NEW YORK—Harold Prince, a Broadway director and producer who won 21 Tony Awards, has died. Prince was 91.
Prince’s publicist Rick Miramontez said Prince died on July 31 after a brief illness in Reykjavik, Iceland. Broadway marquees will dim their lights in his honor Wednesday night.
Prince helped create some of Broadway’s most enduring musical hits, first as a producer of such shows as “The Pajama Game,” ”Damn Yankees,” ”West Side Story,” ”A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He later became a director, overseeing musicals such as “Cabaret,” ”Company,” ”Follies,” ”Evita” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, reached by phone Wednesday, told The Associated Press that it was impossible to overestimate the importance of Prince to the stage. “All of modern musical theater owes practically everything to him.”
Lloyd Webber recalled that, as a young man, he had written the music for the flop “Jeeves” and was feeling low. Prince wrote him a letter urging him not to be discouraged. The two men later met and Lloyd Webber said he was thinking of next doing a musical about Evita Peron. Prince told him to bring it to him first. “That was game-changing for me. Without that, I often wonder where I would be,” Lloyd Webber said.
Tributes also poured in from generations of Broadway figures, including “The Band’s Visit” composer David Yazbek, who called Prince “a real giant,” and the performer Bernadette Peters, who called it a “sad day.” ”Seinfeld” alum Jason Alexander, who was directed by Prince in “Merrily We Roll Along,” said Prince “reshaped American theater and today’s giants stand on his shoulders.” Composer Jason Robert Brown hailed Prince’s “commitment and an enthusiasm and a work ethic and an endless well of creative passion.”
In addition to Lloyd Webber, Prince, known by friends as Hal, worked with some of the best-known composers and lyricists in musical theater, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.
“I don’t do a lot of analyzing of why I do something,” Prince once told The Associated Press. “It’s all instinct.”
Only rarely, he said, did he take on an idea just for the money, and they “probably were bad ideas in the first place. Theater is not about that. It is about creating something. The fact that some of my shows have done so well is sheer luck.”
During his more than 50-year career, Prince received a record 21 Tony Awards, including two special Tonys—one in 1972 when “Fiddler” became Broadway’s longest-running musical then, and another in 1974 for a revival of “Candide.” He also was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
A musical about Prince called “Prince of Broadway” opened in Japan in 2015 featuring songs from many of the shows that made him famous. It landed on Broadway in 2017.
It was with Sondheim, who was the lyricist for “West Side Story,” that Prince developed his most enduring creative relationship. He produced “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
Born in New York on Jan. 30, 1928, Prince was the son of affluent parents, for whom Saturday matinees in the theater with their children were a regular occurrence. A production of “Julius Caesar” starring Orson Welles when he was 8 taught him there was something special about theater.
“I’ve had theater ambitions all of my life,” he said in his memoir. “I cannot go back so far that I don’t remember where I wanted to work.”
After a stint in the Army during the Korean War (he kept his dog-tags on his office desk), he returned to Broadway, serving as stage manager on Abbott’s 1953 production of “Wonderful Town,” starring Rosalind Russell.
The following year, he started producing with Griffith. Their first venture, “The Pajama Game,” starring John Raitt and Janis Paige, was a big hit, running 1,063 performances. They followed in 1955 with another musical smash, “Damn Yankees,” featuring Gwen Verdon as the seductive Lola.
In 1957, Prince did “West Side Story,” a modern-day version of “Romeo and Juliet” told against the backdrop of New York gang warfare. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and with a score by Bernstein and Sondheim, it, too, was acclaimed.
Yet even its success was dwarfed by “Fiddler on the Roof” (1964), which Prince produced and Robbins directed and choreographed. Set in Czarist Russia, the Bock-Harnick musical starred Zero Mostel as the Jewish milkman forced to confront challenges to his way of life.
Prince had gotten his first opportunity to direct on Broadway in 1962. The musical was “A Family Affair,” a little-remembered show about the travails of a Jewish wedding. Its Broadway run was short—only 65 performances—but “A Family Affair” gave Prince a chance to work with composer John Kander.
“I became a producer because fate took me there, and I was delighted,” Prince recalled in his book. “I used producing to become what I wanted to be, a director. (Ultimately, I hired myself, which is more than anyone else would do.)”
As he became more interested in directing, he withdrew from producing altogether.
Among his more notable achievements: “On the Twentieth Century” (1978) and two of Lloyd Webber’s biggest hits, “Evita” (1979), starring Patti LuPone as the charismatic Argentinian, and “The Phantom of the Opera,” in London (1986), New York (1988) and around the world.
Prince also worked as an opera director, with productions at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and more. And he directed two films, “Something for Everyone” (1970) and a screen version of “A Little Night Music” (1977).
“To be a both a genius and a gentleman is rare and extraordinary,” said Thomas Schumacher, chairman of The Broadway League. “Hal Prince’s genius was matched by his generosity of spirit, particularly with those building a career.”
Prince is survived by his wife of 56 years, Judy; his daughter, Daisy; his son, Charles; and his grandchildren, Phoebe, Lucy, and Felix.
By Mark Kennedy