All achievers

Harold Prince

Broadway Producer and Director

All you need as a young person is one person who you respect to say, ‘You can do this. Do it!’

Harold Smith Prince was born in New York City. At an early age, he was taken to Broadway shows by his theater-loving parents, and he soon discovered a lifelong calling. Graduating from the University of Pennsylvania at age 19, Prince looked for a way to break into the theater.

At first, Hal Prince’s interest lay in serious drama. He credits the 1945 musical On the Town with awakening his interest in the expressive possibilities of music and dance in the American theater. The show introduced a number of new talents to the Broadway stage: the composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins and the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. These artists were all still in their mid-20s, but the production was directed by the veteran showman George Abbott, whose theatrical career had begun in the first decade of the 20th century. A phenomenally prolific producer, playwright and director, Abbott was known on Broadway as “the Apprentice’s Sorcerer” for his ability to identify and nurture young talent. Prince offered Abbott his services, and the older man gave him a job running simple errands. Abbott often had a number of projects in the works simultaneously, and Prince soon graduated to doctoring television scripts and stage-managing Abbott’s touring productions.

December 1956: Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein (C) with choreographer Jerome Robbins (R) and lyricist Stephen Sondheim discussing rehearsal schedule for the upcoming Broadway opening of West Side Story. The musical thrilled audiences with its powerful score and dynamic dancing. A landmark in American theater, West Side Story became a beloved classic. It also marked the Broadway debut of songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s lyrics and would play a major role in Harold Prince’s subsequent career. (Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Prince was drafted into the Army in 1950; he served in Germany, where he soaked up atmosphere he would later draw on for his groundbreaking production of Cabaret. On returning from the service, Prince went back to work for George Abbott, stage-managing Wonderful Town, a show that reunited composer Bernstein with lyricists Comden and Green.

Playwright, director and producer George Abbott (1887-1995), Harold Prince’s mentor in the theater. He is shown here in 1955, between directing The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, with Prince as producer. (Hulton-Deutsch)

By age 26, Prince felt ready to try his wings as a producer. In partnership with fellow Abbott protégé Robert E. Griffith, he acquired the rights to a popular novel, 7 1/2 Cents, a comic depiction of a strike in a pajama factory. The novice producers hired their former boss, George Abbott, to collaborate with the book’s author, Richard Bissell, in adapting the novel for the musical stage. Abbott also directed the show, with assistance from Jerome Robbins. The dances were staged by a talented Broadway newcomer, choreographer Bob Fosse. The show’s composers, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, were also making their Broadway debuts. Prince and Griffith collected contributions from over a hundred small investors, including the cast and crew of Wonderful Town. The resulting show, The Pajama Game, was the surprise hit of the 1954 season; it immediately recouped its investment and won Broadway’s Tony Award as Best Musical of the Year.

Choreographer Bob Fosse (1927-1987) staged the musical numbers for Harold Prince's Broadway shows, <i>Pajama Game</i>, <i>Damn Yankees</i> and <i>New Girl In Town</i>. Fosse also later became a successful director. (© John Springer Collection/CORBIS)
Choreographer Bob Fosse (1927-1987) staged the musical numbers for Harold Prince’s Broadway shows, Pajama Game, Damn Yankees and New Girl In Town. Fosse also later became a successful director. (John Springer/Corbis)

Prince and Griffith followed their first hit quickly with Damn Yankees, based on another popular novel, about an aging baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil to become a young ball player and lead his beloved Washington Senators to victory. Abbott, Fosse, Adler and Ross all returned for a second hit production, which made a star of dancer and comedienne Gwen Verdon and brought Griffith and Prince their second Tony Award for Best Musical. Griffith and Prince had earned a reputation for bringing their shows in on a tight budget, paying off their investors early, and taking a hands-on approach to every detail of their productions.

Although Prince’s first two shows were fun-filled romps in the established George Abbott manner, darker colors were appearing in Prince’s choice of subject matter. New Girl in Town, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s somber drama Anna Christie, found Abbott and Prince working again with star Verdon and choreographer Fosse. Verdon and Fosse had formed an offstage partnership, and would soon marry. Abbott and Prince found themselves at odds with the pair over some of Fosse’s choreography, which they considered too raunchy for Broadway. Prince and Fosse did not work together again, and throughout his career Prince has preferred ensemble shows to star vehicles. New Girl in Town enjoyed a modest run, but Griffith and Prince were ready for a more inspiring challenge.

Jerome Robbins (1918 -1998), the acclaimed Broadway director and ballet choreographer, shown here in the early 1960s, between directing West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof for producer Harold Prince. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

They leaped at the chance to work with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins on their dream project, a Romeo and Juliet story, set among New York street gangs. West Side Story thrilled audiences with its powerful score and dynamic dancing. For the first time, Broadway audiences saw a musical present a serious, dramatic story in a contemporary setting. The day before the show opened, National Guardsmen escorted the first African American students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. West Side Story‘s implicit plea for tolerance resonated powerfully in a nation gripped by ethnic conflict. A landmark in American theater, West Side Story became a beloved classic. It also marked the Broadway debut of songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s lyrics and would play a major role in Harold Prince’s subsequent career.

1960: A lively dance scene from <i>West Side Story</i>, produced on Broadway by Harold Prince. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are amongst the couples. (Ernst Haas/Getty Images)
1960: A lively dance scene from West Side Story, produced on Broadway by Harold Prince. The musical was inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The dark theme, sophisticated music, the extended dance scenes, and focus on social issues marked a turning point in American musical theater. (Photo: Ernst Haas & Getty Images)

Griffith and Prince took on another unusual project in 1959, with Fiorello, an affectionate look at the early career of New York City’s beloved mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. The music and lyrics were by the up-and-coming team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The show not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare honor for a musical.

Robert Griffith died in 1961, and Prince continued on his own, supported by an army of loyal investors. Prince had long hoped to direct, and made his Broadway directing debut with a non-musical play, Family Affair, in 1962. The same year, Prince married Judith Chaplin, the daughter of film and theater composer Saul Chaplin. The Princes have two children — daughter, Daisy, a theater director; and son, Charles Prince, a conductor.

After Robert Griffith’s death, Harold Prince produced Stephen Sondheim‘s first Broadway musical as a composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A musical adaptation of ancient Roman farces, the show starred Zero Mostel, and was directed by the ageless George Abbott, with a last-minute assist from Jerome Robbins. The production won the Tony Award for Best Musical and an additional award for Prince as the show’s producer.

Zero Mostel as Tevye in the original 1964 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, produced by Harold Prince.

Prince enjoyed his first success as a director with She Loves Me (1963), a charming, intimate musical, based on the classic film, The Shop Around the Corner, with songs by the Fiorello team of Bock and Harnick. The show enjoyed a successful run and brought Prince his first Tony nomination as a director, but did not establish a distinct directorial identity for him. Meanwhile, Bock and Harnick had another show up their sleeve, a dramatization of the Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem’s tales of Jewish village life in pre-revolutionary Russia. To many, this seemed a highly improbable subject for a Broadway musical, and a far cry from the fun and games of George Abbott’s world. Fiddler on the Roof, produced by Prince, directed by Jerome Robbins, and starring the volatile Zero Mostel, was an instant hit. Fiddler won a Tony Award for Best Musical as well as a second Best Producer Tony for Prince himself. The show struck a chord with audiences around the world and became an international institution. On Broadway, it played to sold-out houses, season after season. For many years it held the title of longest-running show in Broadway history. Prince’s record as a producer of Broadway musicals was now unrivaled, and in 1964, Time magazine profiled him as one of its “Millionaires Under 40.”

Joel Grey as the Master of Ceremonies in Hal Prince’s original Broadway production of Cabaret in 1966. (AP Photo)

In 1965, Prince produced one more show with his old friend George Abbott directing: Flora the Red Menace, with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb, introduced 19-year-old Liza Minnelli to Broadway. Prince was now ready to devote himself to directing, and his next show established his reputation for daring subject matter and unconventional staging. Cabaret, with a score by Kander and Ebb, dramatized Christopher Isherwood’s tales of bohemian life in Berlin in the 1930s, as the Weimar Republic gave way to the dictatorship of the Nazis. In Prince’s vision, a sardonic Master of Ceremonies leads a ragtag chorus in a sleazy nightclub, with numbers indirectly commenting on the chaotic lives of the characters in a disintegrating society. Above the stage, Prince’s favorite set designer, Boris Aronson, hung a large, rippled mirror, placing the audience themselves in the middle of the stage picture, and forcing them to compare their own situation to that of the complacent audience in the sordid Berlin nightclub. The show not only won the Tony for Best Musical, but brought Prince his first Tony as Best Director of a Musical.

After Fiddler on the Roof, Jerome Robbins left the theater behind to spend most of the rest of his life working in the world of ballet, and Harold Prince reigned alone as the most inventive and adventurous director of musicals on Broadway. Prince is widely viewed as the pioneer of the “concept musical,” in which conventional linear narrative is subordinated to a single metaphor or controlling idea, with songs and musical numbers deliberately breaking the continuity of the story to comment on characters or ideas the story has introduced.

In the 1970s, Prince embarked on an intense collaboration with his old friend Stephen Sondheim, creating a series of productions that marked a high point in the development of musical theater. Their first venture, Company (1970), was an episodic ensemble piece, depicting the relationships of one bachelor and his circle of married friends, adrift in contemporary Manhattan. The work was hailed for Sondheim’s score, Prince’s impressionistic staging, and for the work’s sophisticated portrayal of adult relationships. Company took home a Tony for Best Musical and another Best Director prize for Prince.

Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Harold Prince directed many of Sondheim’s most memorable shows.

An even more ambitious work, Follies (1971), interwove nostalgic musical numbers — evoking America’s theatrical past — with a day in the life of two middle-aged couples. The story unwinds at a reunion of old chorus girls in a condemned theater, with the older characters mingling onstage with the ghosts of their younger selves. Although the elaborate production could not recoup its costs, enthusiasts of the musical theater regard Follies with particular affection. Prince received the Best Director Tony again. Prince and Sondheim’s next collaboration, A Little Night Music (1973), was adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. It received the Tony for Best Musical, and enjoyed a successful run on Broadway and on tour. This sweet ensemble piece was followed by a staggeringly ambitious work, Pacific Overtures (1976), which took as its theme the relations of America and Japan over the course of a century. Prince’s staging drew on the traditions of Japanese painting and stagecraft to create a visually exquisite spectacle, but the show failed to find an audience and quickly closed.

Between theatrical adventures with Stephen Sondheim, Prince enjoyed a nostalgic foray into traditional musical comedy, On the Twentieth Century, with his fellow Abbott alumni, Comden and Green. Although the show broke no new ground artistically, it was a solid success. In these years, Prince also directed a number of classic plays, and a revival of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1974) that enjoyed a far more successful run than the original production. His work on Candide earned him that year’s Tony for Best Direction of a Musical, and a special award for Distinguished Contribution to the Advancement of the Musical Theater. The Prince and Sondheim team returned with a vengeance in Sweeney Todd (1979). They adapted a Victorian melodrama for this gleefully ghoulish tale of a barber who murders his customers and has them baked into meat pies. In Prince’s hands, cannibalism serves as a metaphor for the excess and exploitation of the early industrial age. Sweeney Todd is widely considered the pinnacle of Prince and Sondheim’s collaboration.

1980: Harold Prince poses with his Tony Award for Best Direction of the musical Evita at the 34th Tony Awards.

Prince found a new collaborator in the young British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had enjoyed an early success with his rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Lloyd Webber and his librettist, Tim Rice, had written a musical based on the life of Eva Peron, the charismatic wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. Their work, Evita, which they first released as a recording, was sung through from beginning to end, like an opera, rather than alternating song and dialogue in the manner of an American musical. Prince was drawn to the spectacular subject and supplied it with appropriately dazzling staging. Evita was a sensation, first in London and then in New York, where Prince received another Best Directing Tony.

In Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Prince and Stephen Sondheim revisited the theatrical world of their early years, adapting Kaufman and Hart’s bittersweet tale of youthful idealism and middle-aged disillusionment, told in reverse chronological order. Although the show had its admirers, it was a commercial disappointment. Prince and Sondheim, still close friends, decided to end their professional partnership and work with other collaborators. Following his collaboration with Sondheim, Prince gave up producing chores and devoted himself entirely to directing, but seven years would pass before Prince brought another hit to Broadway.

Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, stars of Harold Prince's production, The Phantom of the Opera, London, 1986. (© Deborah Feingold/Corbis)
1986: Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman of Harold Prince’s production The Phantom of the Opera in London.

In the 1970s, Harold Prince had made two forays into feature film direction, with the black comedy Something for Everyone (1970), starring Michael York and Angela Lansbury, and the film version of A Little Night Music (1977), starring Elizabeth Taylor. Neither was a commercial success, and Prince concluded that his talents were best suited to live performance. He found a more congenial venue for his theatrical gifts in the world of opera, directing productions of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West and Madame Butterfly, as well as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and an original American opera, Willie Stark (1981), based on the novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. Although a number of Prince’s Broadway shows in this period were disappointments, he enjoyed success in the opera house with revivals of Candide and Sweeney Todd.

Given the success of Evita, Prince and Andrew Lloyd Webber were eager to collaborate again. The result was Prince’s greatest success of all, a lush and romantic musical retelling of the gothic horror tale Phantom of the Opera (1987). Critics and audiences in London and New York hailed Prince’s breathtaking staging as the main attraction. Prince won the year’s Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. Phantom became the longest-running show in Broadway history. Touring companies circle the globe, and fans of the show return to see it time and time again.

Composer Kurt Weill and his wife, singer and actress Lotte Lenya, at home in 1942. The composer and star of the The Threepenny Opera, they fled Germany for the United States in the 1930s. Harold Prince dramatized their love story in his 2007 musical LoveMusik. (AP Images)
Composer Kurt Weill and his wife, singer and actress Lotte Lenya, at home in 1942. The composer and star of The Threepenny Opera, they fled Germany for the United States in the 1930s. Producer Harold Prince dramatized their love story in his 2007 musical LoveMusik. (AP Photo)

In 1994, Prince scored again with the definitive revival of America’s first musical classic, Show Boat. Another collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Whistle Down the Wind, closed before coming to Broadway, but the indefatigable Prince undertook one of his most daring ventures, Parade (1998), a musical retelling of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia. The score introduced the young composer Jason Robert Brown to a Broadway audience. Kiss of the Spider Woman (2003) reunited Harold Prince with Cabaret songwriters Kander and Ebb and West Side Story star Chita Rivera for a musical version of Argentine novelist Manuel Puig’s tale of political prisoners in a nameless South American country. That same year, Prince finally revived his partnership with Stephen Sondheim to direct Sondheim’s musical Bounce at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. 

In 2006, Harold Prince was presented the special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theater. With over 50 plays, musicals and operas to his credit, Harold Prince won a record-setting 21 Tonys — more than any other individual —including eight for directing, eight for producing, two as producer of the year’s best musical and three special awards. Prince’s show, LoveMusik, about the romance of composer Kurt Weill and actress-singer Lotte Lenya, enjoyed a brief run in New York in 2007. In 2010, Prince co-directed the London premiere of Paradise Found with choreographer Susan Stroman. This musical was based on The Tale of the 1002nd Night, by the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth, with a score adapted by composer Jonathan Tunick from the music of Johann Strauss, Jr.

2007: Hal Prince receives the Golden Plate award from Awards Council member and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during the American Academy of Achievement’s Banquet of the Golden Plate gala ceremonies in Washington, D.C.

For half a century, Harold Prince’s work won acclaim for its daring subject matter, for its unconventional views of romantic love and for its sensitivity to the political context of the story onstage and the world outside the theater. No one played a larger role in shaping the musical theater as we know it. For six decades, his audience learned that the only thing it could expect from Harold Prince was the unexpected.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

Make a list of the landmarks of the American musical theater over the last half century — West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera — and you’ll find Harold Prince behind every one of them. He won 21 Tony Awards as producer and director, a record no one can touch.

Prince began his producing career at age 26, enjoying back-to-back hits with The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. The first show also marked the beginning of his collaboration with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. The pair made history in 1957 with West Side Story, a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story set among rival New York street gangs, with a classic score by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The collaboration of Prince and Robbins reached its peak with Fiddler on the Roof, the timeless story of a Jewish family in pre-revolutionary Russia, coping with the conflicting pull of tradition and modernity.

Prince’s attention turned to directing, and in 1967 he scored a hit with Cabaret, a dark-hued tale of Berlin night life on the eve of the Nazi takeover. In the 1970s, he enjoyed a memorable collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, creating some of the most sophisticated works in the history of the musical stage: Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and their biggest hit, Sweeney Todd. Prince enjoyed even greater success with two lavish musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Audiences around the world were thrilled by Phantom‘s breathtaking stagecraft and went back to see it again and again.  Harold Prince diversified, directing dramas, films and opera, but the musical theater always remained his greatest love.

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You’ve been associated with so many legendary shows, as producer and director — from West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret, to Evita and Phantom of the Opera. We hope to talk about all of them, but let’s start with West Side Story. The combination of talents in that show is just mind-boggling. Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Stephen Sondheim. Most of you were almost at the beginning of your careers, weren’t you?

Harold Prince: Actually, George Abbott had given Bernstein and Robbins their first big hit, On the Town.

On the Town was a musical that Comden and Green wrote. It’s just a great musical and very popular, they do it all the time. And it was the first time anyone saw the amalgam of Lenny’s ballet music, Jerry’s dance, in a very light, frivolous musical that Comden and Green wrote. It worked really well. I loved it. I actually saw it when I was in college. I saw it nine times, because I thought, “I’m looking at something new that draws me — elements of which draw me to the musical theater when I’ve not been drawn there before.”

Larry Kert and Carol Lawrence as Tony and Maria in the original 1957 Broadway production of West Side Story, in the landmark musical, produced by Harold Prince. The production was nominated for six Tony Awards. (© CORBIS)

So how did your involvement with Bernstein and Robbins and West Side Story come about?

Harold Prince: It depends on who you talk to. I keep reading that it was offered to my partner Bobby Griffith and me and we turned it down. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think we were working on New Girl in Town, which is a musical based on Anna Christie. I don’t think we could have turned it down. Cheryl Crawford certainly did say she’d produce it, and she was a wonderful, creative producer with a great record, but the year before she was to do this, she did Candide, and that fell flat on its face, so she said, “I can’t raise the money twice in a row for these difficult things.” I was on the road with New Girl in Town, which was having problems. It starred Gwen Verdon, and Bobby Fosse was doing the choreography, and it was having real problems between Abbott’s view, and mine as a producer, and Bobby and Gwen. We were not in sync about some of the dances, and so it was troublesome.

The phone rang in Boston, and I was in the hotel, and Steve Sondheim called. I told him my problems, never occurred to me to ask him what his were. But ours were minimal, compared, because we were struggling to get the show finished, to come to Broadway, where it did ultimately, a couple of weeks later. But then, when I was finished, he said, “We’ve lost our producer. We have no show,” being West Side Story.

So I said, “Wow. That’s just the worst,” and I said, “We have to give our cast a day off on Sunday. If Bobby and I flew into New York, could we all meet and hear the score again?” We wanted to meet with Sondheim, Lenny, Jerry, and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book. Bobby and I already knew the score, but…

Lenny had told everyone no one was to ever hear the score, and I knew every note of the score because Steve was my friend, and he’d play it all the time. So I knew it all, but I had to pretend that I had never heard any of it. So we went to Lenny’s apartment, and they were all there on that Sunday, and Lenny was nervous. You’ve never heard anybody pound so loudly on the piano, just in an effort to please. Steve sang some of the lyrics with Lenny, and it was just as thrilling as anything could be. And I started to sing along, inadvertently, and Lenny stopped. A nervous pause, and then he said, “That’s what I’ve always been looking for is a musical producer!”

1950s: Conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, is heralded as “one of the prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” (Ray Fisher/The LIFE Images)

And that’s how we got away with it. But we picked up the show.

We said, “We will do this show, but you cannot call us and talk to us about any of your problems. We have to get this other show fixed and into New York and open on Broadway, and we’ll go to work the next day.” We also parenthetically said, “You guys are being all paid too much by Cheryl Crawford. It’s not that you don’t deserve more. It’s just not good from an investor’s point of view, and we’re going to renegotiate all your contracts.” Long pause. We did. We decided that we knew how to pay shows off quicker than anybody else, which is how we got a quick reputation in the business, and we wanted to continue. Anyway, we came in with New Girl, reviews very mixed, show ran, paid back. But I think six weeks later than it was meant to go into rehearsal, we actually went into rehearsal with West Side Story, having cast it, having completed the designs, having found the theaters, the bookings. We came to Washington, to the National (Theatre), and it was spectacular from the get-go in front of audiences.

You were at the premiere of West Side Story. What was that like?

Harold Prince: It was just thrilling.  You knew right away.  My memory is that the only thing that ever got fiddled around with forever was “Somewhere,” which was a song, top of the second act, where Reri Grist, the opera singer, sat in the pit and sang — she wasn’t seen by the audience — and there was a whole big ballet between the Jets and the Sharks. And that just got fiddled with and fiddled with and fiddled with until finally we had to open, but it was quite thrilling.

I left someone out of all this who was really wonderful because he was so supportive, and he had been part of the original team with Cheryl. That is Roger Stevens, who was a big figure in Washington, and responsible for the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center Complex and so on, a wonderful guy. He just said, “I’m with you. I will put up my share. You guys do the producing.” The credit read “In Association with Roger Stevens.” He was true to his word and really nice.

What was the audience’s reaction to the opening?

Harold Prince: They had never seen anything quite like it.  They were just thrilled, just excited.  It just got right.  The blood boils, and it’s exciting, and the Romeo and Juliet story is pretty swell. Arthur Laurents created a language for it, which some people are fond of saying, “What is all that ‘cracko-jacko’ stuff — ‘womb-to-tomb’ stuff?”  You had to create a different language, which is probably why, sometimes — you know, you talked to Sondheim and you heard him criticize some of his lyrics.  The fact that it is all heightened and people are not real and they are not really saying what they would have said in the words they would have used, I think that would have been an impossible task and inappropriate.

The big place where we encountered this schism was “Officer Krupke.” The authors all said, “What in the hell are all these street kids doing, talking about psychoanalysis? What do they know about that?” And the answer is, “You are right, but the show is getting too heavy, and we need to lighten the audience’s load,” and we did. It wasn’t Fidelio. It was West Side Story, and it was trying something new in the commercial theater.