January 30, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In the world of theatre, there’s really no one else I admire more than Harold Smith Prince. Not only for this many contributions as a producer and director, but also as the “prince” that he is. He has mentored and aided in the careers of thousands of people over his nearly seventy-year career, one with still no end in sight. It is no exaggeration that he is often referred to as the most important person in the musical theatre in the second half of the twentieth century.
For anyone unfamiliar with his accomplishments, he began as a stage manager, moonlighted as a casting director, until his first producing effort, The Pajama Game, mounted when he was only twenty-six, brought him not only attention, but autonomy. Humble, he even continued on as the stage manager after Pajama Game became an instant hit, as he needed the salary since his producer points wouldn’t kick in immediately (but kick in they did). After that, he followed up with Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me (the first show he ever produced and directed) and Fiddler on the Roof. Once established as a director, he went on to stage (more often than not quite brilliantly) Cabaret, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera among many, many others. It’s a staggering career.
Each of the posters above won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Prince himself has received twenty-one, more than any other individual. Even Audra McDonald will have a hard time catching up to that record.
So smart, so brave, so passionate. And age has done nothing to diminish any of these primary aspects of his personalty. When I sat down to talk with him for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, I looked forward to the opportunity to personally thank him for making his shows so affordable back in the day — the very thing to which the title of my book refers. When I brought up the $2 seats he made available all the way to 1973 and A Little Night Music, to my surprise, he told me, “Not many people took advantage of those seats, whether you think they did or didn’t. They went begging night after night after night.”
Born January 30, 1928, he was lucky enough to have been treated by his parents to the theatre from a very young age, where he found not only true delight but his true calling. At fourteen, when he saw Porgy and Bess, he intuitively saw something in it that spoke to him that told him to keep coming back. Even after becoming a successful producer, the theatre thrilled him the same way it did as a child, evidenced when he told me that he saw the original production of Long Day’s Journey into Night five times in the first ten days.
That enthusiasm has never diminished. I was fortunate to see his most recent directorial effort, a limited engagement of Candide presented by the New York City Opera earlier this month. Prince’s reimagining of this forlorn musical in 1973 was a critical triumph. He rescued it out of the no man’s land it had wasted in since its unsuccessful original Broadway production in 1956. Since 1973, Candide has been something of a talisman for him, and it was joyous to once again be exposed to what a playful romp it is by way of his deft touch.
The stories are endless of the grace and wisdom he displayed not only for his own shows, but those of his contemporaries, as Prince was always willing to lend a supporting eye and ear. Mentored by George Abbott, one of the most prolific men of the theatre in the first half of the twentieth century, Prince was taught by a master how to give of himself selflessly. When I asked Prince the greatest lesson learned at the feet of Mr. Abbott (as he was known to one and all), he said, “Discipline; don’t think of the theatre as some sort of place to indulge your artistic whims, emotionally. Deliver! It’s a job. Go to work and do it.”
And the work continues. After a number of announcements that his newest Broadway production was imminent, only to be disappointed that funding had fallen out, it appears that at the end of summer we are finally going to have Harold Prince on Broadway “back where he belongs,” to paraphrase the advertising for the upcoming revival of Hello, Dolly!. The show entitled Prince of Broadway, will be co-directed and choreographed by multiple-Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. Much like 1989's Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, this will be a compendium of Prince’s work, both as producer and director. But unlike the Robbins piece, this is going to be a reboot, and not faithful duplications of the songs that made so many of his shows so great. With Stroman at the helm, it will be interesting to see what they come up with. Reimaginings have been Prince’s stock-in-trade over the years, and it’s with high hopes that when it opens at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at the end of August that it will add the appropriate luster to Prince’s oeuvre.
And when-oh-when will the powers-that-be get around to naming a theatre after this man who has devoted his life to it? There is no living person more worthy of the honor. To my mind, the most appropriate candidate is the Majestic, the longtime home to Phantom of the Opera, Prince’s most lucrative success. As I have often joked, if the Shubert Organization doesn’t want to lose the Majestic entirely, just call it “The Prince-Majestic.” The words fit, and it is only fitting that Prince see his name in lights in a permanent way, so that generations to come will know that along with the name came a majestic quality to practically all that he touched.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing. https://griffithmoon.com/cheapseats/