The Dominion Post
Phantom put director’s name up in lights
From West Side Story to Phantom of the Opera, and from Evita to Sweeney Todd, Hal Prince was behind many of the great Broadway and West End musicals of the postwar years as either producer, director or both. The trick was, he said, to think big. ‘‘You’ve got to keep attempting something new,’’ he said. ‘‘It is good to feel a little scared. I can’t say I like it, but I do know that if something is going to be successful you’ve got to take risks in this game.’’
And risks he undoubtedly took. Yes, some of his work adopted the ‘‘good times’’ formula so familiar to audiences, but increasingly he transformed the musical into an artistic collaboration whose vision often reflected the harsher realities of society. That was evident in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which, despite its dark theme about the persecution of
Jewish people in early 20thcentury Russia, ran for what was then a Broadway record of 3242 performances, and was even more so two years later in Cabaret, with its avowed message that what had happened in 1930s Berlin could be repeated in America.
The words ‘‘a Hal Prince production’’ atop a theatre poster were not necessarily a guarantee of box-office success, but they did signal a willingness to take on challenging projects and bring to them a fresh approach, often in collaboration with carefully chosen colleagues, such as Stephen Sondheim or the choreographer Bob Fosse. His long association with Sondheim led to the development of the ‘‘concept musical’’, epitomised by Company (1970), in which the plot is less important than the spectacle.
Of all the shows that Prince directed, Phantom of the Opera, originally starring Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, was the greatest success. It opened in 1986 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Haymarket, in London – chosen for its French Renaissance style and grand chandelier that well fitted Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Gothic score – and is still running there today, while also being seen since 1988 on Broadway, where, after more than 13,000 performances, it is the longestrunning musical.
Prince’s staging, described by Irving Wardle in The Times as ‘‘projected with stunning showmanship’’, turned a theatre – the Paris Opera – into a replica of the universe, from the Statue of Apollo above the city’s rooftops down to the infernal regions with their furnaces and Stygian lake. To date it has been seen by an estimated 130 million people in 145 cities and has grossed more than US$5.6 billion.
The walls of Prince’s office in Rockefeller Plaza, New York, were crowded with posters from shows stretching back over a lifetime. A high-octane mixture of businessman and showbiz personality, he was not the easiest person to interview, lighting one cigarette after another, and perching first on one chair and then another. He was widely recognised for his glasses, which originally sat
precariously tilted on his suntanned forehead like a fighter pilot’s goggles, though latterly had descended to his nose. ‘‘I used to love the idea of wearing them, but now I genuinely do wear them,’’ he told The Times in 2010.
Harold Smith Prince was born in Manhattan, New York, in 1928, the son of Harold Smith and his wife, Blanche (nee Stern), whose families had settled in the United States soon after the Civil War. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother then married Milton Prince, a Wall Street broker. ‘‘There wasn’t much religion,’’ he said. ‘‘We were old German Jews. Very enlightened.’’
He recalled a ‘‘privileged, upper-middle, lower-rich class’’ childhood. ‘‘From the age of 8, when my parents took me to see the Mercury Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar starring Orson Welles, I knew there was something special about the theatre that could not be duplicated elsewhere.’’
As a boy he listened to live radio relays from the Metropolitan Opera, using his puppet theatre to reconstruct the dramas. The family lost their home in Westchester and an apartment in New York in the Depression. His mother found work designing hats for Hattie Carnegie.
He had a nervous breakdown at 14 and later tried psychoanalysis, but did not take to it. ‘‘In fact, I recall sleeping during most sessions and the analyst waking me up to tell me the hour was over,’’ he wrote.
After attending the Timothy Dwight School in Manhattan, he enrolled at the age of 16 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where he wrote, directed and acted in several plays and ran a campus radio station. Graduating in 1948, he returned to New York, hoping to make his way as a playwright, but was to be disappointed.
Yet news of his theatrical enthusiasm reached George Abbott, a legendary figure on Broadway who took young Hal under his wing, later describing him as ‘‘a very bright fellow with a great deal of talent’’.
In October 1962 Prince married Judith Chaplin, the daughter of composer and arranger Saul Chaplin; they had met in Paris where Judy, who had trained as a concert pianist, had been working as a ballet dancer. Sondheim was their best man.
‘‘My career put an end to her professional aspirations, and I regret that,’’ Prince wrote. She survives him with their children: Charles, an orchestral conductor, and Daisy, a director. He had three grandchildren.
His memoir, Sense of Occasion (2017), was, like many of the best Broadway shows, a revival – in this case of his 1974 autobiography, Contradictions, which with hindsight he described as being a work of ‘‘insane arrogance’’. Asked on one occasion how he felt about death he replied, ‘‘Not much. I keep going,’’ adding: ‘‘I suppose I live for the moment. I’m not nostalgic, I don’t look back with pleasure at the past.’’
‘‘. . . I knew there was something special about the theatre that could not be duplicated elsewhere.’’