Hal Prince, 1928–2019
The Broadway giant who shook up musicals
Hal Prince could turn anything into a musical. As a producer and director, Prince embraced unlikely sources to create some of Broadway’s most enduring hits. A seedy nightclub in Weimar Germany became a metaphor for the rise of fascism in Cabaret (1966). Rock music provided the soundtrack to the life of Argentine first lady Eva Perón in Evita (1978). Victorian-era “penny dreadfuls” inspired the homicidal barber of Sweeney Todd (1979). Prince won a record 21 Tony Awards, including best direction of a musical for The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show on Broadway. His boldness led to some equally epic flops. Prince’s 1982 production of A Doll’s Life, a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, closed after five performances. “You’ve got to keep attempting something new,” he said. “You’ve got to take risks in this game.”
He was born in Manhattan to wealthy parents “for whom Saturday matinees in the theater with their children were a regular occurrence,” said the Associated Press. At age 8, he was wowed by a production of Julius Caesar starring Orson Welles and decided to pursue a Broadway career. After attending the University of Pennsylvania, Prince returned to New York City in 1948 “hoping to make his way as a playwright,” said The Times (U.K.). The legendary producer George Abbott took the youngster under his wing, and in 1954 Prince co-produced his first musical, The Pajama Game, about love and labor troubles at a pajama factory. Made on “a shoestring budget,” the show was a smash, winning a Tony for best musical.
Prince collaborated with “a murderer’s row of creative talents,” said The New York Times, including Bob Fosse, Leonard Bernstein, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. But his “most frequent confederate” was lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Together, they pioneered the “concept musical,” in which the plot is organized around themes rather than a linear story. Their first “concept” was 1970’s Company, a bittersweet exploration of marriage through the travails of a New York City bachelor. Late in his career, Prince lamented Broadway’s increasing reliance on focus-grouped movie adaptations and pop music best-of shows. “You can and should do what you want to do and bring the audience with you rather than have them lead you,” he said in 2005. “It’s art, for God’s sake.” ■