The Devastating Loss Of Harold Prince

by Michael Mahany | 8/20/2019 5:40 AM

Harold Prince. Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin/Playbill.

On the 31st day of July 2019, on a Nordic island in the middle of the Northern Atlantic — Broadway and the dance world lost a luminary in Harold Smith Prince.

The legendary producer, director, stage manager, theatrical pioneer, and (yes, even) US Army Veteran, passed away in Reykjavik, Iceland at the age of 91. Due in part to his passion for creating lasting and evocative work and the preservation of many of his theatrical ventures, the massive contributions to the art forms created by the beloved dance and theatre figure, will quite literally never be forgotten, while his loss will be felt for generations.

On top of his legendary career that spanned an incredible seven decades (which includes the two years away serving in the United States Army in post-World War II Germany), Prince created a vast web of connections in the world of theatre and dance. Beyond his record-breaking Tony Award haul of 21 statues during his lengthy tenure in the arts, the theatrical icon introduced and provided a defining opportunity to many virtually unknown or relatively new artists. Choreographers like Michael Bennett, Susan Stroman, Bob Fosse, and others who would go on to become generation-defining dance-makers owe many of their star-turning debuts to the late and great Mr. Prince.

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Prince was known as a deeply thoughtful, socio-politically driven producer and director who created art that collectively challenged the norms of society and asked audience members to reflect on the times at hand. He also valued the contributions of those he thought were at the height of their game — especially choreographers — regardless of gender.

Furthermore, he was also known to be one of the kindest men to grace the Broadway boards.

The Prince Dynasty

Harold Prince in 1962. Photo courtesy: Photofest.

The list of Mr. Prince’s contribution to the professional theatre is an epically long and impressive one that includes more than 60 different productions over a career that spanned from 1950 to his death. In 2015, his work reached a Broadway stage for the final time when the ultimate culmination compilation of his artistry, ‘The Prince of Broadway,’ co-directed by Susan Stroman and himself, took its bow on the Great White Way.

Before his time producing and directing some the biggest blockbusters on Broadway, however, Mr. Prince started his career as an assistant stage manager. In 1950 he was charged with the daily management of two musicals: first, ‘Tickets, Please!’ and then later in the year, ’Call Me Madam’.

By 1954, though, Mr. Prince had quickly moved to the role of a co-producer, where he was involved in the creation of monumental shows like ‘The Pajama Game’, ‘Damn Yankees’, and the two earliest productions of ‘West Side Story’.

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By the 1960s, Mr. Prince began to transition back and forth between the roles of producer and director — (and occasionally, executing both roles in the same production). During this decade he was responsible for many iconic productions with hits like ‘She Loves Me’, ‘Fiddler On The Roof’, and ‘Cabaret’.

In 1962, Mr. Prince began a steady professional partnership that would last a lifetime; he produced legendary composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim’s ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’. Though the two had previously worked together on ‘West Side Story’, this production marked the start of a partnership that would mount at least nine of Sondheim’s musicals and build a lasting legacy of the duo’s popularization of concept musicals.

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For Sondheim and Prince, the idea that a major musical could develop out of an idea or theme — a concept musical — rather than a traditional narrative storyline, was one through which they explored deeply. The two found an almost cult-like success — although often less commercially — with their concept musicals like 1970’s ‘Company’, 1971’s ‘Follies’, 1976’s ‘Pacific Overtures’, 1979’s ‘Sweeney Todd’, and 1981’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’.

The two also worked together on more traditional narrative shows like 1973’s ‘A Little Night Music’, and ‘Road Show’ (later renamed ‘Bounce’) in the early 2000s.

Perhaps the most lasting, and certainly most recognizable, of Prince’s contributions to the theatre, however, is ‘The Phantom Of The Opera’. Prince directed the 1986 production, and the musical — now officially the longest-running in Broadway history — is still filling houses over 30 years later(!) eight times a week at its home in the Majestic Theatre on 44th street.

Upon his passing, Prince left behind what is arguably his greatest legacy: his family. Prince married his wife Judith Chaplin in 1963, and they had two children — conductor Charles Prince and director Daisy Prince — and three grandchildren.

A Legion Of Choreographers

Harold Prince and Susan Stroman. Photo credit: Tim Knox/The Times.

Mr. Prince’s ability to recognize talent was unmistakable, especially when it came to identifying choreographers. On many occasions, Mr. Prince offered a widely unknown or relatively new dance creator the opportunity to set the movement to one of his shows.

For instance, Ron Field, the choreographer who created the dances for the original production of ‘Cabaret’ in 1966, (and the subsequent revival in 1987), was relatively new at the time. By the time ‘Cabaret’ came around, Field had choreographed two Broadway musicals in the previous four years, both of which hadn’t fortuned much of a star turn for him. With the success of ‘Cabaret’, Field won the first of his three Tony Awards and went on to work with Mr. Prince again on 1968’s ‘Zorba’.

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Jerome Robbins, already an established choreographer and dance star at the time, originally worked with Prince when Prince was an assistant stage manager on ‘Call Me Madam’, but in 1957 the two teamed up again to create one of Musical Theatre’s most heralded gems, ’West Side Story’. The duo struck gold again in 1964 when, when Prince produced the Robbins directed and choreographed ‘Fiddler On The Roof’.

During Prince’s tenure with Sondheim, he brought aboard the relatively new, Michael Bennett to choreograph the first of their concept musicals, ‘Company’. Bennett, who went on to build an impressive resume as a director and choreographer, was given his first opportunity at the helm of both departments with the 1971 Prince/Sondheim collaboration of ‘Follies.’

Harold Prince also did something that not many other directors and producers chose to do on Broadway during the 70s, 80s, and 90s — he hired female choreographers.

Patricia “Pat” Birch, a famed theatrical and film director and choreographer, worked with Mr. Prince on numerous productions throughout both of their expansive careers. While the two first met in 1960 when Birch appeared as “Anybodys” in that year’s production of ‘West Side Story,’ Prince would go on to hire Birch to choreograph ‘A Little Night Music’ in 1973, ‘Pacific Overtures’ in 1976, and then ‘Candide’ in 1997, ’Parade’ in 1998, and ‘Lovemusik’ in 2007.

Tony-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman owes an early career boost to the late great Mr. Prince, too. After the wildly successful 1992 production of ‘Crazy For You’ for which Stroman won her first Tony Award for Best Choreography, Mr. Prince hired her for her next big musical opportunity — creating the dances for the 1994 revival of ‘Show Boat.’

Stroman and Prince would come together one last time in 2017 when Stroman would serve as co-director and choreographer of ‘Prince Of Broadway’.

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No choreographer, however, is arguable more imperative to Prince’s legacy of hiring relatively unknown dance makers than that of Bob Fosse. On Prince’s first venture as a co-producer, he insisted that the team putting up ‘The Pajama Game’ hired the then (unknown) Fosse.

Bob Fosse’s choreography from “Steam Heat” in the film version of ‘The Pajama Game. Video courtesy: Columbia.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Prince who was 26 at the time he produced 1954’s ‘The Pajama Game’, explained how the team behind the hit musical had to line up 164 different investors to get the show produced because “none of the smart money would support us.”

Nonetheless, Prince and his team, including the newfound star in Fosse who won his first Tony Award for Best Choreography for ‘The Pajama Game’, teamed up again on his next major musical too, 1955’s, ‘Damn Yankees’.

More: Tony Nominee Jane Lanier Talks All Things Fosse & Verdon

'Damn Yankees' went on to win eight Tony Awards that season, including a return victory for Fosse for best choreography, and a win for Fosse’s future wife and co-creator, Gwen Verdon, who took home the trophy for Best Actress in a Musical.

You’re A Good Man, Mr. Prince

Harold Prince. Photo courtesy: PBS.

More than anything that Mr. Prince accomplished during his extravagant life and career, however, is that despite his astronomical success, fame, and power, he remained a kind, generous, humble, and caring artist and leader.

“Watching Mr. Prince run rehearsal was like a mini master class in direction,” New York Times writer Michael Cooper wrote in a 2016 article detailing both the production of ‘Candide’ that Mr. Prince directed that all but revived New York City Opera and the late producer/director’s good nature.

“He used flattery," Cooper described of Prince who in rehearsal reportedly told the cast, "‘I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but this is certainly as good a company as we’ve ever had,’”

“He used humor,” Cooper added, “telling the cast (five and a half weeks before opening night): ‘I will do my damnedest to learn all your names — just give me about six weeks.’”

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Prince was also known for his thoughtful and regular correspondence, often writing personal telegrams and letters to those who reached out.

Michael Colby, a New York City composer and lyricist who early in his career sent a copy of his musical 'Charlotte Sweet' to Mr. Prince on the suggestion of a mutual friend, recalled the telegram that Prince sent back.

“So this is my letter from Harold Prince,” Colby wrote on Facebook shortly after Prince's passing. “He'd very much liked CHARLOTTE SWEET, on the recommendation of his close friend Geraldine Stutz. He asked me to send other materials and here's his response (Whether he meant it or not, it's nice to have).”

A personal telegram from Harold Prince to composer Michael Colby. Photo courtesy: Michael Colby.

“Dear Michael Colby,” the telegram, dated June of 1982, read, “Thanks for the manuscripts and the tapes. My friend, Geraldine, is right. I hope and trust there will be some time when we can work together. Meanwhile, have a good summer and please keep in touch.”

The social media outpouring from Broadway’s biggest names after the announcement of Prince’s passing was almost immediate. Broken hearts and wishes of a peaceful rest came in from all corners of the globe, many describing personal moments, professional experiences, and chance encounters with Prince.

Chita Rivera and Hal Prince. Photo courtesy: Chita Rivera/Twitter.

“I am saddened beyond words,” dancer and actress Chita Rivera wrote on Twitter. “There are some people you feel we will never be without. Hal is one of them.  I owe so much to him. He knows my love for him.”

"Beyond heartbroken to find out that Hal Prince has passed away," tweeted actress and dancer Donna Murphy who worked with Prince on 2007’s ‘Lovemusik’. "Working with Hal was one of the greatest honors of my artistic life-I'll never forget his kindness, generosity & brilliance as an artist & as a human."

Perhaps though, Prince’s own words sum up his approach to not just his work, but the way he moved through life.

"The idea is to work and to experiment,” Prince was quoted to have said by TriBeCa Films via Twitter. “Some things will be creatively successful, some will succeed at the box office, and some 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.”

Michael Mahany serves as Dance Network’s New York City correspondent. He is also a professional actor, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.