Harold Prince, a giant of the theater business, died on Wednesday at the age of 91.
Known to friends and fans alike as Hal, Prince’s imprint can be seen on many of the defining musicals of the 20th and 21st centuries. The producer and director worked on a dizzying number of hit shows, including the original Broadway productions of “Cabaret,” ″Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Evita,” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” In addition to reaping commercial success and critical raves, shows he worked on won him an astounding 21 Tony Awards over the course of his career. Variety spoke to three of Prince’s key collaborators and friends to get their reflections on his life and legacy.
Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera”)
There isn’t anybody working on musical theater on either side of the Atlantic who doesn’t owe an enormous debt to this extraordinary man.
I’ll always remember something he said to me. He told me, ‘You’ve got to remember Andrew, this isn’t radio. You can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.’ The design of his shows always had to be right. That was one thing he always brought to every production. His productions always moved so seamlessly. They always seemed so effortless even though they required a great deal of effort.
Hal was very minimalist with his sets. People think of ‘Phantom’ as this great big spectacle. That’s an illusion. Hal always looked at the show as this big black box in which the stage craft enabled you to believe there was this impressive scenery all around you.
He was a great supporter. I remember early on, I was in London and I’d just had had a show that hadn’t worked and hadn’t done well. I went round to see him and he asked me what I was working on next, and I said I was writing something with Tim Rice about the life of Eva Peron. He told me, ‘Bring me that musical.’
Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”)
More than anything else, when I think about Hal, I think about his belief in theater. He believed in what it could do. What it could be. What it’s future could be. It was so contagious and he infected all of us with that belief. I’m given to being jaded or cynical, but that was hard to do when you were around Hal.
He was always most interested in whatever was next. He was always working. There was no sense that he was ready to throw in the towel. I remember doing a panel with him when he was doing ‘Prince of Broadway’ [a musical review show featuring musical numbers from his career], and I was trying to draw him out about this show that he did in 1966 or this other show he did in 1968. He told me, ‘I’m not that great at looking back.’ That was him. That was the kind of person he was.
He was a guy that made commercial theater that was at the center of culture time and again. He never did that in a pandering way. There was a real desire to make sure that the work had something to say. He was never just interested in entertainment for its own sake nor success for its own sake. He thought a lot about the world and the political systems and emotional support systems in it. He was very much a political artist. He thought a lot about bringing the world into his work and then bringing his work to the world.
Joel Grey (“Cabaret”)
He had this confidence in himself like nobody I ever knew. There was nothing he felt he couldn’t do even if he had never done it before — whether it was opera, film, musicals, or straight plays.
If you came in with a good idea, he was glad to accept it. If he didn’t think it was quite right he’d let you know that too and then he’d have a better idea.
Before ‘Cabaret,’ I was ready to quit the business. He called me one morning and I told him I was quitting and he said, ‘Joel-y’ — he was the only person I ever allowed to call me that — ‘You’d better wait. I have this new project, and there’s a good part in it for you.’ [Ed. note: Grey won a Tony playing the Emcee]
I cared a lot about him. I still do, and I always will.
(These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)