January 30, 1928 – Harold Smith Prince in 1928:
“I was there when the quote-unquote golden age of musical theater was flourishing. I met everybody who worked in theater or was famous in theater from the ’40s on.”
Born in New York City, he is known in the biz as ”Hal” Prince, and if you are not a theatre person, all you need to know is that over the span of his 70-year career, he took home 21 Tony Awards, more than any other individual, including eight for directing.
As a producer and director, Prince was a giant, making a significant contribution to Musical Theatre. He also received ten Drama Desk Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 and the National Medal of Arts in 2000.
At the University of Pennsylvania, he was actively involved in the student theatre group, the Penn Players. He returned to Manhattan after graduation in 1948 and began working as an assistant stage manager to the biggest producer and director of the first half of the 20th century, George Abbott. This experience led to co-production opportunities on first two musicals that won Tonys for Prince: The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955).
After several co-productions, including the classic West Side Story (1957), Prince began to produce his own musicals. Fiddler On The Roof (1964) was an enormous success with a record-breaking run of over 3000 performances between 1964 and 1972. Prince then became a director. Many of the most popular, groundbreaking musicals of all time were created under his direction, including Cabaret (1966), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1979), Evita (1979), and The Phantom Of The Opera (1988).
A true innovator, Prince was noted for his collaborations with the greatest composer/lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, together pioneering the development of the ”concept musical”, taking its inspiration from an idea or theme rather than from a traditional story. Their first project of this genre was the landmark Company (1970), which paved the way for other innovative musicals: Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981).
He had so many hits: New Girl In Town (1957), Fiorello! (1959), A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum (1962), She Loves Me (1963); along with a few misses such as Tenderloin (1960), and A Family Affair (1962), Baker Street (1965), Flora, The Red Menace (1965), It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman (1966), A Doll’s Life (1982), Roza (1987), Parade (1998); but also masterful staging for shows like Zorba (1968), Candide (1974), On The Twentieth Century (1978), and Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1992).
These do not include restaging and directing the original productions in several different countries, nor his work with opera companies.
His inventive ability to find the exact visual framework brought about a drastic reshaping of the modern musical. His production of The Phantom Of The Opera, debuting on Broadway in 1988, eventually became the longest-running show in Broadway History.
His few forays into film directing include a bizarre misstep with A Little Night Music in 1977, but he also directed one of my favorite movies, the sinister, funny Something For Everyone (1970).
If you want to know more, and you really should, please watch Harold Prince: The Director’s Life (2018), a documentary as inventive as his own work. It is part of PBS’s Great Performances series and can be found on the PBS archives. In a peek at his creative process, watch the poignant Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (2016) about the making of the ill-fated Merrily We Roll Along.
Hal Prince was 91 years old when he took his final bow in 2019.