In Memoriam

Remembering Harold Prince: "He Understood That You Can't Push the Envelope Without Pushing Something Aside."

Hal Prince. Courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown

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.

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