that have changed the course of the history of theater.”
Prince summed up his career in nine words in a 2017 Washington Post article: “Putting unlikely shows on Broadway that ultimately made history.”
Prince’s talent for cultivating hits with unusual subject matter was unparalleled. Who else would have thought that Broadway audiences would go for a union dispute in a garment factory (The Pajama Game); a Washington Senators fan making a pact with the devil (Damn Yankees); gang clashes in New York (West Side Story); the struggles of a Jewish family in 1905 Russia (Fiddler on the Roof); or the mood of Berlin as Nazi Germany rose before World War II (Cabaret)?
His list of offbeat musical protagonists is just as long — a reformist New York mayor (Fiorello!), a comic book hero (It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman), an Argentinean despot (Evita), a murderous barber (Sweeney Todd) and a silent-movie monster (Phantom of the Opera).
“Popular music was the music of musicals, and it isn’t anymore,” Prince said during a 2017 segment of All Things Considered for NPR. “So, once that happened, you could examine other subjects and make musical numbers about an infinite variety of complicated psychological matter.”
Prince’s producing sense was as keen as that of anyone who ever raised money for a Broadway production. He became an expert at budgeting productions that paid investors back faster than most; in turn, those investors were eager to pour money into the next project.
An expert negotiator, Prince also was a wiz at luring the best talents to work with him — and at a price that would keep productions affordable. He had no trouble convincing top talent — George Abbott, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Kander & Fred Ebb and Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick — to sign on. And he brought out the best in them.
“He always makes me want to go to the piano and write,” Sondheim said during the NPR segment. “I always leave meetings with Hal just bursting with ideas. Hal’s as stimulating as anybody I’ve ever met.”
“He is so visual,” added Lloyd Webber. “And when he gets something right, visually, I mean, nobody gets it more right than him.”
Harold Smith Prince was born Jan. 30, 1928 in New York City. According to Carol Ilson’s 1989 biography Harold Prince: A Director’s Journey, he rarely saw his father and was raised by his mother and stepfather in upper-middle-class prosperity.
Prince believed he developed his knack for producing and business acumen from his father, a Wall Street stockbroker. His love of the theater came from his mom, who would take the young Prince to many a Saturday matinee. His first was a Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar, featuring a 21-year-old Orson Welles.
Playtime for Prince meant listening to broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera and simultaneously staging them in his living room at home.
“I had a cardboard stage and some tin soldiers from the five-and-dime, and I’d listen to the plot and move the soldiers around while they were singing on the stage of the Met,” he explained in a 2018 New York Times interview. “Since they were always singing in a foreign language, which I didn’t speak, my first act would end sometimes before the first act at the Met, and sometimes they’d say, ‘And the great golden curtain has just closed,’ and I was still in the middle of the first act.”
Prince initially preferred dramas over musicals. That changed when he saw a production of On the Town in 1945, which alerted him to the possibilities of music and dance. It didn’t hurt that On the Town featured a creative team that included composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The production was directed by Abbott, who would become his mentor.
In 1944, Prince graduated from The Franklin School, a private Upper West Side prep school, and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. He was only 16. Prince opted for a liberal arts curriculum, studying English, psychology, philosophy and history. The goal was to become a playwright. He became an avid member of the Penn Players, writing several productions.
Prince graduated in 1948 and started sending original plays to New York producers. One caught the eye of the head of the script department at ABC-TV. He arranged for an interview with Abbott, who was forming an experimental TV unit. Prince offered to work on spec for the project and was hired. Within two weeks, he was earning $25 a week. He did odd jobs and some writing, working mostly with Abbott’s wife, Mary, who was spearheading the TV efforts. One of his scripts was for The Hugh Martin Show, a musical series featuring Martin, Joan McCracken and Kaye Ballard.
When Abbott decided to fold the television enterprise, Prince was certain he was out of a job. But Robert Griffith, Abbott’s stage manager, hired Prince as his assistant, and his theatrical career was off and running.
Not yet 21, Prince’s first assignment was the 1949 musical/comedy review Touch and Go, by Jean and Walter Kerr. The following year, Abbott was overseeing Tickets, Please!, starring Paul and Grace Hartman, when he got word it was having trouble during its preview run in Boston. Abbott wanted a stage manager to go with him to get the show back on track. Griffith was in Europe, so Abbott took Prince.
The show opened on Broadway in 1950, with Prince as assistant stage manager. Prince became friendly with the show’s playwright, Ted Luce, and during the day, the two collaborated on a comedy-murder mystery, A Perfect Scream. The Hartmans optioned the play, and Prince joined the Dramatists Guild of America.
Prince’s next assignment would have reunited him with Griffith as assistant stage manager for Ethel Merman’s hit Call Me Madam. However, the U.S. Army had other ideas, and Prince spent the next two years on duty in Germany. (He was inducted the day after Call Me Madam opened.)
Prince’s time in the service came in handy years later when he was putting together Cabaret. The show’s iconic master of ceremonies, which became a star-making turn for Joel Grey, was inspired by his nighttime outings off the base in Stuttgart, Germany.
“I had hung out in a club called Maxim’s in the basement of a bombed-out church, and there was a little MC with lipstick and eye shadow and false eyelashes, and he’d tell terrible, tacky jokes,” Prince said in the New York Times story. “And there were three very chunky girls in butterfly costumes dancing around him and one drunk at the bar and one drunk asleep at the table and me in uniform, just thinking I’d been reborn and gone to heaven — this is it.”
When he returned to New York, Prince reunited with Abbott and landed a gig as assistant stage manager on Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell. He spent 18 months with that show.
By 1954, Prince knew it was time to produce on his own. Teaming with Griffith, he acquired the rights to the novel 7 1/2 Cents, a humorous tale about a strike in a pajama factory, by Richard Bissell. Prince and Griffith convinced Abbott to collaborate with Bissell to adapt the novel. Abbott shared the directing duties with Robbins. Newcomer Bob Fosse handled the choreography. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross composed the show’s tunes. It marked their Broadway debut.
Griffith and Prince cobbled together producing funds from hundreds of small investors. Among those taking a chance on the new producing team were the cast and crew of Wonderful Town. The gamble paid off. Pajama Game was the hit of 1954, winning the Tony as best musical. Prince and Griffith were able to repay their investors and immediately set their sights on their next production, Damn Yankees.
In 1962, Prince married Judy Chaplin, the daughter of Oscar-winning composer and musical director Saul Chaplin. The couple had two children: Daisy Prince, a theatrical director, and Charles Prince, a classical music conductor. Actor Alexander Chaplin (Spin City) is Prince’s son-in-law.
Andrew Lloyd Weber reacted to Prince’s death in a statement: “Farewell, Hal. Not just the prince of musicals, the crowned head who directed two of the greatest productions of my career, Evita and Phantom. This wonderful man taught me so much and his mastery of musical theatre was without equal.”
The American Theatre Wing also shared their condolences. “We at the American Theatre Wing mourn with the rest of the theatre community, as today, we have lost a giant. Hal was our most Tony-winning artist as well as an exceptional mentor and thought leader for our industry,” said the organization. “His legacy lives on in all the life changing theatre and artists he helped foster and shape. Rest well, friend!”
And to commemorate his life and work, the Committee of Theatre Owners will dim the lights of Broadway theaters in New York for one minute on Wednesday at exactly 7:45 p.m. ET.
“To be a both a genius and a gentleman is rare and extraordinary,” said Thomas Schumacher, Chairman of The Broadway League. “Hal Prince’s genius was matched by his generosity of spirit, particularly with those building a career. Sitting on the T Edward Hambleton Fellowship panel of Mentors alongside Hal was both a lesson in producing and a lesson in humanity. He was a giant.”
July 31, 12:23 p.m. Updated with statements from Andrew Lloyd Weber, the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League.
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