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Obituary: Hal Prince – 21-time Tony-winning director and producer who bestrode Broadway in the 20th century

Hal Prince pictured in the late 1970s

Hal Prince, who has died suddenly at the age of 91, bestrode Broadway in the 20th century, stamping his authoritative signature on the Great White Way as a director and producer with a nose for the new and unusual and a gift for making it seem essential and timeless.

In a career that spanned seven decades he was responsible for staging an unmatched array of shows that became unstoppable commercial juggernauts – West Side Story, Cabaret, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera standing tallest among them – while managing to please audiences and critics alike. It was a nimble sleight of hand that earned him 21 Tony awards – more than any other individual.

The adopted son of a Wall Street stockbroker, his interest in theatre was sparked by seeing Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar at the age of eight.

After university and military service, he began his theatre career as an assistant stage manager for the Broadway director George Abbott, whose prolific appetite for work Prince would quickly come to emulate. He was 26 when he co-produced his first show on Broadway, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ The Pajama Game with choreography by Bob Fosse in 1954, picking up his first Tony in the process.

Hal Prince. Photo: Howard Sherman

The following year’s baseball-meets-Faust musical Damn Yankees reunited him with Adler and Ross, added a second Tony to his trophy cabinet and set up Prince as the new wunderkind producer of American theatre.

He was nominated again in 1958 for West Side Story, the gritty, dark-edged and bitingly contemporary relocating of Romeo and Juliet to inner-city New York that overnight transformed the notion of what the Broadway musical could do. Prince’s success was all the more appreciable for his having rescued the show from folding when its original producer dropped out.

Of greater personal significance, West Side Story also marked the beginning of Prince’s long, defining association with its lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. Together the pair ranged far and wide creatively as they sought to broaden and deepen the point and purpose of the American musical. It was a partnership that dazzled with its originality, variety, finesse and sheer ambition.

Second-guessing what they would do next was rendered moot by one landmark show after another that shifted from ancient Rome (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, 1962) and the mordant examination of a modern marriage in Company (1970) to the bittersweet hymnal to Vaudeville of Follies (1971) with characteristically easy aplomb.

Even more provocatively challenging the boundaries of the genre were A Little Night Music (1973), an intimate adaptation of a bleak Ingmar Bergman film, the Kabuki-influenced Pacific Overtures (1976) and the partnership’s melodramatic, quasi-operatic masterpiece Sweeney Todd (1979).

Along the way, there were two shows that flopped: Merrily We Roll Along, a cautionary tale of success corrupting idealism in 1981, and 2003’s Bounce, which closed on tour before reaching Broadway.

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman in The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Hal Prince, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, in 1986

Amid the run of Sondheim shows was Leonard Bernstein’s bracingly kaleidoscopic reworking of Voltaire’s Candide (1974) and involvement with the New Phoenix Repertory Company that staged nine shows on Broadway, albeit all of them short-lived.

Prince’s great gift was spotting potential in young composers and lyricists and in the unlikeliest of material. Set against the rise of anti-Jewish violence in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof opened in 1964 and ran for more than 3,000 performances.

Prince had made his directorial debut with the same writing team’s She Loves Me the previous year, an innovative production that bore conspicuous fruit with John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret, a visceral reworking of Christopher Isherwood’s experiences in 1930s’ Nazi-ascendant Berlin. The show earned Prince dual Tonys as producer and director, and launched the era of so-called ‘concept musicals’.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, his dominance of American musical theatre extended its reach towards Britain in a seismic shift for Broadway, beginning with Evita (1978), a histrionic portrait of Argentina’s iconic first lady, Eva Perón, which marked his first collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Elaine Paige in Evita, directed by Hal Prince, at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1978

Of considerably greater magnitude was 1986’s The Phantom of the Opera. Its success revived a career flagging after a run of recent flops and continues on Broadway more than 30 years later and remains the West End’s second longest-running musical, both productions accumulating nearly 30,000 performances between them.

Evident throughout his career, Prince’s social conscience came to the fore in Kander and Ebb’s portrait of political prisoners and gay persecution in Argentina in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) and Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade (1998), which dealt with anti-Semitism in the American South, both of which added to Prince’s Tony collection.

There was a late indication of what Prince could bring to Broadway classics with a rare revival in 1994 of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat. It ran for three years and saw the acquisition of another Tony award.

His last appearance in New York theatre’s heartland was with the greatest hits compendium Prince of Broadway, a retrospective of his career highlights co-directed with Susan Stroman, in 2017. Seven years earlier, the pair had collaborated on Paradise Found, an ill-fated musical fantasy using the music of Johann Strauss II at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London.

Prince of Broadway review at Samuel J Friedman Theatre, New York – ‘generous and good-hearted’

He received a lifetime achievement Tony award in 2006 and published two memoirs, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre (1974) and Sense of Occasion (2017).

Paying tribute to Prince on news of his death, Andrew Lloyd Webber told the Guardian: “All of modern musical theatre owes practically everything to him.”

Harold Smith Prince was born on January 30, 1928 and died on July 31. He is survived by his wife Judy (nee Chaplin), daughter of the Hollywood composer and producer Saul Chaplin, and two children.

Howard Sherman: In memory of Hal Prince (1928-2019), a theatre legend

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