I spent almost four hours at the fantastic new Hal Prince exhibit at the NY Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center the other day called “IN THE COMPANY OF HAROLD PRINCE”.
The exhibit brilliantly illuminates Prince’s 60 year career during which he produced and/or directed more than 40 Broadway shows, for which he was awarded 21 Tony awards, the most of any single individual. He is certainly one of the 2 or 3 most significant and influential creators of the Broadway Musical in its 120 year history.
Harold (Hal) Prince was born in 1928 in New York City. His adopted father was the child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, and his mother came from a Jewish-Canadian family. At an early age, he was taken to Broadway shows by his middle class, 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.
He started working as an unpaid apprentice for the already legendary director/producer/playwright George (Mr.) Abbott. At a very young age he was entrusted with important jobs, first as an Assistant Stage Manager, and soon after as the Stage Manager of hit musicals such as Wonderful Town, written by Comden & Green, Joe Fields and Loenard Bernstein, and starring Rosalind Russell.
He soon convinced Abbott and his partners to let him become a co-producer with them, before going off on his own. During this period he became something of a “boy wonder” co-producing a string of Golden Age hits including The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, and Fiddler On The Roof.
However, he has always first and foremost seen himself as a director, and after several lesser efforts he had a sensational hit with the musical CABARET, which he produced and directed. This show gave birth to the era of the “Concept Musical,” and Prince is considered to be the driving force behind the this new kind of show.
The idea of the “Concept Musical” actually started with director/choreographer Jerome Robbins and his approach to West Side Story, and especially Fiddler On The Roof. Prince picked up these ideas and ran with them, and combined them with theater techniques drawn from Russian, German and Asian theatrical productions that had inspired him.
He enlists the perfect creative partners to collaborate with him in realizing this vision: Kander & Ebb, Stephen Sondheim, Ruth Mitchell, Boris Aronson, and Michael Bennett. In the process they revolutionize the American musical, reinventing it for the final decades of the 20th Century.
For me the highlights of the exhibit were Boris Aronson’s incredible set models for COMPANY, FOLLIES, and Pacific Overtures (built by his wife Lisa Jalowetz). The genius of these designs was so much more evident to me seeing them in person rather than in photos or renderings. The FOLLIES model especially was mind blowingly brilliant. What an incredible use of space.
I also enjoyed the recreation of Prince’s office with its view of the Empire State Building. You can sit at his desk and page through copies of letters and papers on the desktop and in the drawers. And when the vintage phone rings – answer it and you will hear Hal relaying the backstage tribulations of one of his shows.
No theater lover should miss this!