Obituary: Hal Prince, Broadway producer turned director of Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera and more

Hal Prince in 2013  (Picture; Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
Hal Prince in 2013 (Picture; Laura Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
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Harold ‘Hal’ Prince, theatre producer and director. Born: 30 January 1928 in Manhattan, New York, US. Died: Died: 31 July 2019 in Reykjavik, Iceland, aged 91

Hal Prince, a Broadway director and producer who pushed the boundaries of musical theatre with such groundbreaking shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, Company and Sweeney Todd and won 21 Tony Awards, has died. Prince was 91. He died on Wednesday after a brief illness in Reykjavik, Iceland while travelling from Europe to New York. Broadway marquees dimmed their lights in his honour on Wednesday.

Prince was known for his fluid, cinematic director’s touch and was unpredictable and uncompromising in his choice of material. He often picked challenging, offbeat subjects to musicalise, such as a murderous, knife-wielding barber who baked his victims in pies or the 19th-century opening of Japan to the West.

Along the way, he helped create some of Broadway’s most enduring musical hits, first as a producer of such shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof. He later became a director, overseeing such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber said it was impossible to overestimate the importance of Prince to the stage: “All of modern musical theatre owes practically everything to him.”

Lloyd Webber recalled that, as a young man, he had written the music for the flop Jeeves and was feeling low. Prince wrote to him, urging him not to be discouraged. The men later met and Lloyd Webber said he was thinking of doing a musical about Eva Peron. Prince told him to bring it to him first. “That was game-changing for me. Without that, I often wonder where I would be,” Lloyd Webber said.

In addition to Lloyd Webber, Prince worked with some of the best-known composers and lyricists in musical theatre, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb and, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.

“I don’t do a lot of analysing of why I do something,” Prince once said. “It’s all instinct.” Only rarely, he said, did he take on an idea just for the money, and they “probably were bad ideas in the first place. Theatre is not about that. It is about creating something. The fact that some of my shows have done so well is sheer luck.”

In his more than 50-year career, Prince earned a reputation as a detail-heavy director. Barbara Cook in her memoir Then & Now wrote: “I admire him greatly, but he also did not always make things easy, for one basic reason: he wants to direct every detail of your performance down to the way you crook your pinky finger.”

A musical about Prince called Prince of Broadway opened in Japan in 2015 featuring songs from many of the shows that made him famous. It landed on Broadway in 2017.

It was with Sondheim, who was the lyricist for West Side Story, that Prince developed his most enduring creative relationship. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. They cemented their partnership in 1970 with Company. Prince produced and directed this innovative, revue-like musical that followed the travails of Bobby, a perpetual New York bachelor.

Company was followed in quick succession by Follies (1971), which Prince co-directed with Michael Bennett; A Little Night Music (1973); Pacific Overtures (1976); and Sweeney Todd (1979).

Their work together stopped in 1981 after Merrily We Roll Along, which ran for just 16 performances. It wasn’t to resume until 2003 when Prince and Sondheim collaborated on the musical Bounce.

Prince was mentored by two of the theatre’s most experienced professionals – director George Abbott and producer Robert E Griffith. “I’ve had a unique life in the theatre, uniquely lucky,” Prince said in his midlife autobiography, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, published in 1974. “I went to work for George Abbott in 1948, and I was fired on Friday that year from a television job in his office. I was rehired the following Monday, and I’ve never been out of work since.”

Born in New York, Prince was the son of affluent parents, for whom Saturday matinees in the theatre with their children were a regular occurrence. A production of Julius Caesar starring Orson Welles when he was eight taught him there was something special about theatre. After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Broadway, serving as stage manager on Abbott’s 1953 production of Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell.

The following year, he started producing with Griffith. Their first venture, The Pajama Game, starring John Raitt and Janis Paige, was a big hit, running 1,063 performances. They followed in 1955 with another musical smash, Damn Yankees, featuring Gwen Verdon as the seductive Lola. In 1957, Prince did West Side Story, a modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet told against the backdrop of New York gang warfare. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and with a score by Bernstein and Sondheim, it, too, was acclaimed.

Yet even its success was dwarfed by that of Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which Prince produced and Robbins directed and choreographed. Set in Czarist Russia, the Bock-
Harnick musical starred Zero Mostel as the Jewish milkman forced to confront challenges to his way of life.

Prince had received his first opportunity to direct on Broadway in 1962. The musical was A Family Affair, a little-remembered show about the travails of a Jewish wedding. Its Broadway run was short – only 65 performances – but it gave Prince a chance to work with composer John Kander. Four years later, he would provide the music for one of Prince’s biggest successes, Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. “I became a producer because fate took me there, and I was delighted,” Prince recalled in his book. “I used producing to become what I wanted to be, a director. (Ultimately, I hired myself, which is more than anyone else would do.)”

As he became more interested in directing, he withdrew from producing altogether.

Prince was a champion of imagination in the theatre and tried never to rely on technology to give his shows pop, preferring canvas to LEDs.

“I believe the theatre should take advantage of the limitations of scenery and totally unlimited imagination of the person who is sitting in the audience,” he said in 2015. “I like what the imagination does in the theatre.” He explained that in one scene of Phantom of the Opera in London, candles come up at different times thanks to stage workers cranking ancient machinery, but on Broadway that function was automated. “I would sit in the house and I’d see the candles come up. Something told me that was not as exciting as when the candles came up in London,” he said. “So I said, ‘Let’s make this tiniest adjustment so they don’t all come up at exactly the same time’. Now, no one knows that. No one could care less. But it meant something to me.”

Prince is survived by his wife of 56 years, Judy; a daughter, a son and three grandchildren.