×

Harold Prince, Dominant Force in Broadway Musicals, Dies at 91

Legendary Broadway musical producer and director Harold Prince, whose considerable legacy includes “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “West Side Story,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” has died. He was 91.

Prince died Wednesday in Reykjavik, Iceland, after a brief illness, his publicist confirmed to Variety.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who collaborated with Prince on “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera,” paid tribute to the prolific Broadway producer. “Farewell, Hal,” he said. “Not just the prince of musicals, the crowned head who directed two of the greatest productions of my career, ‘Evita’ and ‘Phantom.’ This wonderful man taught me so much and his mastery of musical theater was without equal.”

It is impossible to speak of the American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century without invoking Prince’s name. He is associated in some crucial way with a majority of the great musicals of the period, and though he did not change the face of the musical theater alone, he collaborated with such giants as George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim in some of their most impressive undertakings.

Starting as a wunderkind producer with “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yankees” in the mid-’50s, Prince moved into directing as well, shaping intimate works like “Cabaret” and “Company” that deepened and transformed the scope of the musical. He was equally adept at spectacle, as he demonstrated with Webber productions such as “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

With 21 Tonys on his mantle — the most of any individual — Prince was truly his era’s paradigm for a theatrical impresario — brash, demanding, creatively rigorous. His short hair and closely cropped beard were copied by many who sought success on Broadway, almost as if the look was a talisman for success.

But few of his imitators had the wherewithal and passion Prince brought to his work, and while he had the occasional down period, the astounding success of his best- known productions all but paved over the occasional glitch — his flops were never as bad nor his successes as big.

Abbott was his first mentor; Prince developed his next significant relationship with fellow stage manager Robert E. Griffith, and the two embarked on a producing career by optioning the novel “7½ Cents,” which was the basis for their first musical, “The Pajama Game.” Directed by Abbott on a modest budget, it was a major hit of the 1954 season and won the producers a Tony. Prince later served as associate producer on the 1957 film version.

The following year, again with Griffith, Prince produced an equally big hit, “Damn Yankees,” winning a second Tony (he was associate producer on that film too in 1958). Their next musical. “New Girl in Town” (based on “Anna Christie”), was a brief comedown from the heights of their first two productions.

But their biggest success came in 1957 with “West Side Story,” which brought the talents of Sondheim, Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents together in an updated retelling of “Romeo and Juliet.” Prince and Griffith’s next production, “Fiorello,” a musical about the colorful former mayor of New York, won a Pulitzer Prize (as well as a Tony), though follow-up “Tenderloin” paled by comparison.

Prince’s first genuine flop was the straight play “A Call on Kuprin” in 1961. It was also his last collaboration with Griffith, who died suddenly in June of that year. Stunned at first, Prince quickly recovered with the fluffy Broadway comedy “Take Her, She’s Mine” and another major musical hit, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” which Prince helped transform during its troubled out-of-town run. It brought Prince yet another Tony.

Eager to finally direct, he replaced Word Baker on “A Family Affair” in 1962, though his doctoring of the musical didn’t quite succeed and it closed after 65 performances. Encouraged by Abbott, Prince got back on the horse with a limited run of “The Matchmaker” and then felt the first glow of directorial success with “She Loves Me,” based on the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch film “Shop Around the Corner.”

He put his producer’s hat back on for one of the major musicals of the 1960s, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which shattered every Broadway record during its prosperous run and brought Prince yet another Tony. It more than compensated for the next three musical productions, “Flora, the Red Menace,” “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane….It’s Superman” and “Baker Street” (which Prince directed), none of which enjoyed a profitable run. “Poor Bitos,” a straight play, also failed.

The first major indication of Prince’s directorial style came with “Cabaret” in 1966. The Kander-Ebb musical based on Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” and John Van Druten’s “I Am a Camera” was a darker, almost Brechtian tale, and the production brought home eight Tonys that year; like “West Side Story,” it would later become an Oscar-winning film musical.

With Kander and Ebb, Prince hit Tony paydirt again with “Zorba,” an adaptation of the acclaimed 1964 film “Zorba the Greek.”

But the next major turn in Prince’s career was “Company,” the first of a long line of directorial collaborations with composer-lyricist Sondheim. Though not as big a financial hit as some of his other musicals, “Company” changed the face of the musical theater, bringing psychological drama and social relevance to the form. It won Prince yet another Tony. The following year came the even darker “Follies” and a Tony for his direction of it.

In 1970 Prince directed the first of two films, “Something for Everyone,” a black comedy that became something of a cult hit.

He would later tackle a film version of one of his best collaborations with Sondheim, “A Little Night Music,” bringing little of its charm to the screen. But the 1973 Tony-winning stage production was a brilliantly nuanced realization of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night” that had warmth and sentiment, which “Company” and “Follies” often lacked.

Prince and Sondheim would collaborate on only one more great musical, “Sweeney Todd,” another dark exercise (about a murderous barber), which was close to an opera and one of the milestones of the 1970s. Their other two works, “Pacific Overtures” and, later, “Merrily We Roll Along” had their problems, particularly the latter, a story that is told backwards. “Merrily We Roll Along” ended the Prince/Sondheim partnership, though they reportedly remained friends. Prince also directed the revue “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which made the most of Sondheim’s singular songs and themes.

Also during this period Prince brought Bernstein’s “Candide” back to vivid life on Broadway, winning another Tony. Straight play assignments included “Love for Love” and “Some of My Best Friends Are.” A musical version of “Twentieth Century” entitled “On the Twentieth Century” was also a modest hit for Prince.

Prince’s next great collaboration came with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Using some of the theatrical style of “Sweeney Todd,” Prince astutely transferred Lloyd Webber’s musical composition “Evita” to the stage. Later in the decade would come “Phantom of the Opera,” one of the most profitable musical productions ever.

There were some stones in the road like the musical version of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” entitled “A Doll’s Life” and “Grind.” He tried to fix the musical “Rex,” but it didn’t take. Prince forayed into drama with “Play Memory,” “End of the World,” “The Visit,” “The Great God Brown” and “Diamonds,” some for the Phoenix Repertory. He even wrote and directed the Off Broadway production “Grandchild of the Kings,” based on the autobiographical writings of Sean O’Casey.

Into the 1990s Prince scored with “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (another Kander-Ebb adaptation) and a successful revival of “Show Boat.” He also brought back “Candide,” though he failed to reach Broadway with Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of “Whistle Down the Wind.”

Prince co-conceived and directed the 1998 musical “Parade,” about an anti-Semitic incident in the South, but while the tuner scored with critics and at the Tonys — Alfred Uhry won for best book and Jason Robert Brown for original score, and Prince was nominated — it closed on Broadway after only 39 previews and 84 regular performances.

In 2002 Prince directed “Hollywood Arms,” an autobiographical play by Carol Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton, but its run was also brief.

The next year he helmed the Stephen Sondheim musical “Bounce” at Chicago’s Goodman Theater. It moved to the Kennedy Center under a different director and didn’t make it to New York, although it was revived later under a different name.

Prince conceived the idea for a musical based on the lives of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya and brought it to Uhry, who penned the work, titled “LoveMusik.” Some reviews for the limited-run Broadway production directed by Prince in 2007 were ecstatic.

Most recently, Prince co-helmed, with Susan Stroman, the new tuner “Paradise Found,” for which Jonathan Tunick adapted the music of Johann Strauss II, with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. Richard Nelson penned the book based on Joseph Roth novel “The Tale of the 1002nd Night.” The musical premiered at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in May 2010 and starred Mandy Patinkin.

After cutting his teeth with the American premiere of Israeli Josef Tal’s opera “Ashmedai” at the New York City Opera, Prince alternated between the commercial musical stage and more classical pieces — “La fanciulla del west” (Chicago Lyric Opera and San Francisco), Kurt Weill’s “The Silver Sea” in New York, “La Traviata” in Santa Fe as well as productions at the Metropolitan, Houston Grand Opera, Dallas, Vienna Staatsoper and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.

Born and raised in Manhattan, the son of a successful stock broker, Prince developed an interest in the theater from a young age. “Theater was always part of my life,” he once told a journalist. After graduating from the Franklin School in New York, Prince moved on to the U. of Pennsylvania, where he studied English and indulged his theatrical passions with the Penn Players.

After graduation in 1948, he sought and received employment in the office of the legendary Abbott. Prince’s first legit assignment was as assistant stage manager for the musical “Touch and Go” in 1949. He then stage managed the revue “Tickets, Please.” He was drafted into the Army in 1950, serving until 1952 and then returning to work for Abbott as assistant stage manager for “Wonderful Town.”

Prince inspired a couple of fictional counterparts. He was the basis for John Lithgow’s director character in Bob Fosse’s film “All That Jazz,” and he was the basis of a character in Richard Bissell’s novel “Say, Darling,” which recounted Bissell’s experience turning his novel “7½ Cents” into “The Pajama Game.”
In 1974 Prince collected his thoughts about the theater in the book “Contradictions.”

Prince served as president of the National Institute for Musical Theater.

In 2000, he received the National Medal of Arts. In 2006, Prince was presented with a Special Tony Award for lifetime achievement in the theater.

In 2009 Prince was the subject of a documentary called “Mr. Prince” that aired on the Ovation cable network. He had earlier appeared in the documentaries “Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There” and “Broadway: The American Musical” as well as many others.

After long delays and difficulty in raising the necessary financing, “Prince of Broadway,” a Broadway-bound musical based on Prince’s career, premiered in Japan in 2015. Prince co-directed with Stroman; Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) wrote the vocal and dance arrangements of songs drawn from Prince’s canon. The show made its Broadway debut on Aug. 3, 2017.

Prince is survived by his wife, the former Judith Chaplin, daughter of Hollywood producer Saul Chaplin; a daughter, director Daisy Prince; and a son, conductor Charles Prince.

Popular on Variety

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content