Hal Prince: Remembering multiple Tony winner whose shows include ‘Cabaret’ & ‘The Phantom of the Opera’
Multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and director Harold Prince – perhaps best known as Hal Prince – whose credits include the hit musicals West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, A Little Night Music, Evita, and The Phantom of the Opera, died at age 91 on July 31 in Reykjavik.
In all, Prince took home a record-setting 21 Tonys: eight as Best Director of a Musical, eight as the producer of the year’s Best Musical, two as Best Producer of a Musical, and three special trophies – including a Special Tony for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre.
Hal Prince Broadway hits
The adoptive son of a stockbroker and his wife, Hal Prince was born on Jan. 30, 1928, in Manhattan. From a relatively early age, the Broadway stage became a passion.
In his introduction to Foster Hirsch’s 1989 study Harold Prince and the American Musical Theater, Prince recalled suffering a prolonged nervous breakdown in his teens: “I believed then (I was applying to universities) and continued to believe until I was twenty-five that if I failed at making a life in New York in the theatre, then there was no point in a life at all.”
He began his stage career in the 1950s, working as an assistant manager to veteran producer-director-playwright George Abbott (Chicago, Twentieth Century, Pal Joey). Prince’s standing soared after he, by then in his mid-20s, co-produced with Abbott the 1954 Tony Award-winning musical The Pajama Game, featuring choreography by Bob Fosse, and starring John Raitt (Oklahoma!, Carousel) and former Warner Bros. contract player Janis Page (Romance on the High Seas, One Sunday Afternoon). The Pajama Game ran for 1,063 performances.
Once again as co-producer (with Frederick Brisson and Robert E. Griffith), Prince had another musical hit the following year: Damn Yankees, a retelling of the Faust legend, starring Gwen Verdon (instead of initial choices Mitzi Gaynor and Zizi Jeanmaire), Ray Walston, and Stephen Douglass. Bob Fosse once again was responsible for the dance numbers.
Choreographer Fosse and co-producer Prince would join forces a third time on New Girl in Town, a 1957 musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, starring Fosse’s soon-to-be wife Gwen Verdon and, back then, four-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter. Both Verdon and Ritter shared that year’s Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
In the ensuing decade, Hal Prince would enjoy a number of major successes, among them the Best Musical Tony winners West Side Story (1957), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and Cabaret (1966).
Stephen Sondheim & Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborations
Whether as producer or director – or both – some of Hal Prince’s most notable Broadway hits of the 1960s and 1970s featured compositions (music and/or lyrics) by Stephen Sondheim, including the aforementioned West Side Story and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, in addition to Best Musical Tony nominee Follies (1971), and winners Company (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), and Sweeney Todd (1977) – the latter two with book by Hugh Wheeler.
In the aftermath of Prince’s death, Sondheim recalled their collaboration on West Side Story, telling the New York Times that Prince “had been brought up on Broadway musicals of the 1940s, as had I, and that gave him a rather conservative ear: The dissonance in the score of West Side Story opened it up a bit, but every time I’d play a new song for him, he would often ask me, “Will I like that?” I would usually assure him, at which point he would shrug in resignation, and the song would at least go into rehearsal, though sometimes not for very long. Hal’s openness to things he didn’t immediately respond to was one of the things that made him such an ideal collaborator.”
Another notable stage partnership was that of Hal Prince – as director – and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who joined forces on the Tony Award-winning hits Evita (1978 in London’s West End, 1979 on Broadway) and The Phantom of the Opera (West End, 1986; Broadway, 1988). Initially starring Michael Crawford, Sarah Brightman, and Steve Barton, the latter became the longest-running show in Broadway history.
Also in the last few days, Webber told the Times that he had been “the greatest Hal Prince fan alive.” In fact, the two might have collaborated on another hit, Jesus Christ Superstar, which Prince had wanted to produce and direct in the early 1970s. However, Webber’s management company had already signed a deal with Robert Sitgwood, who produced the show; Tom O’Horgan would be the eventual director.
In the clip below from the 1992 special “That’s Singing, The Best of Broadway: A Celebration of American Musical Comedy,” Glynis Johns sings “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, later performing a duet with leading man Len Cariou. Hal Prince produced and directed the original 1973 Broadway production.
Hal Prince Broadway flops
Inevitably, in the last six decades there were a number of Hal Prince flops as well. A Family Affair (1962), a musical comedy about two families battling over wedding arrangements, is particularly notable as it was Prince’s directorial debut.
As found in Sean Egan’s William Goldman: The Reluctant Storyteller, Goldman’s agent, Richard Seff, asserted that Prince’s handling “helped it a lot. It got better. It just didn’t get good enough.” Starring Shelley Berman and future Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free, 1972), A Family Affair ran for only 65 performances.
In 1981, the by then legendary Hal Prince-Stephen Sondheim collaboration came to a halt following Merrily We Roll Along, a dud that ran for a mere 16 performances. The duo would be reunited in the Chicago production – with Prince as director – of the 2003 musical Bounce. A modestly rewarding version of Sondheim’s Wise Guys (1999), Bounce is noteworthy for having featured former MGM musical star Jane Powell (Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) in a key supporting role.
Another bomb worth mentioning is the Prince-directed A Doll’s Life (1982), set during a modern-day rehearsal of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House while also imagining Nora Helmer’s fate after she abandoned her abusive husband. Broadway and Hollywood veterans Betty Comden and Adolph Green (The Band Wagon, Auntie Mame) provided the book and lyrics, with music by Larry Grossman.
Starring Betsy Joslyn, George Hearn, and Peter Gallagher, A Doll’s Life closed after five performances and 18 previews. Yet, despite its blink-and-you-missed-it run, the musical was shortlisted for three Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical for Comden and Green.
Hal Prince movies: Only four titles
Ever busy in the theater, Hal Prince made only a handful of contributions to the world of film, wearing the hat of associate producer on two 1950s Warner Bros. musicals – both adaptations of shows he had co-produced with George Abbott on Broadway – and, in the 1970s, wearing the hat of director on a couple of features.
The two costly Warner musicals – a record $750,000 for the rights, plus 50 percent of the net profits – were directed by Abbott and the more cinematically experienced Stanley Donen (On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain):
- The modestly successful The Pajama Game (1957), starring Doris Day (replacing Broadway’s Janis Paige) and John Raitt.
- Damn Yankees (1958), starring Tab Hunter (replacing Stephen Douglass), Gwen Verdon, and Ray Walston.
‘Something for Everyone’
The two Hal Prince features of the 1970s, neither of which were commercial hits, were the mordant comedy Something for Everyone (1970), which marked his middle-aged directorial film debut, and the period musical A Little Night Music (1977), which Prince himself had produced/directed on Broadway.
A clever and vastly underrated social satire, Something for Everyone, adapted by Hugh Wheeler from Harry Kressing’s 1965 novel The Cook, stars Michael York as an ambitious Bavarian country “boy” who uses his seductive powers to ingratiate himself with a wealthy bourgeois beauty and the various members of a less well-off but titled, castle-owning family.
Among those who succumb to his wiles are Countess Mother Angela Lansbury (who would later star in the Prince-directed Broadway smash Sweeney Todd), son Anthony Higgins (billed as Anthony Corlan), and daughter Jane Carr – who, as it turns out, is no less cunning and unscrupulous than the local yokel.
In his 2017 autobiography Sense of Occasion, Prince would say that he experienced “beginner’s luck with Something for Everyone,” as he had “a great script from Hugh Wheeler, solid gold in cinematographer Walter Lassally, and platinum with [Golden Globe nominee] Angela Lansbury and Michael York.”
‘A Little Night Music’
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 period romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, Stephen Sondheim’s Hal Prince-directed, Tony-winning 1973 musical A Little Night Music revolves around the matching, mismatching, and rematching of several couples while at a weekend getaway in turn-of-the-century Sweden.
For the movie adaptation, Something for Everyone screenwriter Hugh Wheeler – working from his own musical book – transferred the action from Sweden to Austria, where a bewitching but aging actress (Elizabeth Taylor in a role previously played by Glynis Johns on Broadway and Eva Dahlbeck in the Bergman original) decides to finally settle down. Her partner of choice is a former flame (Len Cariou, reprising his stage role), who now happens to be the husband of a much younger, virginal woman (Lesley-Anne Down).
Also in the cast: the stage production’s Laurence Guittard as the actress’ lover, Diana Rigg as his wife, Christopher Guard as the former flame’s son, Lesley Dunlop as a seductive maid, and, reprising her Broadway role as the actress’ mother, veteran Hermione Gingold (Gigi, The Music Man).
Despite his familiarity with the story and characters and the film’s mostly stellar cast, the big-screen version of A Little Night Music turned out to be a less-than-satisfying experience for director Hal Prince, who in Sense of Occasion confessed having “had a hard time working with” his Hollywood-trained star. Not helping matters was the feeling of “boredom” throughout the slow-moving filmmaking process.
Equally unenthusiastic were both critics and moviegoers. Notwithstanding Stephen Sondheim’s compositions, its Broadway pedigree and name cast, and the chance to see/hear Elizabeth Taylor delivering an actressy, off-key rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” A Little Night Music was an all-around flop.
Even so, the good-looking production managed to receive two Academy Award nominations: Best Costume Design (Florence Klotz) and Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation/Best Adaptation Score (Jonathan Tunick), ultimately winning in the latter category.
Hal Prince the inspiration for sleazy ‘All That Jazz’ character?
Although several online sources claim that the sleazy Broadway director Lucas Sergeant played by John Lithgow in Bob Fosse’s 1979 Oscar-nominated musical All That Jazz was inspired by Hal Prince, the character is supposed to have been more strongly based on another New York stage name, Michael Bennett (Follies, A Chorus Line), Fosse’s rival choreographer on the Broadway musical scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
Off-stage, Prince was married to Judith Chaplin, daughter of composer/orchestrator Saul Chaplin (An American in Paris, Kiss Me Kate). Spin City actor Alexander Chaplin is Prince’s son-in-law (and apparently chose to adopt his mother-in-law’s maiden name).
Hal Prince’s final directorial job was the self-homage Prince of Broadway, a musical revue – with book by David Thompson – that, after failing to get the necessary backing for a Broadway staging, premiered in Tokyo in 2015. Two years later, the show finally had its Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where it ran for a modest 76 performances.
Hal Prince shows on the big screen
- Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story (Best Picture Oscar winner, 1961).
- Henry Koster’s Taker Her She’s Mine (1963), the only non-musical on the list.
- Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).
- Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (Best Picture Oscar nominee, 1971).
- Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (Best Picture Oscar nominee, 1972).
- Alan Parker’s Evita (1996).
- Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004).
- Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).
Information about The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees via Christopher Anderson’s Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties.
Stephen Sondheim quote: Meryle Secrest’s Stephen Sondheim: A Life.
Image of Hal Prince: PBS’s Great Performances’ “Prince of Broadway: A Tribute to Harold Prince.”
Image of Diana Rigg, Len Cariou, Laurence Guittard, and two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8, 1960; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966) in A Little Night Music: New World Pictures.
“Hal Prince: Broadway Musicals’ Producer-Director & Record-Setting Tony Award Winner Remembered” last updated in August 2019.