Every popular art form strives to be a big tent. In the world of musical theater, Harold Prince, who died Wednesday at 91, was a big tent, all by himself.
The list of Broadway musicals for which Prince was lead producer, or director, or both is nothing short of breathtaking. The history of the American musical, from the 1950s on, was all but packed into the frame and consciousness of one balding, bearded, tirelessly imaginative, peerlessly inspirational figure. Consider his achievements: “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Wonderful Town,” “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “She Loves Me.” And these were all before he really got going.
An appreciation of Hal, as he was universally known, practically writes itself. The shows above are among his pre-1965 triumphs. After that, he would produce and direct “Cabaret” in 1966, “Company” in 1970 and “Follies” in 1971 (at the height of his partnership with Stephen Sondheim), “A Little Night Music” in 1973 and “Pacific Overtures” in 1976.
It is a bit heady, just tallying Prince’s artistic and commercial successes, for still to come was, perhaps, his greatest artistic achievement: directing Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 1979. And wait! There was more! After teaming up with Andrew Lloyd Webber to direct “Evita,” Prince and Lloyd Webber would create what was destined to become Broadway’s all-time longest-running hit, a show that recently marked its 13,110th Broadway performance.
So, yes, it is absolutely accurate to say that Prince’s survivors include wife Judy, children Daisy and Charles, three grandchildren and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
What accounts for such an astonishing résumé? Genius? Passion? Luck? The answer is yes. Add to these an insatiable appetite and uncanny insight into theatergoing tastes, and you begin to grasp the attributes shaping an extraordinary theater man. Several years ago, on the occasion of his receiving the Stephen Sondheim Award, an honor bestowed annually by Arlington’s Signature Theatre, I sat down with him and the subject of aging came up. He was 85 and the numerical time marker seemed a mere trifle.
“I hate it when I see 85, “ he said. “Because, come on, I’m 40.”
My first Broadway contact with Prince was back when he was turning 40 for real, and I was a kid, seeing his “Fiddler” with my Tevye-adoring parents. Even then I knew the production was an act of meticulous craftsmanship; it was well into the show’s Broadway run and the polish on the performances felt fresh. As I started going to more shows, taking the bus in on Saturdays from New Jersey with my friend Neil, I would have additional epiphanic moments via Prince (and Sondheim): at “Company,” “Follies,” “Night Music.” But the Hal Prince memory that has stayed with me most indelibly was born in a scalding sequence in “Sweeney Todd,” in what was then called the Uris, now the Gershwin Theatre. At the climax of the show, an apoplectic Sweeney, portrayed by Len Cariou, committed the musical’s most searing act of revenge: pushing the eternally lovable Angela Lanbury, as Mrs. Lovett, into the furnace in which the pies of human flesh were baked.
Prince’s staging of Mrs. Lovett’s demise shattered me. My wife and I left the Uris in a daze. I felt unsettled, sickened — and thrilled. I sensed that I would be playing that scene over and over in my head for a long time.
Now that’s theater.
Peter Marks is the Washington Post’s senior theater critic.