The Astonishing Hal Prince

The director and producer of some of Broadway’s most memorable shows dies at 91

Aug 02 2019 | 11:36 AM

When I learned that Harold (Hal) Prince had died, I felt as though all of Broadway must have stopped breathing, at least for a time. Yes, he was 91. Yes, he lived a full life: 21 Tony Awards, including one for lifetime achievement in 2006. He was producer or director, and sometimes both, of many of the most memorable Broadway musicals, including “Damn Yankees,” “West Side Story,” “Cabaret” and “The Phantom of the Opera” among them.” But the loss still bites.

Prince embodied Broadway royalty. He worked with top composers, lyricists, designers, choreographers and actors. His productions were often dazzling, framing an artistic vision that challenged as well as entertained us.

Once seen, you could never forget the diving chandelier in “Phantom,” or the titillating Kit Kat Club of “Cabaret,” with its leering master of ceremonies, or the barber’s chair in “Sweeney Todd,” with a false bottom that swooped its victim below to the charnel house where he’d be turned into meat pie. Or the peasants of “Fiddler On the Roof,” muddling their way through “Tradition.”

One of the heartbreaks of my theater life was that I didn’t get to work with Hal Prince. Before I became culture critic for WINS-AM, I was a performer. I was thrilled when I had the opportunity to audition to replace one of the daughters in “Fiddler.” But I didn’t get to read, much less sing or dance. I was “typed out.” Seems this granddaughter of Russian immigrants wasn’t “ethnic” enough.

Prince said he didn’t want to put realism on the stage. Instead, he went for heightened reality, often making his stage productions cinematic, as in “West Side Story” and “Cabaret,” his first concept musical. His expansive revival of “Show Boat” was breathtaking in its sweep. The musical-within-a-musical of “Follies” revealed his embrace of experimentation.

Broadway audiences have come to expect his approach, linking messaging to entertaining opulence, and rewarding larger-than-life shows, from “Hamilton” to “The Lion King,” with long runs.

As a theater-lover and then as critic, I was privileged to see many of Prince’s shows, including “Fiorello,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Follies.” They delivered enduring memories from a man who expanded our understanding of what musicals could be about and who influenced American theater over decades of often astonishing work.