Prince, Hal (1928—)

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Prince, Hal (1928—)

Harold S. Prince revolutionized the American musical in the twentieth century. His resistance to the acting and singing conventions of early twentieth-century musical theater, his refusal to construct musicals as star-vehicles, and his use of filmic staging techniques make him one of the world's most original and innovative directors. From his first production, The Pajama Game, which cost $170,000, to his 1998 production of Showboat, which rang in at $8.5 million, Prince has known his share of artistic and financial successes as well as failures. New York Times critic David Richards described Prince as "the undisputed master of the Broadway musical."

Although not from a theatrical family, Prince was constantly exposed to the theater as a young boy. "Mine was a family addicted to theatre, and still there was no effort to encourage me to work in it nor discourage me, and at no time was there any to push me into finance. So I didn't have to resist something I would have resisted." Prince was born into what he called a "privileged upper-middle, lower-rich class" German-Jewish family in New York City on January 30, 1928. He was exposed to many of the greatest productions and actors of the time, including Orson Welles's Julius Caesar and Burgess Mere-dith's Winterset. In 1944 he graduated from the Franklin School, a private preparatory school, which was also his grandfather's alma mater.

He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the Penn Players. Along with his work in the theater, he also founded and managed the campus radio station and wrote, acted, and directed weekly play adaptations. He enrolled in a liberal arts program with a concentration on English, psychology, philosophy, and history. After graduating in 1948, he wrote plays and sent them to New York producers. After sending one script to ABC-TV, he was referred to the television production office of George Abbott in New York City. There he offered to work "on spec" and, by the end of the month, was earning $25 a week.

Prince worked on all aspects of Abbott's productions, including an original program titled The Hugh Martin Show. After Abbott's production company disbanded, Prince was hired by Abbott's production stage manager, Robert E. Griffith. Prince was stage manager for Broadway revues such as Touch and Go and Tickets, Please. In 1950 Prince was inducted into the army and stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, for two years as an anti-aircraft artillery gunner. There he spent many evenings visiting a nightclub called Maxim's, which would later become the muse for his hit musical Cabaret. Prince was discharged in October 1952. He immediately returned to work with Abbott and Griffith on several more hit musicals and began to learn the craft of directing from Abbott. Their production of Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town ran 500 performances, inspiring Griffith and Prince to become a producing team. Prince directed his first play, The Pajama Game, at the age of 26. The following years led to a string of successes for the Griffith-Prince team including Damn Yankees (1955), New Girl in Town (1957), and Cabaret (1966).

Prince's career became much more prominent after 1957 due to two major factors: his collaboration with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and his ability to create his own directorial style free from the influences of George Abbott. His first major success was co-producing the Bernstein-Sondheim musical West Side Story (1957). Carol Ilson noted that Prince, "having learned his trade well through his working experiences with Abbott, Robbins, Bernstein, Laurents and Sondheim, would emerge with a unique vision of his own for the American Musical Theatre." Prince would go on to collaborate with Sondheim on many more breakthrough productions: Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Prince described their partnership as "creative abrasion," combining Sondheim's shy, introverted nature with Prince's gregariousness.

In the 1980s Prince had a string of box-office and critical failures, including the musicals A Doll's Life (1982), Grind (1985), and Roza (1986). Prince said of those six years, "no matter what I did, it could not please critics or audiences … during that period, I thought maybe I'd ceased to be able to create something that people want to see." His career rebounded following a series of successful collaborations with British composer/lyricist Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. Their productions of Evita (1978) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986) were international successes. In the following years, Prince directed operas, dramas, and musicals, yet none were as successful as his stagings of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992) and Showboat (1997).

Few directors can claim to have revolutionized the theater as much as Prince. His career, spanning the "golden age" of Broadway to the postmodern theater, has been one of incredible success and failure. He set the standard for the musical art form, and his productions are known worldwide for their innovative stagings, astounding effects, and impact on the popular theater. He acknowledged, "I want to leave a mark, to do something of artistic value." Judging from the lasting impact of his work, he has managed to do both.

—Michael Najjar

Further Reading:

Bartow, Arthur. "Harold S. Prince." The Director's Voice: Twenty-One Interviews. New York, Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

Hirsch, Foster. Harold Prince and the American Musical Theatre. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Ilson, Carol. Harold Prince: From Pajama Game to Phantom of the Opera. Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press, 1989.

Prince, Hal. Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre. New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1974.