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Broadway director Harold Prince left an unparalleled legacy of masterworks

Hal Prince’s Broadway legacy includes Cabaret, Phantom, and an iconic partnership with Sondheim.

Hal Prince attends a Manhattan Theater Club event at the MTC Studios on July 20, 2017, in New York City.
Walter McBride/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Theater titan Harold (Hal) Prince died on July 31 after a brief illness at the age of 91. Prince was one of the most prolific and successful stage directors in history, with a venerated career that spanned six decades and netted him a staggering 21 Tony awards — more than any other person in history.

It’s pretty much impossible to sum up the profound and long-lasting impact that Prince had on American theater, but here are three crucial takeaways to know about the “Prince of Broadway”:

1) Prince’s mid-century collaborations were crucial to musical theater

Prince, born in 1928, was one of a large group of frequent collaborators whose mid-century contributions to the theater were vast and invaluable. A lifelong New Yorker, he got his start working as an assistant to legendary director and playwright George Abbott, who helmed the original productions of seminal musicals like Pal Joey, On the Town, and Damn Yankees.

Prince struggled in the industry for nearly two decades, graduating from assistant roles to directing flops, before his first major success. But during that time, he became part of a large, formidable network of collaborators that significantly shaped the direction of American musical theater. Throughout the 20th century, celebrated musical composers from Jerome Kern to Leonard Bernstein were buffeted by towering collaborative talent. In his book The Broadway Musical, Joseph Swain observes:

Collaboration in the musical theatre meant that a composer might work with not only a lyricist and a librettist bu also a director, an orchestrator, a choreographer ... It is no coincidence that nearly all the significant works of the Broadway tradition were preceded in their history by a vast amount of experience in every department. It should be no surprise that the early works of Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter, and Bernstein form no part of this repertoire, that their highest achievements come much later in their careers, and that those achievements are supported over and over by the same names in production and direction: George Abbott, Rouben Mamoulian, Jerome Robbins, Moss Hart, Harold Prince. History has shown that experience provides the fine tuning of the collaboration that even the most mature dramatic vision requires. ... The list suggests an intricate network of acquaintances that underlay the great variety of musical productions.

Prince took his place among these collaborators in the ’60s, often working as a producer for other theater giants on shows like Fiorello!, She Loves Me, and Fiddler On the Roof. He built collaborations with Jerome Robbins, who directed and choreographed several shows he produced, set designer Boris Aronson, and Bob Fosse, who choreographed Prince’s first big success, Cabaret. Prince most famously established his eventual directorial success alongside a number of musical theater composers with whom he worked repeatedly.

Among these were John Kander and Fred Ebb, a.k.a. Kander and Ebb, who wrote the scores for Cabaret, Chicago, and other less-well-known musicals whose songs have become more famous than the shows they were in. Prince produced Kander and Ebb’s 1965 show Flora, the Red Menace, and crucially cast a 19-year-old Liza Minnelli to star in it. The following year, he directed the team’s Cabaret, his first breakout success. Much later, in 1993, he directed the dark Tony-winning Kander and Ebb hit Kiss of the Spider Woman.

Another frequent collaborator of Prince’s: Andrew Lloyd Webber. For Lloyd Webber, Prince directed just three shows, but two were real doozies: Evita (1979) and Phantom of the Opera (1986), which became the most profitable musical ever made. It currently holds the record for longest-running musical in Broadway history, and since it’s got its nearest competitor beat by nearly 4,000 performances, it’s unlikely to be dethroned soon.

By far Prince’s most significant collaboration, however, is also his most famous.

2) He’s most well known for collaborating with Stephen Sondheim during the ’60s and ’70s

After Rodgers and Hammerstein, it would be hard to point to another collaborative team with a more profound influence over the development of the theater than Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim. Contemporary reviewer Howard Kissel described them in 1976 as “the team that sets Broadway’s highest standards.”

Prince’s collaborations with Sondheim were fundamental to the development of both artists. Prince produced West Side Story in 1957, which marked Sondheim’s Broadway debut as lyricist for Leonard Bernstein. Then he produced Sondheim’s first musical as sole composer, 1962’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Prince went on to direct the original productions of seven Sondheim musicals: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), and Bounce (2003), later renamed to Road Show.

Prince’s gruff collaborative partnership with Sondheim became the stuff of legend; it was captured fleetingly in the 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, which was itself spoofed earlier this year by Documentary Now.

“We did not want to follow where the audience took us,” Prince said of the collaboration. “We wanted to take the audience where we wanted to go.”

Prince was intuitive, extroverted, inhabiting the world he creates art for; Sondheim was analytical, introverted, examining humanity from a remove. Writing about their partnership in Of Sondheim, theater historian Ethan Mordden observed, “The marvelous friction between Sondheim’s calculated playwrighting and Prince’s intuitive producing certainly brought something new to the musical ... a chemistry that explodes in the rich theatricality of their shows.”

“It was Prince,” Mordden noted, “who with Sondheim worked out the deconstruction of the musical, liquidating realism for a presentational style in which the audience is always able to remember that it is in the theatre, that the action is not ‘real’ but an assembly of performers who discuss the story while enacting it.” In other words, the two men together codified one of the most important developments of musical theater in the ’60s: the concept musical.

3) Prince pretty much co-invented the concept musical — and ushered in a new era with Cabaret

The idea of a “concept musical” is pretty much a useless term today, in an era where musicals have many different forms and structures, often within the same production. But in the ’60s and ’70s, many of the most important musicals of the era were considered concept musicals because of the way they privileged thematic ideas over plot, and innovative relationships between characters and story. Think shows like Hair, Godspell, Chicago, Jesus Christ Superstar, and all of Sondheim’s early work.

These shows were heavily influenced by the meta-theater of playwright and drama theorist Bertolt Brecht (though Sondheim would deny this), and the continual experimentation with format and staging concepts that directors like Jerome Robbins had advanced. For instance, think of the way Robbins’s opening number in the Prince-produced Fiddler On the Roof, “Tradition,” serves both a narrative purpose and a meta-purpose in introducing the theme of the play and inducting the audience into the story. The concept musicals of the ’60s and ’70s basically extended that idea to the whole show.

As Mordden describes it, the concept musical “doesn’t simply tell the story: it dissects the story ... This is the art of Sondheim, but also that of Prince.” The concept musical sort of existed before Prince came along, but it was really Prince’s breakout musical, 1966’s Cabaret, that codified the idea of a musical that had both a narrative and a meta-format.

In his book Open a New Window, Mordden calls Cabaret “the essential sixties musical.”

It could not have happened before the 1960s and would have been unnecessary after; and the decade is inconceivable without it.

Though the Tonys performance shown here seems pretty traditional, Cabaret itself was anything but. It was so unlike other shows that had come before it that it essentially ended the Rodgers and Hammerstein mode of musical theater, paving the way for the era of Sondheim to follow.

Here’s how Mordden describes one of Cabaret’s most pivotal moments — the moment when Prince’s staging in the original production deliberately merges the show’s narrative and its meta-narrative:

Cabaret’s best innovation occurs when, near the end, Sally sings the title number. At first, we take it for her club act. But then, in the original production, a curtain of streamers fell behind her, cutting her off from the cabaret, from everywhere. “Come to the Cabaret,” she urged: hide from reality.

Mordden notes that Prince’s staging was key: The theme’s communication “lay as much in how it was staged as in what it was saying. That’s how the concept musical works.”

This type of thematic and narrative overlap might not strike audiences as remarkable today, but it was innovative for a Broadway that had only really found its footing two decades previous, with 1943’s Oklahoma!. Prince’s directorial style allowed him to visualize and dramatize a musical’s meta-commentary to audiences — sometimes to their discomfort. “The concept musical often disturbs the average theatergoer’s comfort zone,” Mordden noted.

But experimenting with, disturbing, and often disrupting an audience’s expectations through theater was something Prince excelled at. Rather than contenting himself with directing only big-budget hits — he turned down Lloyd Webber’s invitation to direct Cats — Prince continued to innovate and explore well into the latter decades of his life.

1998’s Parade, for example, about the 1913 lynching of Jewish factory worker Leo Frank, was conceived entirely by Prince, who drafted Jason Robert Brown to write the score. You’d hardly expect a directing giant like Prince, then 70, to be building musicals and their creative teams from scratch. But Parade’s conception reveals just how passionate Prince continued to be about the theater until his death — and how much his influence still looms over Broadway.