Director-producer Harold Prince changed the face of Broadway as its preeminent showman of the second half of the 20th Century by pioneering the so-called "concept musical", a show built around an idea that incorporated fluid, cinematic staging, a strong score and utilitarian scenery. Beginning in the mid-1960s with "Cabaret" and stretching through to 1998's "Parade", a Prince-directed musical, whether successful or not, always signaled quality.
Wishing to work in legitimate theater, the New York native set his feet instead on an alternative path when he began his long association with his mentor, author-director George Abbott. "[Abbott] did musicals and you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. So I ended up doing musicals." He began his Broadway producing career with a bang when "Pajama Game" (1954) won the Best Musical Tony Award, an honor six of his subsequent collaborations with 'Mr. Abbott' (including "Damn Yankees" 1955, the Pulitzer-winning "Fiorello!" 1959 and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" 1962) would also receive. Prince also fostered relationships with playwrights and songwriters. For example, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick crafted the scores for a number of Prince-produced shows; some were outright flops (e.g., "Tenderloin" 1960). others moderately successful (i.e., "She Loves Me" 1963) and one was a true blockbuster ("Fiddler on the Roof" 1964, which at one time held the title as the longest-running show in Broadway history). He also worked closely with John Kander (directing that composer's first musical "A Family Affair" in 1962) who was later partnered with Fred Ebb on such musicals as "Flora, the Red Menace" (1962), "Cabaret" (1966) and, more recently, "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1993). But it is Prince's collaboration with Stephen Sondheim that ranks as the apotheosis of his career. The producer-director pushed the limits of staging with the landmark musicals "Company" (1970, which was essentially a series of loosely related one-act plays tied together by a sublime score) and "Follies" (1971, on the surface a reunion of aging showgirls but really about the loss of innocence and the fears of growing older, if not wiser).
Prince actually began to explore unlikely material for a musical in the late 50s when he joined with Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Sondheim for "West Side Story" (1957), a modern-day spin on "Romeo and Juliet" set against gang warfare on NYC streets. While admired in its original run. it was a production that was so far ahead of its time that few truly appreciated its integration of story, music and dance. (Only after the successful 1961 film adaptation did the musical come to be regarded as a "classic", spawning numerous revivals, touring and regional productions.) By the time he steered "Cabaret" nearly a decade later, Prince had begun to explore ways of stretching stagecraft so as to resemble film. For "Cabaret" in collaboration with designer Boris Aronson, he dared to hang a huge mirror over the stage in which the audience sees its reflection (thereby tacitly involving them in the tragedies on stage and indicting them as possible co-conspirators in a world where Nazism could easily take root). Also, by placing the orchestra on stage, the musical numbers in the Kit Kat Club (led by Joel Grey's devilish Emcee) took on an added significance. In its day. Prince's direction of "Cabaret" broke significant ground and brought him his first Tony Award. (Ironically, when he recreated the staging for a 1987 revival, his direction seemed almost quaint. It took British director Sam Mendes to uncover new meanings in his acclaimed site specific staging first in London and later in NYC in the 1990s.)
The Sondheim collaborations are in a class of their own. "Company" played like a movie on stage with its constantly shifting perspectives, use of inner monologues, and dance all on Aronoson's pristine set. "Follies", furthermore, was an incredible blend of past and present simultaneously presented on stage. The younger versions of the main characters, or "ghosts", were decked in black and white costumes (symbolic of a bygone era) in contrast with the color of the modern story. "Follies" perhaps remains Prince's most cinematic staging, getting as close as possible to using techniques of film like wipes, dissolves and even close-ups. One number in particular, co-staged with Michael Bennett (who handled the choreographic elements of the show), was perhaps indicative: a line of aging chorus girls perform "Who's That Girl?" while their youthful counterparts mirrored their steps.
"A Little Night Music" (1973), on the other hand, was more conventional in its staging; a gemlike operetta examining the many manifestations of love and romance played against Sondheim's score composed entirely in three-quarter time. His revised version of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" (1974), with additional lyrics by Sondheim and a new book by Hugh Wheeler, pioneered the site specific stagings that became in vogue later. "Pacific Overtures" (1976), with its story about the opening of Japan to the West, allowed Prince to incorporate Noh theater techniques. "Sweeney Todd" (1979) was perhaps the most gruesome of the pair's collaboration but Prince married the English hall tradition (embodied by Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett) with Grand Guignol (personified in Len Cariou's Todd) with the standard juvenile lovers thrown in for good measure. "Sweeney Todd" further pushed the boundaries of musical theater, marrying opera and musical comedy. Indeed, Prince has staged several subsequent productions of the show at opera houses around the world.
The Sondheim-Prince collaboration came to an end (to date) with the ill-fated "Merrily We Roll Along". Reteaming with George Furth, the pair attempted to musicalize a Kaufman and Hart comedy about friendship that was told in reverse chronology. Setting the story against a showbiz milieu allowed for some interesting scenes but there were fundamental difficulties despite Sondheim's most accessible score. The backwards time frame was retained which confused audiences and Prince opted to cast young. mostly inexperienced actors (including his own daughter Daisy). Following this flawed musical, the Prince-Sondheim professional partnership came to an end.
Ironically, Prince found renewed success at the helm of "Evita", a pop opera about the life of Argentina's First Lady Eva Peron, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. In theatrical circles, Sondheim and Lloyd Webber have been pitted as the savior and the destroyer of contemporary musical theater--a fairly simplistic view. Lloyd Webber's musicals do tend to have the added level of spectacle and Prince's staging of "Evita" (1978) blended his usual cinematic approach with the traditionally operatic. The hybrid proved a popular (if not critical) success. Lloyd Webber asked Prince to undertake the direction of "The Phantom of the Opera" in 1986. While much was made of the falling chandelier, a coup de theatre that ended the show's first act, most overlooked the lilting score, superlative acting and integration of movement, story and score. While there have been other misfires (most notably "Grind" in 1985), Prince has spent much of the 80s and 90s alternating between directing operas around the world and staging musicals. He galvanized the Kander and Ebb musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman", shepherding what had been a show with a troubled history and turning it into a success. He further scored a major triumph with his approach to "Show Boat" in 1995, crafting the definitive version of this much-revived and much-revised show (for which he earned his 20th Tony Award). Produced under the auspices of Livent, this "Show Boat" restored much material that was cut yet lost none of its bite with regard to its controversial depiction of race relations that were as prevalent in the 90s. Again under the Livent banner, Prince teamed with award-winning playwright Alfred Uhry and co-conceiver of "Parade" (1998), an examination of the famous Leo Frank case in 1913 Atlanta. Frank, a Northern Jew, was convicted of killing young Mary Phagan, a teenager who worked at the factory where he was a supervisor. While this hardly seemed material for a musical (as the show's detractors were quick to point out), Prince once again proved otherwise. Working with a relatively young composer (Jason Robert Brown in his Broadway debut), he crafted what proved to be the only "traditional" (i.e., book) musical of the 1998-1999 theater season. Despite its mixed reception and audience apathy, "Parade" won numerous accolades and racked up the most Tony Award nominations--nine--of any show.
What is perhaps most ironic about Prince and his career is that when he has ventured to work in celluloid, this most cinematic of stage directors flounders. One might assume that he would easily translate the techniques he has perfected in the theater to his on screen work, but the two films he has helmed, "Something for Everyone" (1970) and "A Little Night Music" (1977) both come across as static and visually uninteresting. The former, a black comedy starring Michael York and Angela Lansbury that interpolated a handful of songs, was perhaps the more successful realized. In its time, however, it proved a box-office disappointment as the story of an ambitious man (York) who will stop at nothing to get ahead in life (and that includes murder and seduction) was overshadowed by the scenery and lackadaisical camerawork. Even more disastrous was "A Little Night Music". While the original source material was Ingmar Bergman's bittersweet farce "Smiles of a Summer Night" (1955), Prince approached the screen adaptation as the presentation of a show-within-a-show. The opening scene revealed a proscenium stage on which the operetta was unfolding. While the performances were passable (with Elizabeth Taylor making her singing debut in the leading role of Desiree), the joy and wit of the original piece did not translate well. Prince's direction came off as flat and uninspiring and what was effervescent on Broadway fizzled on screen. Perhaps recognizing that his true talents lie with live performance, the producer-director has yet to helm another feature and instead returned to the worlds of opera and theater where he has proven to be one of the greatest practitioners in America--if not the world.