Good Night, Sweet (Hal) Prince

A theatrical giant passes and why it matters

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On July 31st, 2019 the legendary producer/director Harold Smith Prince passed away at the age of 91. The lights went out all over Broadway and well they should. For more than five decades Prince toiled on the Great White Way, leaving behind a legacy which may never be equaled.

Photo – Denys Nevozhai

His star burned bright and it burned early. He produced his first Broadway show (The Pajama Game) at the age of 26, receiving the first of an unprecedented 21 Tony Awards when it won Best Musical. The show ran for 1,063 performances and was soon followed by four more Best Musicals – Damn Yankees – 1955, Fiorello! – 1959, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – 1962 and Fiddler on the Roof in 1964.

Photo – Alev Takil

His first foray into directing came in 1962 with the short-lived A Family Affair. The show was not a success, running only 65 performances, but it would be hard to blame Prince for taking it on. The book writers were James Goldman (The Lion in Winter), legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, A Princess Bride, All The President’s Men) and music by John Kander (Cabaret, Chicago, Curtains). It was, in fact, the only musical Kander ever did without his future collaborator, Fred Ebb.

Photo – Tatiana Rodriguez

The short life of A Family Affair proved to be the exception rather than the rule, however, and many of the shows Prince directed turned out to be among Broadway’s all time classics, including Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Kiss of the Spider Woman, etc.

Photo – Jason Briscoe

In 1984 Andrew Lloyd Webber went to Cameron Mackintosh with the idea of writing a romantic love story, something different from his previous hits Evita and Cats. His first choice of lyricist was an interesting one, to say the least. He contacted songwriter Jim Steinman, the man who wrote the wildly successful Meat Loaf album ‘Bat out of Hell’. Steinman declined (it would have been fascinating to see what they would have produced had he said yes) and Richard Stilgoe was hired, although Charles Hart re-wrote some of the later lyrics. Hal Prince was hired as director. The rest, as they say, is history. Lloyd Webber’s ‘romantic love story’ The Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway in 1988 and, thirty years later, it is still running. Not only has it outrun Lloyd Webber’s other shows Cats, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Aspects of Love and School of Rock, it’s outrun them COMBINED. I’m beginning to think the damn thing will never close.

Photo – Alev Takil

But for all the success, all the acclaim, all the awards (his 21 Tonys are more than any other individual) what we’ll perhaps miss most by the departure of Hal Prince is something not as tangible. Prince was a showman. He was a man of the theater. He was a director with an extraordinary vision and a producer who could make it happen. He took unprecedented chances. Whether it was a show about Russian pogroms against the Jews (Fiddler), the rise of Nazi Germany (Cabaret), a forbidden love affair (West Side Story), a homosexual prisoner in Argentina (The Kiss of the Spider Woman) or Antisemitism in Georgia (Parade) Prince never shied away from a project because he was worried about the theme or giving offense or whether the audience would accept it. He knew that if it was good enough, the audience would come. And he didn’t do revivals. Hell, his shows are the ones which get revived.

Photo – Rob Laughter

Hal Prince lived to be 91. It may take another 91 years or more to replace him. Good night, sweet prince.

More information about Harold Smith Prince and the Broadway Blog

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