Harold Prince was destined to tell stories. As a child, he played with toy soldiers in dioramas, staging scenes; at 91, he still had new shows in the works.
Every day of his life was about “making the work.” His trademark habit? A production meeting for his next show the morning following the opening of his last. Looking back on his 60-plus-years career, a Broadway without Prince is difficult to conceive. Yet, Prince remembers the production he feels first solidified theatre as his home: “When I directed She Loves Me [in 1963]. Because I’d been a producer and I hadn’t necessarily wanted to be a producer but that’s what was available,” he told Playbill. “So when I could direct a show that I had real pride in, that was the beginning.”
In total, Prince produced 33 Broadway shows and directed 20. With 21 Tony Awards, he is the most Tony-winning individual in history, yet his contributions to Broadway and the theatrical landscape at large are immeasurable. There are theatrical tactics we use today because Prince first tried them; there are musical forms because Prince dared to mount unconventional storytelling on Broadway; there are composers, actors, choreographers, and more who earned their big break with Prince.
As the community mourns the loss of the visionary who passed July 31, 2019, we also celebrate the gifts he granted and the legacy that changed theatre.
1. Prince launched the careers of theatre giants
A young Prince apprenticed with director George Abbott, so he knew the value in taking a risk on new talent. As the producer of The Pajama Game—his first Broadway show as a producer—Prince hired the then-unknown Bob Fosse to choreograph. He’s also the man who put Fosse and Gwen Verdon together for Damn Yankees. He took a leap with Stephen Sondheim, pairing him with Leonard Bernstein to write the lyrics for West Side Story. He catapulted the careers of leading ladies on both sides of the pond, with Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige. He brought Jason Robert Brown to the fore with Parade. Prince was a game-changer, in part because he spotlighted other game-changers.
2. He was one half of the prolific Sondheim-Prince partnership.
After West Side Story, Prince and Sondheim entered one of the most fruitful collaborations in musical theatre history. Prince produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum while Sondheim wrote the score to the tune of Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Producer of a Musical. Company marked the first time Prince directed Sondheim’s work, winning Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Lyrics, and more at the Tony Awards. Next up was the incomparable Follies, then A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, and finally the ever-problematic (yet oft-revisited) Merrily We Roll Along. But it’s not only the volume of work they produced together; these musicals transformed the canon.
Their shared love and intrinsic respect for musical theatre fueled their creativity. Their work on Company and Follies played with musical comedy structure and bucked traditional depictions of relationships and characters over 50. They allowed the curtain to fall on musicals without a clear resolution—in the case of Follies, the curtain never came down at all. Though accused of being cynical for their willingness to put uncertainly onstage, they, in fact, brought the art form into the present, appealing to audiences while doing it. They achieved greatness because of their fundamental understanding and joy in the musical form and its devices—not in spite of it.
3. The director, arguably, created the “concept musical” in commercial theatre.
With the original Cabaret, Prince redefined the form of musical theatre. He matched form with content by setting the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical inside the Kit Kat Klub, telling the story of a cabaret as a cabaret, Emcee and all. And, through the “beautiful” atmosphere inside the Kit Kat Klub, executed a political commentary on the façade of the “beautiful” Germany (and world) the Nazis set out to create. Cabaret solidified Prince as a directing force and he continued to experiment with non-linear narratives driven by an emotional theme and character discovery on an emotional timeline—allowing them to develop, question, linger—rather than constricting them to an event-driven plot.
“I once asked George Abbott why he did the shows he did and he said, ‘Why else? To entertain.’ And that never occurred to me,” Prince told Playbill. “I’m into ideas, I’m into settings, venues. I’m into conflict. I have a political mind. It permeates [my work].”
The words “concept” and “musical” were, in fact, not linked until The New York Times’ Martin Gottfried coined the term in his review of Prince’s Zorba, his immediate follow-up to Cabaret. Company made history with no plot at all as it explored Bobby’s emotional unavailability through songs between he and his network of friends in the “city of strangers.” Prince laid the groundwork for every show from Pippin to A Chorus Line to Chicago.
4. Prince catalyzed the British Invasion of the 1980s.
When Prince signed on to direct Evita, he not only buoyed the career of Andrew Lloyd Webber, he shepherded what became known as the British Invasion of Broadway. Prince directed Evita, based on Lloyd Webber’s 1976 concept album. Letters from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts collection showcased his comments on the early versions of the musical in letters to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The musical bowed in the West End in 1978 before Prince brought it to Broadway in 1979. Though Prince was, of course, an American, he set off a chain reaction of British imports with Lloyd Webber’s Cats in 1982; producer Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables, which started in London in 1985 and came to Broadway in 1987; Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (which Prince directed) bowing in the West End in 1986 and then on Broadway in 1988. Not to mention, Evita set a new standard for its time in terms of staging—a style no one had seen before.
5. He made a career by creating lushness out of simplicity.
From his days tinkering with dioramas to his influence from radio plays, Prince believed in the power of his audience’s imagination. “In a theatre, you sit there and it's minimalist and you [as an audience member] supply wallpaper and additional furniture," he told Playbill. "For example, in the manager's office, there's no door. There's a hole in the enamel back wall and people come through it, and most people supply a door and supply, as I say, additional furniture. It makes the audience more collaborative." Rather than utilize technology to make things seem more “real,” he relished theatre’s inherent magic.