From David Culltion: Processing the Loss of a Legend
I was at work when Hal Prince’s death was announced on the morning of July 31st. At first I couldn’t believe it. “Hal Prince is dead?” I thought to myself. “That’s not right, he’s supposed to be immortal. This is actually impossible.” I know these thoughts sound hyperbolic, but when I first heard of his passing I truly couldn’t fully grasp the idea that he was gone. Hal Prince’s creative handprints are all over many of the musicals that I hold close to my heart, and a world without him means one where no other extremely lucky piece of art will ever get his golden touch again. Almost two weeks later, this is still a concept that’s difficult to grapple with. Perhaps this blog is my way of coping with it this far down the line. Perhaps, dear readers, it might help a few of you as well.
Hal Prince’s projects have always been bold and innovative in some way. He was never the kind of man who simply played it safe, every show he worked on brought us some sort of theatrical innovation straight out of his head. It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that the Hal Prince projects that mean the most to me are his collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. From swooping in at the last second to produce West Side Story (ensuring Sondheim’s launch into his highly successful professional career), to his daring directorial work on shows as experimental as Company and Merrily We Roll Along, and of course his brilliant vision for the original production of Sweeney Todd (my favorite musical of all time for those who haven’t read my blog on the show), I think these projects are some of the best reflections on just how revolutionary Prince was throughout his decades-long career. Of course, that’s not to say that his projects outside of Sondheim were anything to shrug at. Hal Prince was the mastermind behind smash hit megamusicals like The Phantom of the Opera as well as less mainstream thought provokers like Parade. Hal Prince helped shape some of the greatest musicals of all time, each one leaving a mark on the world of theatre in its own unique way. The shows that were produced and/or directed by him in his career are seminal works of art that I and many others find influential in our own work. When I directed The Lion King Jr. last summer, keeping in mind Prince’s bold thematic work helped empower me to give my production a unique aesthetic to try to get at a core meaning of the show. If it hadn’t been for him giving Sweeney Todd a heavy industrial revolution aesthetic to highlight its core message, who knows if the thought would have even occurred to me that I could do The Lion King without making it look like a lame Taymor clone? If he hadn’t taken risks like he did with Merrily We Roll Along, I’m not sure if I would EVER feel like the crazy theatrical ideas that pop into my mind could ever work. Without him to keep leading us into the theatrical future, it’s scary to think what bold moves of him I could be missing out on to bolster my own creative thinking. Now that he’s gone, we’re what’s left…
But… maybe that’s not as bleak a thought as it first feels.
We are now living in a post-Hal-Prince world. As hard as that can be to swallow, that is a reality that we just need to accept. But until society as we know it collapses, we ARE still living in a world where his work will endure long after his passing. West Side Story is getting a widely publicized second film adaptation followed by a Broadway revival, his Sondheim collaborations are still regarded as some of the greatest musicals of all time, and The Phantom of the Opera is still running its original productions on Broadway and in the West End with no end in sight after over 30 years. These are stories that continue to inspire theatregoers long after their inceptions at Prince’s hands. With his work enduring far past his own lifespan, I believe that the best way for us to fully process the loss of such a monumental figure is to make sure that the stories he helped bring to life are preserved, and that the creative inspiration he gave to the modern theatrical scene does not go unutilized. After I got home from work on the day of his death, I immediately started listening to songs from Sweeney Todd and I suddenly felt a little better. I think that’s because a little part of him survives in each show he works on. Now that Hal Prince’s gone, it’s in our hands to ensure that these stories keep getting told in new and exciting ways, just as I’m sure Prince would’ve wanted them to be. Hal Prince left behind the legacy of a visionary, a legend whose brilliance breathed inimitable life into stories that have already become timeless classics. These stories exist to be interpreted and dissected and spun in new directions by the surviving visionaries that Hal Prince left behind, not only on Broadway but all over the world in every city where the spark of theatrical creativity can shine.
Hal Prince’s death is both an occasion to mourn and an event in which to find inspiration. Hal Prince is gone, we’re what’s left, and we have the power to continue to change the face of theatre in its honor, telling timeless stories in bold ways so we can in turn inspire those who come after us to do the same in ours, etc.
A bold theatrical tradition in the making, all thanks to a theatrical Prince who loved to dare to dream.
From Michael Kape: Remembering Hal
A few weeks ago, I exhorted people to give tribute to the living legends still among us. In passing, I noted the larger-than-life presence of Harold S. Prince—little realizing how prescient that exhortation might have been. On July 31, we lost Hal, a one-of-a-kind-never-to-be-seen-again Broadway legend.
Others have already remarked on his most notable achievements in musical theatre, and they’ve done it better than I ever could. I cannot tell you how many hours I spent watching shows produced and/or directed by Prince (maybe days or weeks might be better than hours when all the time is added up). Shows like A Doll’s Life, Grind, Merrily We Roll Along, Silverlake, Bounce, Diamonds, Parade, or Some of My Best Friends. Legendary. Oh wait, you say, those were all flops. Yes, and that’s notable just as much as his big achievements were. Why? Because he dared to try. He didn’t always choose the safest or most commercial pieces. He defied the expected and explored the surprising. Sometimes, the surprising worked (and those shows are rightly celebrated). Sometimes, they failed. Others have explored the hits in depth. Being contrarian, I’d like to look at the shows others have mostly forgotten.
Yet much has been written about Merrily in particular. The concept behind the show was all Hal Prince’s idea—to have a group of young performers be onstage in a musical version of the Kaufman and Hart play (which itself was not a hit, but I digress). The problem is Prince got lost. In his book, Contradictions, Prince talks about always having a visual image he used to guide his direction (the most famous being the picture of Gloria Swanson amidst the ruins of the Roxy as guidance for Follies). In Merrily, the image was bleachers in a high school gymnasium. It wasn’t good. The production wasn’t good. The direction, frankly, wasn’t good. By opening night (I was there with my BFF), it had all fallen apart. It was a crying shame.
Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is a classic realistic proto-feminist drama, ending with a flourish as Nora slams the door on her conniving and controlling husband. Prince dared to ask what happens after the door slams. The result was A Doll’s Life. It was painful. Poor Betsy Joslyn, who was a notable replacement Joanna in Sweeney Todd, was forced to carry an entire production on her shoulders. She was talented enough to be up to the task, but she was done no favors by the script, the score, or Hal Prince’s visual guide (The Scream by Edward Munch). My BFF and I debated at intermission whether to stay for Act II. We stayed. We were sorry. But the thinking was right—what really did happen to Nora after the door slammed (a concept more successfully explored many years later by Lucas Hnath in A Doll’s House, Part 2).
(Not long after, I had somehow managed to win tickets to the opening night of the opera house version of Candide. It was Prince’s reimagined version reimagined once again for New York City Opera, and it was brilliant. He and Steve Sondheim were seated directly behind my BFF and I, and we nodded our hellos before the curtain rose.)
And sometimes, Hal Prince just did it for the money—as we’ve all had to do at times. Probably his most out-of-character and least successful Broadway show was a pedestrian drawing room comedy/star vehicle for Ted Knight (coming off his time on The Mary Tyler Moore Show). He didn’t like the material. He wasn’t fond of his leading man. He couldn’t find anything to hold his interest. The show (mercifully) closed after four performances and universally scathing (and richly deserved) reviews for everyone attached.
Not even Hal Prince could save a show—even one by Steve Sondheim—with an inherently flawed problem. Sondheim had wanted for years to write a musical about the Mizner Brothers. At various times, it was called Wise Guys, Gold, Bounce, and finally Road Show. The inherent flaw (and a surprising one since he once told a friend to put this very thing in a show he’d written) was a lack of conflict between the brothers. In Chicago, Prince tried valiantly to fix Bounce. He tried all his best tricks (and every director has a bag of tricks; with Hal you could tell a show was in trouble when the leading lady showed up in a red dress—see A Doll’s Life), but nothing worked. Still, if you ever have the chance, listen to the Bounce cast recording, which is the best version of the Mizner story in my opinion.
At least Hal Prince tried. He was usually successful (let’s face it, without Prince’s sweeping direction, Phantom of the Opera would not be the longest running Broadway show). And sometimes he wasn’t. But he always tried, and for that he deserves all the praise we can give him.
From Sabrina Wallace: To Work and To Experiment
On July 31st, 2019, the lights of Broadway dimmed to honor Hal Prince. That night, the world learned that our community lost a creative genius, an ally to the arts, and a theatrical legend. Mr. Prince gave us masterpieces like West Side Story, Chicago, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Parade, and The Phantom of the Opera, among many many others. His Broadway career spans over several decades in a multitude of roles, from producer and co-conceiver to director. His work will forever inspire generations of producers, directors, writers, and actors, to create and deliver musicals that can be enjoyed by theatre lovers all around the globe.
Hal Prince conceived, directed, or produced some of the best musicals in the history of Broadway, many of which won various Tony Awards. One of the most beloved pieces among his shows is Parade, the tragic, true story of the trial and lynching of a man wrongly accused of murder. When asked by Playbill why he wanted to do a show about such a difficult story, he simply said “What I’ve learned over the years is that the impossibly difficult ideas are the best ideas. The challenge is to unlock them. It’s the easy, can’t-miss ideas that are always a problem for me.” Hal Prince wasn’t afraid to bring to the stage musicals that told stories that mattered. This is evident in his repertoire, his legacy. One of his most famous quotes sums up his approach to Broadway and inspires me to continue to support new content in musical theatre. “The idea is to work and to experiment. Some things will be creatively successful, some things will succeed at the box office, and some things will only - which is the biggest only - teach you things that see the future. And they're probably as valuable as any of your successes.” — Hal Prince
Broadway will miss you Hal but Heaven just got a little more theatrical!