Remembering Harold Prince: "He Understood That You Can't Push the Envelope Without Pushing Something Aside."
The most important thing to say about Hal Prince, who died on July 31 at 91, is that he is responsible for West Side Story. Yes, Jerome Robbins had the idea, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, Stephen Sondheim the lyrics, and Arthur Laurents the book. But if Prince had not gone out on a limb to produce it, dozens of shows we now consider classics would not exist, and today's Broadway would be a vastly different beast.
Even if Prince had done nothing else, his place in theater history would be assured. For West Side Story didn't just boost the musical-theater careers of its creators, who went on to give us Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof and Sunday in the Park With George and much, much more. The show's troubled street kids and tense soul broadened the range of stories that Broadway musicals could tell, and how they would tell them.
Most crucially, Robbins' choreography (and direction, it must be said) let dance propel the story, not just comment on it—pointing the way to his subsequent work for Prince on Fiddler and to the dance-driven shows of Fosse, Bennett, Tharp, Stroman and all the younger masters now following in their footsteps.
Not long after West Side Story, Prince, the producer, began hiring Prince, the director, in emulation of his mentor, the legendary George Abbott. And after a few false starts, in 1966, he produced and directed Cabaret, the first of a string of hits and a milestone in the development of the concept musical. A few years later, for Company, he tied together several playlets about a group of Manhattan misfits and married them to a brittle Sondheim score, divorcing musicals from their dependence on romance and giving them permission to delve into the darker corners of contemporary life. The show laid the groundwork for Next to Normal, Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen, while also showcasing the talents of a choreographer named Michael Bennett.
But Company's concept left no room for a dance ensemble, or, for that matter, much dancing, and Bennett's credit was for "musical staging." Brilliant though it was, Company represented a turn away from dance and toward stage design as the creative focus of Prince's shows. Picture Sweeney Todd or The Phantom of the Opera, and you don't see dancing—even though the record-breaking, still-running Phantom boasts an ensemble in pointe shoes.
There were exceptions, of course—in 1976, Prince took John Weidman's straightforward idea about Commodore Perry and, with Sondheim and another longtime collaborator, Patricia Birch, gave us Pacific Overtures, a gorgeous, Kabuki-style musical that moved like nothing before or since. And Prince's 1994 revival of Show Boat featured the wonderful choreography of Susan Stroman.
It wouldn't upset Prince to hear me point out that the same man who helped create the dance musical also helped create the monster shows that turned dance into a secondary element. He titled his 1974 memoir Contradictions, and he understood that you can't push the envelope without pushing something aside. The properly effusive obituaries stress the 21 Tonys and record-breaking runs and worldwide successes of Prince's long, extraordinary career. But they're beside the point.
Every time someone buys a ticket to a Broadway musical, they are paying homage to the genius of Harold Prince. He would hate to be given credit for our current crop of jukebox shows, but they are the ultimate—if reductive—concept musicals. The more evolved ones, like Hadestown and Come From Away, are direct descendants of Cabaret. Parents introducing kids to Broadway probably have no idea that the Disney musicals owe their scenic splendor to Prince's legacy of visually stunning theater. And when those kids turn into the grown-ups flocking to Hamilton, it will be because Harold Prince's bravery and intellect enlarged the space for adult musicals on Broadway.
Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"
At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle at New York's Metropolitan Opera House, she staked her claim to that title role.
Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.
William Forsythe is bringing his multi-faceted genius to New York City in stripped down form. His "Quiet Evening of Dance," a mix of new and recycled work now at The Shed until October 25, is co-commissioned with Sadler's Wells in London (and a slew of European presenters).
As always, Forsythe's choreography is a layered experience, both kinetic and intellectual. This North American premiere prompted many thoughts, which I whittled down to seven.
"Law & Order: SVU" has dominated the crime show genre for 21 seasons with its famous "ripped from the headlines" strategy of taking plot inspiration from real-life crimes.
So viewers would be forgiven for assuming that the new storyline following the son of Mariska Hargitay's character into dance class originated in the news cycle. After all, the mainstream media widely covered the reaction to Lara Spencer's faux pas on "Good Morning America" in August, when she made fun of Prince George for taking ballet class.
But it turns out
, the storyline was actually the idea of the 9-year-old actor, Ryan Buggle, who plays Hargitay's son. And he came up with it before Spencer ever giggled at the word ballet.