Curtain Speech: Hal Prince
Hal Prince was born on January 30th, 1928. He began as a producer on The Pajama Game and soon won Tony awards for his work on West Side Story and Damn Yankees, and he also produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello!. Prince’s career as a director did not start until later and began with a series of failed productions that almost caused him to leave the industry. Luckily, he kept going and eventually found great success with a little show we know as Cabaret. Prince would move on to win 8 Tony Awards for directing productions of Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Showboat, Evita, Phantom of The Opera, and Candide. Both his list of collaborators and the legacy he has handed down to contemporary musical theatre are legendary.
To write a series of blog posts on famous directors without mentioning Hal Prince would be madness. His contributions as a director are surprising and innovative because of his visual artistic vision as well as his background in producing. Prince was able to foster artistically forward thinking projects while keeping them commercially viable for broadway audiences. His work on concept shows like Company is a great example of how his work pushed the envelope and challenged the tropes and conventions of earlier musical comedies like Damn Yankees and Pajama Game by changing the focus of the material to the metaphor and message of the piece rather than the actual narrative. Hal Prince began his career working with the legendary George Abbott working on such shows allowing him to break from the line and develop his own aesthetic and play with the form we now know as the “Concept Musical” – which is defined as “a show where the metaphor or statement of a show is more important than the actual narrative.”
The notion of having the metaphor or message of a show be equally important as the narrative allowed for more theatricality and spectacle to be used in all productions, not just those labeled a “Concept Musical” by today’s standards. In Follies there is a dream tap number where aged chorus girls dance with younger ghosts of themselves. Later in the show we visit a dream world called Loveland where characters talk directly to us about problems they are having. In Company we learn about Bobby’s point of view by the way he interacts with other couples in an (at the time) unconventional vignette structure. In Phantom we are enchanted by amazing amounts of spectacle paired with a simple love story. Cats, one of the largest theatrical triumphs of the past century is an avant garde piece of musical theatre based on the poems of T.S. Eliot. All of these shows would not have been possible had Hal Prince not ushered shows like Company and Cabaret into the commercial spotlight and made theatregoers thirsty for shows that took risks.
It is interesting to think about the contributions made by Hal Prince but where it gets tricky is when we ask ourselves how he has shaped the landscape for contemporary writers. As a director, I think it is a simple but genius contribution. A gamut of legendary shows, the determination to use bold design choices (the man crashed a chandelier to the ground), and really focus on how stage picture, acting, and all elements in a score, book, and production unite to tell one singular story. His true genius comes in how he was able to marry his business sense with his artistic sense. This allowed him to make risky shows commercially successful and even led to the beginnings of the ‘mega-musical’ culture we see today. His success with Phantom and his repeated Tony wins can be seen as precursors to today’s culture of Disney, Mamma Mia, and shows like Wicked and The Book of Mormon. Without Hal Prince’s bold visions and business sense, we would not live in a world where a Broadway musical could not only be successful at the box office but could branch out and become its own enterprise.
Some might say this hyper-commercialization is negative for artists because it pressures them to write what will sell instead of what needs to be heard. While this might be true in some cases, we cannot deny that it is the money from those kinds of shows give artists and producers the resources to go forth and foster the less commercialized projects they believe in. It is then the hope that one of these projects that might be considered more ‘artful’ is picked up by a producer like Hal Prince who knows how to maintain its artistic integrity while also bringing it to a commercial audience in a way that is appealing and will sell well enough to make it the next blockbuster hit. Of all the struggles in commercial theatre striking this commercial/artistic balance is probably the hardest and most widely talked about. It also was a balance that Hal Prince was successful at striking in a way that not only left a lifelong legendary legacy but also made it look as easy as making Jell-O.