Broadway director-producer Harold Prince had difficulty remembering how many Tony Awards he had won.
In part, that was because he was much more interested in the work than in the inevitable accompanying accolades. And in part it was because he amassed 21 Tonys during his six-decade career, by far the most for a single individual. He died on Wednesday at the age of 91, in Reykjavik, Iceland, after a brief illness.
No one else so defined and innovated in the musical theater of the second half of the 20th century as Prince did. For while his best known collaboration was with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music), Prince also staged and shaped some of the best work of so many other major creative forces – Andrew Lloyd Webber (Evita, Phantom of the Opera), John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof, She Loves Me).
Prince broke into show business in the early 1950s as an office assistant to the legendary George Abbott, who mentored him and taught him the fine points of producing. Prince began as an assistant stage manager of a few of Abbott’s more forgettable musicals, but that led to his teaming up with similarly ambitious Bobby Griffith. Together, they optioned Richard Bissell’s novel, 7-1/2 Cents, shepherding it into the Tony-winning The Pajama Game, about labor tensions and romance at a nightwear factory.
Bissell followed it up with Say, Darling, about the rocky road to Broadway of The Pajama Game, and it, too, was adapted into a musical. The show featured a young, eager beaver producer played by Robert Morse, who unmistakably based him performance on Prince.
The Pajama Game became the hit of the 1954 season, winning three Tonys including Best Musical. The following year, Prince and Griffith were back on the boards with Damn Yankees, another audience-friendly show and another Tony for Prince – his second by the age of 27.
But while Prince was drawn to musical theater – a generally light-hearted medium – he saw the dramatic potential in the genre, as exemplified by his next two producing successes: West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof. Both were directed by Jerome Robbins, from whom Prince learned the art of musical staging.
Having found a fellow risk-taker in West Side Story lyricist Sondheim, Prince agreed to produce his Broadway debut as both composer and lyricist – 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum – an uncharacteristic farce for the two of them. Abbott was persuaded to direct the show, but it was famously saved from disaster out-of-town by Robbins, who reworked the opening number, “Comedy Tonight.”
Forum’s success gave Prince the courage to ascend to the director’s chair with She Loves Me, a gentle romance that was overshadowed by more bombastic musicals in the ’63-’64 season, like Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl. Still, over time, it has become a frequently revived cult favorite, largely due to Prince’s original touches. He came into his own as a director in 1966 with Cabaret, a dark-toned musical about Weimar Berlin that solidified Prince’s Brechtian production style.
The 1970s was Prince’s most creative decade, as he joined at the hip with Sondheim. They challenged each other to push the bounds of what a musical could be. From Company, an all-but-plotless show that explored relationships and marriage to a pulsing urban beat, they tackled aging and disillusionment in Follies, then adapted Ingmar Bergman’s only comedic film, Smiles of a Summer Night, turning it into A Little Night Music, a complex, sardonic look at romance, Swedish-style.
Even less probable was the next project for Prince and Sondheim, Pacific Overtures, a show about the opening – and ultimate corruption – of Japan by Western influences, told as if Asians were tackling the alien tenets of musical theater. Prince immersed himself in the intricacies of Japanese theater, creating a rarified Kabuki-flavored musical that was critically admired, but not very popular with audiences.
The decade ended with the pinnacle of Prince’s collaboration with Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, a bloody tale of an unfairly imprisoned barber who returns to London eager to seek revenge on a corrupt judge. Although it could have been staged intimately, Prince saw the potential for a grand operatic production set in an Industrial Revolution-era factory.
Six months later, Prince took on the challenge of staging a concept album by Lloyd Webber about Eva Peron, Argentina’s controversial first lady. Like Sweeney Todd, Prince envisioned the musical Evita on an epic scale, from Brechtian pageantry to a struggle for military power played out as a game of musical chairs.
Lloyd Webber was so taken with Prince’s work that he offered him his next project, a musical based on feline poems by T.S. Eliot – Cats. To his credit, but not to his bank account, Prince turned the opportunity down.
More to his liking was a romance between a grotesque architect who lived in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and his soprano protégé. Prince brought a bag of tricks to the production, including a much-maligned chandelier, and The Phantom of the Opera became the Energizer Bunny of Broadway, running for more than 13,000 performances, by far the longest-running show on Broadway and still going strong.
The success of Phantom has overshadowed much of Prince’s career, but even his commercial failures – Merrily We Roll Along, Roza, A Doll’s Life and Grind, among many others – were full of brilliant staging arcs by Prince. Even when the reviews made it clear that a show would not last long, Prince remained optimistic by scheduling a production meeting for his next project the day after his most recent opening.
Foremost, Prince was a man of the theater, but he has a couple of films on his résumé as well. In 1970, he directed Something for Everyone, a snarky drama starring Angela Lansbury as a widowed countess and Michael York as a conniving butler. Seven years later, he helmed the movie version of A Little Night Music, to which Elizabeth Taylor lent star power but not much vocal power. Neither film was all that well received, by reviewers or the public, and Prince rightly scurried back to the theater.
In 1995, Prince won his last competitive Tony for an epic revival of Show Boat, in which he pieced together parts of several scripts of the landmark musical, resulting in a definitive production of the show. Tony number 21 came in 2006 for Prince’s lifetime achievement in the theater.
For several years, Prince and Susan Stroman – his choreographer on Show Boat – had been trying to raise the money for a stage retrospective of his career. Eventually, Prince of Broadway premiered in Japan in 2015 and was remounted in New York in 2017. While clearly patterned after Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, the Prince revue of scenes of his career highlights never received similar acclaim.
Still, Prince’s career was unparalleled and unlikely to ever be equaled. Perhaps his name made it evident that here was a man of enduring theatrical royalty.