'Prince Of Broadway' Pays Tribute To A Musical Theater Legend

Aug 24, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 7:01 pm

Tony Award-winning composer John Kander has a favorite story about Broadway producer and director Harold Prince: In 1965, he and lyricist Fred Ebb were working on a show that Prince produced called Flora, The Red Menace and it was not going well.

"A week before the show opened, Hal had said 'Whatever happens to Flora, we'll meet at my apartment and work on the next piece,' " Kander recalls. "And that's exactly what happened." The show didn't take off, but Prince and Kander met up and started working on a new project — which eventually became Cabaret.

Prince is always onto the next thing. So, it's kind of surprising that he's taking the time to look back on his nearly 70-year career — which includes Damn Yankees, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, and 21 Tony Awards. Prince has written a new memoir, Sense of Occasion, and Thursday night, a show called Prince of Broadway — featuring numbers from his hit shows — is opening on Broadway.

Prince says he wants to share with contemporary audiences the seismic shift in musical theater he went through, starting in the 1950s, when pop hits often came from musicals.

"Popular music was the music of musicals, and it isn't anymore," he says. "So, once that happened, you could examine other subjects and make musical numbers about an infinite variety of complicated psychological matter."

And the shows Prince produced and/or directed reflect that; the rise of Nazis in pre-World War II Germany in Cabaret, disillusionment and the American Dream in Follies, the murderous effects of 19th-century industrialization in Sweeney Todd.

"I'm very issue oriented and I like a good story in the theater ..." he says. But "in order to do decent work ... I have to have some kind of metaphor or I can't do it."

Prince has helped create what have been called "concept musicals." One of his most frequent collaborators and closest friends is composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

"He always makes me want to go to the piano and write," Sondheim says. "I always leave meetings with Hal just bursting with ideas. Hal's as stimulating as anybody I've ever met."

Sondheim wrote the song "A Weekend in the Country" during rehearsals for A Little Night Music, after Prince showed him what the staging could look like. And that's one of Prince's real talents, says another frequent collaborator, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

"He is so visual," Webber says. "And when he gets something right, visually, I mean, nobody gets it more right than him."

Webber and Prince collaborated on Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Phantom is, by far, the biggest hit Prince has ever directed. It's been running on Broadway for 30 years. But he's also seen his share of flops, and his wife of 55 years, Judy, confronted him one day. He remembers her saying: "I'm sick to death of you talking about hits and flops. Do you not acknowledge that some of your greatest successes were flops at the box office and some of your biggest hits were not such damn successes artistically?"

So, he keeps working. The 89-year-old director says it's not enough to have talent or intellectual curiosity or an impeccable work ethic.

"There is not an artist in the world who achieves any success who hasn't had a lot of luck," Prince says. "You're lucky to be born when you are, where you are."

And American musical theater is lucky that Hal Prince has helped to shape and define it.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hal Prince has won more Tony Awards than anyone. The producer and director has won 21 of them over a career spanning seven decades. Tonight, "Prince Of Broadway," a musical featuring moments from Prince's hits, opens on Broadway. And next month, he'll publish a memoir. Jeff Lunden has this on the man and his work.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Tony Award-winning composer John Kander has a favorite Hal Prince story. In 1965, he and lyricist Fred Ebb were working on a show that Prince produced called "Flora The Red Menace." And it was not going well.

JOHN KANDER: A week before the show opened, Hal had said, whatever happens to "Flora," we'll meet at my apartment and work on the next piece. And that's exactly what happened. The show was not a success, and we met at Hal's apartment and started working on a piece which eventually became "Cabaret."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

JOEL GREY: (Singing) Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.

LUNDEN: Hal Prince is always on to the next thing, so it's kind of surprising that he's taking the time to look back on his career. But Prince says he wants to share with contemporary audiences the seismic shift in musical theater he went through starting in the 1950s, when pop hits often came from musicals.

HAL PRINCE: Popular music was the music of musicals, and it isn't anymore. So once that happened, you could examine other subjects and make musical numbers about an infinite variety of complicated psychological matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILLKOMMEN")

GREY: Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing - forget it. In here, life is beautiful.

LUNDEN: And the shows Prince produced and/or directed reflect that - the rise of the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany in "Cabaret," disillusionment and the American dream in "Follies," the murderous effects of 19th century industrialization in "Sweeney Todd."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE A LITTLE PRIEST")

LEN CARIOU: (Singing) For what's the sound of the world out there?

ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) What, Mr. Todd, what, Mr. Todd, what is that sound?

CARIOU: (Singing) Those crunching noises pervading the air.

LANSBURY: (Singing) Yes, Mr. Todd, Yes, Mr. Todd, yes, all around.

CARIOU: (Singing) It's man devouring man, my dear.

LEN CARIOU AND ANGELA LANSBURY: (Singing) And who are we to deny it in here?

CARIOU: Ah, these are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett.

PRINCE: I'm very issue-oriented. I like a good story in the theater, obviously. But in order to do decent work, me, I have to have some kind of metaphor or I can't do it.

LUNDEN: Prince has helped create what have been called concept musicals. And one of his most frequent collaborators and closest friends is composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM: He always makes me want to go to the piano and write. I always leave meetings with Hal just bursting with ideas. Hal's as stimulated as anybody I've ever met.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A WEEKEND IN THE COUNTRY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) A weekend in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) We're invited.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) What a horrible plot, a weekend in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I'm excited.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) No, you're not.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) A weekend in the country, just imagine.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) It's completely depraved.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) A weekend in the country.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) It's insulting.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) It's engraved.

LUNDEN: Sondheim wrote that song during rehearsals for "A Little Night Music" after Prince showed him what the staging could look like. And that's one of Prince's real talents, says another frequent collaborator, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: He is so visual. And when he gets something right visually, I mean, nobody gets it more right than him.

LUNDEN: Webber and Prince collaborated on "Evita" and "The Phantom Of The Opera."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA")

MICHAEL CRAWFORD: (Singing) Sing once again with me our strange duet. My power over you grows stronger yet.

LUNDEN: "Phantom" is by far the biggest hit Hal Prince has ever directed. It's been running on Broadway for 30 years. But Prince has also seen his share of flops. And his wife of 55 years, Judy, confronted him one day.

PRINCE: She said, I'm sick to death of you talking about hits and flops. Do you not acknowledge that some of your greatest successes were flops at the box office and some of your biggest hits were not such damn successes artistically?

LUNDEN: So he keeps working. The 89-year-old director says it's not enough to have talent or intellectual curiosity or an impeccable work ethic.

PRINCE: There is not an artist in the world who achieves any success who hasn't had a lot of luck. You're lucky to be born when you are, where you are.

LUNDEN: And the American musical theater is lucky that Hal Prince has helped to shape and define it. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AH, PARIS!/BROADWAY BABY")

ETHEL SHUTTA: (Singing) I'm just a Broadway baby walking off my tired feet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.