NEW YORK — Harold Prince, a Broadway director and producer who pushed the boundaries of musical theatre with such groundbreaking shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, Company and Sweeney Todd and won a staggering 21 Tony Awards, has died. Prince was 91.
Prince’s publicist Rick Miramontez said Prince died Wednesday after a brief illness in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was in transit from Europe to New York. Broadway marquees will dim their lights in his honour Wednesday night.
Prince was known for his fluid, cinematic director’s touch and was unpredictable and uncompromising in his choice of stage material. He often picked challenging, offbeat subjects to musicalize, such as a murderous, knife-wielding barber who baked his victims in pies or the 19th-century opening of Japan to the West.
Along the way, he helped create some of Broadway’s most enduring musical hits, first as a producer of such shows as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof. He later became a director, overseeing such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, reached by phone Wednesday, told The Associated Press that it was impossible to overestimate the importance of Prince to the stage. “All of modern musical theatre owes practically everything to him.”
Lloyd Webber recalled that, as a young man, he had written the music for the flop Jeeves and was feeling low. Prince wrote him a letter urging him not to be discouraged. The two men later met and Lloyd Webber said he was thinking of next doing a musical about Evita Peron. Prince told him to bring it to him first. “That was game-changing for me. Without that, I often wonder where I would be,” Lloyd Webber said.
Tributes also poured in from generations of Broadway figures, including The Band’s Visit composer David Yazbek, who called Prince “a real giant,” and the performer Bernadette Peters, who called it a “sad day.” Seinfeld alum Jason Alexander, who was directed by Prince in Merrily We Roll Along, said Prince “reshaped American theatre and today’s giants stand on his shoulders.”
Composer Jason Robert Brown hailed Prince’s “commitment and an enthusiasm and a work ethic and an endless well of creative passion.” Actress Carolee Carmello said he “lit up a room like no one I’ve ever known and I always felt so lucky when I was in that room.”
In addition to Lloyd Webber, Prince, known by friends as Hal, worked with some of the best-known composers and lyricists in musical theatre, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.
“I don’t do a lot of analyzing of why I do something,” Prince once told The Associated Press. “It’s all instinct.”
Only rarely, he said, did he take on an idea just for the money, and they “probably were bad ideas in the first place. Theater is not about that. It is about creating something. The fact that some of my shows have done so well is sheer luck.”
During his more than 50-year career, Prince received a record 21 Tony Awards, including two special Tonys — one in 1972 when Fiddler became Broadway’s longest running musical then, and another in 1974 for a revival of Candide. He also was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.
He earned a reputation as a detail-heavy director. Barbara Cook in her memoir Then & Now wrote: “I admire him greatly, but he also did not always make things easy, for one basic reason: he wants to direct every detail of your performance down to the way you crook your pinky finger.”
A musical about Prince called Prince of Broadway opened in Japan in 2015 featuring songs from many of the shows that made him famous. It landed on Broadway in 2017.
It was with Sondheim, who was the lyricist for West Side Story, that Prince developed his most enduring creative relationship. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the first Broadway show for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.
They cemented their partnership in 1970 with Company. Prince produced and directed this innovative, revue-like musical that followed the travails of Bobby, a perpetual New York bachelor ever searching for the right woman.
Company was followed in quick succession by Follies (1971), which Prince co-directed with Michael Bennett A Little Night Music (1973) Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1979).