There you are: Driving to work, doing the dishes, or — let’s be serious — in your shower, singing “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Cabaret,” or “West Side Story.” If you’re into Broadway deep cuts, maybe “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Sure, the songs come from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; Andrew Lloyd Webber; Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim; Kander and Ebb. But you really have one man to thank for the fact that those tunes ended up on the stage, and subsequently in your life. His name was Harold Prince.
Prince, whom everyone called Hal, died on July 31 at the age of 91. It was the end of a life that was, in its scale and sheer showbiz flare, the stuff of American fantasy.
Born in Manhattan in 1928 to Harold and Blanche Smith, who divorced soon after his birth, Prince took on his stepfather Milton Prince’s memorable last name. He grew up Jewish, and while he dipped into the world of Broadway after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania at age 19, he began his career in truth after spending two years in Germany with the Army. Returning from service in the early 1950s, he became first a stage manager for George Abbott, a director, producer and writer who was one of Broadway’s reigning powerhouses, and then, along with fellow stage manager Robert Griffith, a producer.
The duo’s first venture was “The Pajama Game,” a now-classic musical about the fraught love between a die-hard union gal and her manager. Co-directed by Prince and Griffith, the show, burdened by its crew’s relative lack of credentials, might not have seen the stage were it not for Abbott’s financial support. His bet paid off: “The Pajama Game” won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical. And with that kick, one legend of Broadway jumpstarted the career of another.
In his first 15 years as a producer, Prince produced or co-produced a number of musicals that would redefine the genre. There was “Damn Yankees” in 1955, “West Side Story” in 1957, “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1964, and “Cabaret” in 1966. But Prince was just getting started. In the 1970s he scored a series of major successes as both a director and a producer in collaboration with Sondheim, after working with the young composer and lyricist on “West Side Story” and “A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum” (1962). “Company” (1970), one of Sondheim’s first major shows as both composer and lyricist, won the Tony Award for Best Musical and won Prince the prize for Best Direction of a Musical. The following year, “Follies,” another Sondheim vehicle that Prince produced and co-directed with Michael Wennett, nabbed him another directing trophy. In 1973, “A Little Night Music” the pair’s third collaboration of the decade, brought in yet another Tony for Best Musical.
Those awards were among the record-breaking 21 Tony Awards that Prince would win over the course of his career, including a lifetime achievement award in 2006. Among others, he gave Broadway “Candide” in 1974, “Sweeney Todd” and “Evita” in 1979, “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1986 and “Parade” in 1998.
His work was so influential as to inspire its own musical in tribute: “Prince of Broadway,” which debuted on Broadway in 2017 and marked Prince’s last go-round as a director. The show was a highlight reel of the roof-lifting songs Prince helped guide into the canon, featuring a list of musical numbers that reads like an introductory syllabus modern Broadway. There’s “Whatever Lola Wants;” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man;” “Send in the Clowns;” “If I Were a Rich Man.” For well over half a century, Hal Prince kept Broadway, and America, singing. The show will go on without him. But it will never be the same.