Harold Prince, Broad­way Roy­alty

Harold Prince pretty much de­fined Broad­way the­ater in the 20th cen­tury. Now, in a new bio-mu­si­cal, it’s Broad­way’s turn to de­fine him.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Jesse Oxfeld

We learn sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about the Broad­way leg­end Hal Prince in his new mu­si­cal, “Prince of Broad­way.” But one thing we do learn is this: When Jerry Bock and Shel­don Har­nick of­fered him the chance to di­rect “Fid­dler on the Roof,” he de­murred.

“I ex­plained that I was not fa­mil­iar enough with the his­tory of shtetls and the story of Eastern Euro­pean Jews to qual­ify,” one of the ac­tors chan­nel­ing Prince tells us.

It’s an odd ra­tio­nale — Prince is of old-line Ger­man Jewish stock, true, but had he spent much time in Pero­nist Ar­gentina, among mur­der­ous Vic­to­rian hair­dressers, or along­side spooky, subter­ranean Parisian opera buffs? In any case, no mat­ter. Jerome Rob­bins, né Rabi­nowitz, took on di­rect­ing du­ties, Prince pro­duced, and thus, in “Prince of Broad­way,” we get an “If I Were a Rich Man” late in Act One.

And that is the point: To have the song-and­dance num­ber, not re­ally to ex­am­ine any­thing.

“Prince of Broad­way,” now play­ing at the Man­hat­tan Theatre Club’s Sa­muel J. Fried­man Theatre, is billed as a mu­si­cal cel­e­bra­tion of Prince’s much-sto­ried ca­reer. As a pro­ducer and di­rec­tor, Prince staged some of the 20th cen­tury’s greatest Broad­way mu­si­cals, earn­ing, along the way, a record-set­ting 21 Tony Awards. In this new pro­duc­tion, we see 36 mem­o­rable num­bers from 17 (mostly) beloved shows, per­formed by a rav­ish­ingly tal­ented cast of nine per­form­ers, sev­eral of them sea­soned old pros. They’re di­rected by Prince him­self, now 90, with co-di­rec­tion and chore­og­ra­phy by Su­san Stro­man. It’s a lot of fun, but it of­fers no in­sight. Prince – it’s his real name, and a per­fectly the­atri­cal one – has had a re­mark­able ca­reer. He talked his way into a job with the leg­endary Ge­orge Ab­bott, and from there he was off. The first two mu­si­cals he pro­duced were “The Pajama Game” and “Damn Yan­kees,” two beloved hits, and the first he di­rected was “She Loves Me.” (It was his con­so­la­tion gift from Bock and Har­nick, after pass­ing on “Fid­dler.”) When he pro­duced “West Side Story” in 1957 he wasn’t yet 30.

His leg­en­dar­ily fruit­ful pro­duc­ing-and-di­rect­ing part­ner­ship with Stephen Sond­heim yielded “Com­pany,” “Fol­lies,” “A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic,” “Pa­cific Over­tures,” “Sweeney Todd,” which he merely di­rected, and “Mer­rily We Roll Again,” which flopped, end­ing their col­lab­o­ra­tion. De­spite his shtetl aver sion, he also put on, as pro­ducer or di­rec­tor, a num­ber of shows about the 20th cen­tury Jewish ex­pe­ri­ence, from “Fid­dler” to “Cabaret” to “Pa­rade,” a somber mu­si­cal about the Leo Frank lynch­ing. All of it – ex­cept “Pa­cific Over­tures” – is in “Prince of Broad­way,” and more: “Evita,” “Phantom of the Opera.”

The show opens on an empty stage. One of the

en­sem­ble, the two-time Tony nom­i­nee Bran­don Ura­nowitz, en­ters as Prince. He starts telling the thumb­nail ver­sion of the start of his ca­reer. Dif­fer­ent ac­tors — Tony Yazbeck, Emily Skin­ner, Chuck Cooper, Karen Ziemba, and more — take over for a line or two, all as Prince. Self-ef­fac­ingly, or as self-ef­fac­ingly as one can in a Broad­way show about one­self, Prince cred­its his suc­cess to luck.

“Luck is be­ing born at the right time,” he says. “Luck is know­ing what you want to do when you grow up.” After the over­ture, which ends with Prince’s show titles pro­jected on a scrim, we’re back to nar­ra­tion, in­tro­duc­ing “The Pajama Game.” And then the first num­ber, “Hey There,” from the same mu­si­cal.

In David Thomp­son’s book, those ev­ery­man-Prince characters some­times reap­pear to nar­rate, but more of­ten, they don’t.

Granted, we don’t re­ally need a nar­ra­tor to ex­plain things when “Fol­lies” shifts into “A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic.” But it might be nice hear how or why that brings us into “Fid­dler,” es­pe­cially as num­bers aren’t al­ways pre­sented chrono­log­i­cally. There’s also no dis­tinc­tion be­tween what Prince pro­duced or what he di­rected, nor any ex­pla­na­tion for why he switched from one role to the other.

There’s a brief mo­ment of in­tro­duc­tion to Sond­heim: “Let me take you back to the open­ing night of ‘South Pa­cific.’ A friend said: ‘Steve, do you know Hal? Hal, Stephen Sond­heim.’” Strangely, though, there’s noth­ing on their part­ing. Most im­por­tantly, there’s no sense of how Prince does what he does, how he learned to do what he does, or what the magic is. He likes to take au­di­ences places, we hear a few times. He cred­its luck. And he likes to work. So would we all, if we could do what Prince does.

Yet be­cause what he does is so re­mark­able, even this sim­ple greatest-hits se­lec­tion is de­light­ful.

Jason Robert Brown’s ar­range­ments and or­ches­tra­tions sound spec­tac­u­lar. Stro­man is as sure-handed as ever, if less cre­ative than usual. And ev­ery mem­ber of the cast has a stand­out mo­ment. Yazbeck’s tap-danc­ing break­down as Buddy in “The Right Girl” from “Fol­lies” makes you dream of a new re­vival. Cooper is a less-than-con­vinc­ing Tevye but a sear­ing Sweeney Todd. Skin­ner does the “Send In the Clowns” we wished for but never got in the most re­cent re­vival of “A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic.” And Michael Xavier, if an un­con­vinc­ing Bobby in “Com­pany,” is an im­pres­sively pos­sessed Phantom.

In one of Prince’s nar­ra­tions, per­formed by Bry­onha Marie Parham, he talks of the dif­fer­ence be­tween a hit and a suc­cess.

“You can have a hit that’s an artis­tic fail­ure and a flop that’s an artis­tic suc­cess,” he says. “Prince of Broad­way” of­fers a third op­tion: A show can be both not very in­ter­est­ing and to­tally de­light­ful.

MATTHEW MUR­PHY

THERE’S A PLACE: Prince pro­duced ‘West Side Story.’

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