A simple list of credits for Hal Prince says so much. Producer or co-producer of, among others, The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Director of Cabaret, Follies, Company, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Evita, The Phantom of the Opera. It’s really quite staggering.
A protégé of the legendary George Abbott, he worked his way up from office boy to producer in record time. He often told the story of hiring himself as stage manager on his own Wonderful Town to assure himself of an income while producing the show, and wearing a tuxedo backstage as he went about his duties on opening night.
My earliest memory of Hal and his work came when I saw the original Broadway production of Evita. That kinetic, propulsive show revealed what a director is, what a director can do, since the text didn’t indicate any action and there wasn’t a conventional dramatic arc. It was breathtaking from the mezzanine on a school trip.
My choice of university was influenced in large part by the fact that Hal had attended there, and I harboured some hope that I would meet him if he returned to campus for a visit. In my third year, such an event was announced – and I was asked to greet him, get him anything he needed, and then hide him away for an hour so he could relax before a speech he was to deliver. I was under strict instructions not to bother him or try to engage him in conversation, much as I would have liked to.
But after not more than five minutes of sitting sentinel outside the office where he was stashed away, the door opened and his head popped out. He looked at me and said: “I don’t need to rest. Wanna talk?” Stunned, I was treated to an almost hour-long monologue on theatre, most of which I’ve forgotten, sad to say. However, it was then I learned that one didn’t necessarily talk with Hal. One listened. In awe.
Two decades passed before I met him again, periodically hearing his thoughts on the Tony Awards – pro and con – during my tenure leading the American Theatre Wing. But I also interviewed him several times, notably for a podcast in 2008 and again for a magazine feature in 2018. But we would encounter each other at various theatre events, and he was always warm and generous with his time and his interest in what I was doing.
My favourite encounter with Hal was an utter surprise. Sitting in an empty movie theatre, awaiting the start of a documentary about the singer Harry Nilsson, I recognised a voice as someone sat down behind me. I turned to discover Hal and his wife Judy, and after mutually saying we had expected to be alone at this obscure movie, Hal proceeded to tell me about how he knew Nilsson, their various encounters, and even that the late composer had recorded a song for Judy.
I have discovered how many people in the field have stories like this about Hal, and certainly his intimates have many more – about rehearsal rooms, out-of-town tryouts, late-night note sessions and opening nights. That’s only appropriate for a man who probably did more than anyone else as a producer and director to change the face of American musical theatre, most notably through his stunning collaborations with Stephen Sondheim. I know we’ll be hearing and reading those in the coming days.
Immediately upon learning of his passing, I wrote on Facebook that Hal was both a good man and a great man, and that the two often aren’t the same thing. But he was all that and more, and his death is truly the passing of a man who became a theatre legend long before his career and life came to an end.
I shall miss him most every January 30, because that was his birthday – and, in a coincidence in which I invested great meaning – mine as well. For the past 16 years, I sent him an e-mail on our birthday, acknowledging only his, and I always received a few lines of thanks in reply. His message to me earlier this year read in part: “I couldn’t be happier or busier or younger.” That is how I shall always think of him.
I will no longer type my good wishes to him on that date, but he will always be in my thoughts. And as my theatregoing continues, his influence will always, in some fashion, be on the stage before me.