Thank you, Harold Prince.
On Wednesday, the legendary producer-director – a transformative figure on Broadway whose work has reverberated into every other corner of the entertainment world -passed away at the age of 91. Thank you, Hal, for the creepily alluring Emcee bidding us “Willkommen” to the cabaret; for the fiddler, forever up on that roof; for the ghosts haunting the Weissman Theatre for the final time; for the chandelier crashing to the floor of the Paris Opera House; for the Argentinian first lady ascending to the balcony of the Casa Rosada to deliver an unforgettable address. Over an eight-decade career that only ended on the day he died, Prince and his gifted collaborators made musical art out of the most unlikely of subjects: New York gang fights (West Side Story), mayoral politics (Fiorello!), union troubles in a garment factory (The Pajama Game), the lynching of an innocent man (Parade), the rise of Nazism (Cabaret), and a revenge-driven barber who chops up his victims and serves them as meat pies (Sweeney Todd), to name a few. No subject was off-limits to this visionary artist.
What does this all have to do with The Second Disc? “Popular music was the music of musicals, and it isn’t anymore,” Prince observed in 2017 to NPR. He wasn’t kidding about the roots of popular music for a golden age in the twentieth century; when Billboard surveyed the Top 100 Albums of the Rock Era in 1991, the film soundtrack to West Side Story – the musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim which Prince shepherded to Broadway as co-producer – was still the No. 1 album. (Of its 144 weeks on the chart, it spent 54 weeks at No. 1, the longest run in chart history to date.) Of the 50 top Cast Albums to that point, nine resulted from a Hal Prince show: Cabaret, Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, Fiorello!, New Girl in Town, The Phantom of the Opera, She Loves Me, Tenderloin, and West Side Story. The songwriters with whom Prince worked again and again constitute a “Who’s Who” of the art form: Stephen Sondheim, John Kander and Fred Ebb, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and Andrew Lloyd Webber, to name a few.
When Broadway albums stopped dominating the charts, Prince intuited an opening: “So, once that happened, you could examine other subjects and make musical numbers about an infinite variety of complicated psychological matters.” He pioneered the concept musical, in which traditional plot took a back seat to big, bold examinations of a particular theme or certain issues; Cabaret, Company, and Follies were just three remarkable examples – the original productions of which will never be forgotten by those who had the chance to experience them. As a director, his gift for staging and visual imagery was nonpareil, whether placing a giant mirror onstage in Cabaret, an ominous tree in Parade, or a factory itself for Sweeney Todd.
He and Sondheim had an unparalleled streak of invention and creativity with Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981); the dynamic duo had a last hurrah in 2003 with Bounce. Prince staged two of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest triumphs with Evita (1978) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) and maintained a long-term relationship with John Kander and Fred Ebb spanning Liza Minnelli’s Broadway debut Flora, the Red Menace (1965), Cabaret (1966), Zorba (1968), and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992). Prince earned the most Tony Awards for any individual in multiple categories – a remarkable 21 trophies.
As a director, he had an immense understanding of the human condition, and the vision to bring it to life on a large scale with all elements of a theatrical production fully integrated in service of the concept. He never lost sight of entertaining his audiences even while challenging their beliefs and widening their horizons. As he neared his ninth decade, he looked back with a retrospective of his work – 2017’s aptly-titled Prince of Broadway – but upliftingly and inspirationally admonished (via a swell new song by Jason Robert Brown) how important it is to “Do the Work.” He didn’t rest on his laurels; he was developing new shows to the present day with the same passion and conviction he brought to The Pajama Game, his first musical as a producer, in 1954.
Hal Prince used musical theatre as a prism through which to reflect life in a heightened manner – sometimes entertaining, sometimes frightening, always illuminating. While the boundless imagination he brought to countless works will live on – Phantom of the Opera, with the billing “directed by Harold Prince,” is already Broadway’s longest-running musical and is unlikely to be dethroned any time soon – the lights of the Great White Way seem a little dimmer, a little less exciting with him gone. All hail Hal Prince, the King of Broadway.