The Prince is dead, long live the King. Is that too glib? Perhaps, yet it is no overstatement. Hal Prince is gone, and with him passes not just an era but several eras in the crazy, complicated quilt of the Broadway musical. Take Hal Prince out of the equation and there is no Golden Era, nor silver, nor bronze. There is no post-War commercial theater, period, even as Prince himself defined, re-defined, and re-defined again what it meant to be an artist and producer working in the commercial theater.
Was it his first two popular hits as a producer, “Damn Yankees” and “The Pajama Game?” Sure. Was it “West Side Story,” for which director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, author Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim created a musical about gang warfare filtered through the lens of William Shakespeare? That, too. The dancing Cossacks of “Fiddler on the Roof,” unloved by the Variety reviewer during its Detroit tryout? Indeed. His formative shows as director, from the romantic “She Loves Me” to the decidedly unromantic “Cabaret”? Those, too.
And then the 70s, his decade-long collaboration with Sondheim, from “Company” through “A Little Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Merrily We Roll Along” — each one a shape-shifting musical that changed the scope and tenor of Broadway even more than his previous shows. And, perhaps most significant of all, the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber “Evita” (1979) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1988) that provided the parentheses to the string of flops that nearly sank him, which included “Merrily,” as well as “A Doll’s Life,” “Play Memory,” “End of the World,” “Grind,” and “Roza” (total number of performances for the six shows: 142).
“I had this absolutely charmed first couple of years,” he told me in a 1987 New York Times interview, looking back on that time with characteristic rue. “I really thought all you do is have hits; it never occurred to me that it could ever be another way.”
I well knew what he was talking about: I’d spent the spring of 1982 as a fly on the wall of rehearsals for “A Doll’s Life,” a Prince-directed musical that followed Ibsen’s heroine after the famous final scene of “A Doll’s House,” when Nora Helmer leaves home and family to make her own way in the world. The score was by composer Larry Grossman and book writer/lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green; I likened the assignment to being an eight-year-old asked to cover industry in Hershey, Pennsylvania: Imagine, getting to hang out with the legendary Hal Prince and Comden & Green on a new Broadway show!
The price I paid for access was keeping my mouth shut, as a wayward script blossomed into the most expensive flop of its time. I tracked the show from tryout in Los Angeles to Broadway opening, merciless reviews and the closing-night wake at Comden’s Carnegie Hill townhouse, commiserating with a stunned company that barely knew what hit them.
And Hal? True to his mantra, he never looked back: The next morning, he was on to his next show. Failure nurtured his creative impulses — perhaps even more than success.
“I did a bunch of flops, and I chose them,” he told me in a 2015 Deadline interview. “I did them, sometimes I did them badly. And the next day I was on to another show — leaving behind my wife and two children, who’d been to an opening night that was poisonous and read a bunch of terrible reviews. And they’re still there, and I’m on the next show. I’d had eight flops. But I also had ‘Evita’ running. I think I missed two years and two months of Broadway seasons, that’s all, in 60 years. So I’ve been on Broadway for 58 years or something, and that’s amazing. I mean, amazing, I’m grateful.”
Forget about the 21 Tony awards; they’re merely static posts in the most astonishingly fluid, visionary career Broadway has seen. Prince did more to bring cinematic values to the stage than any director since Busby Berkeley. Consider the breathtaking sweep of his go-for-broke revival of “Show Boat.” The iris that changed our perspective in “Kiss of the Spider-Woman” from close-up to wide-angle. And yet the values, in the end, were definitively theatrical values, rooted in the live experience, whether of the city sophisticates of “Company,” the roaring crowds of “Evita” or the teeming underclass of “Sweeney Todd.”
Hal Prince had no use for realism, he once told me. He was determined to shake every script out of itself, to find the larger stage, the grander image, the greater meaning.
“After I did ‘Evita,’ Andrew Lloyd Webber asked me to come to the apartment … to hear his next score, and it was ‘Cats,’” he told a crowd at the University of Pennsylvania. “And I heard it, and I said, ‘Andrew, I’m the wrong guy to direct this. It’s very English, right? Grizabella is Queen Victoria and [Munkustrap] must be Gladstone, and another one must be Disraeli.’ And he just took the longest sigh in the world, and said, ‘Hal, it’s just about cats.’ So I would have ruined it.”
He told me, in that 2015 interview, “I like to play with empty space, and I like larger than life, and I like performances the way Angie [Angela Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett in ‘Sweeney Todd’] acts. I like a heightened reality. There’s so much bullshit about the Actors Studio and about Brando mumbling. Come on. He’s the largest, most dynamic actor that ever lived. Mumbling, my ass. And I love that about the theater. I love that people project everything.”
During a break in a particularly difficult rehearsal for “A Doll’s Life,” I’d asked one of the principals about the frustration of finding what the great man was looking for. Prince, I’d learned, never made it easy, yet the actor’s answer bore no trace of animosity nor ambivalence.
”We’ll just keep doing it ‘till we get what he’s got in his head.”
I think that was true for all of us.