Harold Prince remembers the day he fell in love with theatre. "I was nine. I saw Orson Welles in Julius Caesar. It was involving, emotional, imaginative. I've never forgotten it."
Prince has spent more than 60 years on Broadway, producing or directing many of its most influential musicals: West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera. With Cabaret and Company, he led musicals in a new direction. He has 21 Tonys, more than anyone else.
Listen to an excerpt from Playbill's interview with May's "Life in the Theatre" recipient, Hal Prince.
After stage work in college, he directed summer stock, then tried to get a job with the legendary director George Abbott. He sent a letter saying he lived with his parents and "would be willing to work for nothing. This was the key: I said, 'If you can discern from my work that you're not paying me, please fire me.'"
He was hired, and became an assistant stage manager with Abbott's aide Robert Griffith. In 1954, he and Griffith decided to produce. "We looked for a project. The New York Times had given a great review to a book called 7 1/2 Cents." That novel became The Pajama Game.
Damn Yankees followed — and in 1957 came West Side Story. Stephen Sondheim, a good friend, was working as lyricist with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story, but a producer left and the production was in danger. Prince asked Sondheim to arrange for him and Griffith to listen to the score.
They went to Bernstein's apartment. Bernstein had told Sondheim not to let anyone hear the music and lyrics, but Sondheim had revealed them to Prince. "Lenny played the score. I had to pretend never to have heard it. But I forgot and started to hum or sing along. Lenny stopped and said, 'That's what I want! A producer who understands music!'"
In 1961, after Griffith died suddenly of a heart attack, Prince decided to do what he always wanted — direct. His first success was She Loves Me. In 1966 he directed a show that revolutionized Broadway musicals: Cabaret, with music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by Joe Masteroff.
"That's the show that freed me. I remembered when I was in the Army in 1951 I went to a sleazy nightclub in Stuttgart in the basement of a bombed-out church, and there was this emcee all made up. We put that character into the show, making him represent Germany, and made him a metaphor for National Socialism."
Cabaret, Prince says, "changed my mind about musicals." It taught him "how you could tell stories in a fragmented fashion and use theatre as metaphor."
Then came his amazing decade working with Sondheim on a succession of landmark musicals, from Company to Follies to Sweeney Todd. "It was as good as it gets," Prince says. Next, with Andrew Lloyd Webber, came Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, now the longest-running Broadway musical.
These days, at 82, Prince has a new musical in his life: Paradise Found, which he is co-directing this spring in London with Susan Stroman before a planned Broadway run. It stars Mandy Patinkin, Judy Kaye, Kate Baldwin and Shuler Hensley, among others, and tells of the impotent shah of Persia, who has 139 wives yet seeks another — the empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
"I really don't spend time thinking about the past," Prince says. "I think about the future. I'm not stopping."