Obituary: The Giant Who Stole All The Tonys, Harold Prince

The theatrical world says its farewells to one of the greatest directors and producers the stage has ever seen

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No single figure in modern, popular theatre has been associated with the amount of ground-breaking theatrical hits that Broadway director and producer Harold Prince has. After passing away at the age ninety-one, working just under seventy years in the industry, he has left us with an unparalleled legacy of political and musical masterworks to enjoy, from West Side Story (1960) to The Phantom Of The Opera (1986). In an interview with Pat Cerasaro in 2010, Prince expressed that his trick was “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.” An eloquent and articulate piece of advice for any budding thespians.

Three of the world’s biggest musical theatre pioneers, Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jason Robert Brown, were said to have done their best work with Harold Prince. In collaboration with Sondheim, Prince developed the ‘concept musical’; a show that evolves from a single idea or theme, rather than a pre-existing story. Company (1970), a study of the institution of marriage, was the duo’s first crack at creating a musical this way, and nearly fifty years later, it is still a huge success that has, consequently, paved a path for other innovative musicals and their practitioners. Now, some of the world’s biggest Broadway and West End shows are concept musicals: Spring Awakening (2006) and Hair (1967).

According to Andrew Lloyd Webber: “There isn’t anybody working on musical theatre on either side of the Atlantic who doesn’t owe an enormous debt to this extraordinary man… Hal was very minimalist with his sets. People think of Phantom as this great, big spectacle. That’s an illusion. Hal always looked at the show as this big black box in which the stagecraft enabled you to believe there was this impressive scenery all around you”.

Prince strived to create works that brought crucial, contemporary themes to Broadway, especially those that are often overlooked and considered unsuitable for this particular theatrical medium. Even his ‘lighter’ pieces had serious elements: the union dilemmas within The Pajama Game (1954), the representation of Nazi Germany in Cabaret (1966), and the antisemitism in the deep south in Parade (1998). His 60s and 70s works were as in-line with the snowballing new social order as the pop music scene, and it is for this reason that his works (particularly with Sondheim) are groundbreaking; the emotional maturity and complexity of them can only be compared with practitioners such as Chekhov and Ibsen. His underlying themes and theatrical complexity is, in my opinion, how Prince won his twenty-one Tony Awards, which is more than the theatre world has seen any other individual receive. These include eight for his directing, eight for producing the year’s ‘Best Musical’, two as ‘Best Producer of a Musical’, and three special awards.

After working with Prince on Parade (1998), Jason Robert Brown spoke to Variety magazine and said: “More than anything else, when I think about Hal, I think about his belief in theatre. He believed in what it could do… He thought a lot about the world and the political systems and emotional support systems in it. He was very much a political artist.” 

He thought a lot about the world and the political systems and emotional support systems in it. He was very much a political artist.

Much of the productivity that arose within his career, Prince admitted later on in life, evolved from short fits of depression, which he suffered with during the ‘in-between’ stage of successful projects. He confessed that his condition began in childhood with a nervous breakdown, after remembering being unable to sleep for months. “Out of that, you create the person you want to be,” he said in 1988. And, oh, did he do that; sixty-two stage credits later, according to Playbill, he is known as a Broadway legend and leading practitioner within the musical theatre industry.  

Hal Prince is survived by his wife, Judy Chaplin, who he married in 1962, a son named Charley, and a daughter named Daisy, as well as three grandchildren, Phoebe, Lucy and Felix. His legacy lives on throughout all of his incredible works, however it also lives on through his children, too, who are now theatre directors and conductors. As is traditional, the marquee lights in Broadway theatres were dimmed on the 31st July 2019 in honour of his service to theatre.

Words by Morgan Hartley 

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