Theater

“Prince of Broadway” Reveals Little About Harold Prince’s Seven-Decade Career

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On January 30, 2018, Harold (“Hal”) Prince will turn ninety years old. Prince of Broadway, the new musical revue at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theatre, co-directed by Prince and choreographer Susan Stroman, means to salute his lengthy and influential theatrical career. It does so, however, in a puzzlingly perfunctory fashion.

The puzzle’s explanation lies in Prince’s multifaceted career itself. He began as an unpaid office boy to producer-director George Abbott, followed by stints as an assistant stage manager (Tickets, Please!, 1950) and stage manager–cum-understudy (Wonderful Town, 1953), before moving on to producing, first in partnership with fellow stage manager Robert E. Griffith and then on his own. Prince branched out into directing with a musical mishap called A Family Affair (1962), now remembered chiefly for having three essentially nonmusical stars (Eileen Heckart, Morris Carnovsky, Shelley Berman).

Despite this unpromising start, Prince’s directorial ambitions burgeoned in tandem with his risk-taking as a producer. Working primarily with such talents as lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim and the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, he created a series of musicals, some of which (Cabaret, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd) now seem permanently lodged in the world’s repertoire, that decisively altered both how artists approach the musical theater and what audiences expect from it. After Company (1970) and Follies (1971), Prince and Sondheim were established as the creators of “concept” musicals, in which a central metaphor, rather than story or character, supplied the show’s unifying element.

While this tactic brought some severe limitations, particularly tending to vitiate narrative interest, it supplied opportunities for spectacular inventiveness, reinvigorating the musical’s traditional flamboyance with a new shot of intellectual juice. It tended to work best when entertainment was the show’s topic as well as its metaphor: Like Cabaret, Night Music, and Follies, Prince’s two biggest commercial successes, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita (1979) and Phantom of the Opera (1988), unfold against a show-business background. Ironically, Prince, like his major songwriters, favors serious, frequently grim subject matter that often stands in jolting contradiction to his taste for the spectacular. A degree of cognitive dissonance can be exhilarating, but not every theatergoer grooves on the notion of a big, flamboyant musical about cannibalism or lynching. Hence there have been many stumbles along Prince’s path. Eventually he concentrated on directing, letting fiscally braver or better-cushioned souls take on the risk of producing.

Prince’s complex artistic evolution lies at the core of the problems that bring Prince of Broadway such uneven results. First, directing and producing are the theater’s invisible arts. Writing, composing, acting, design, and choreography can all be seen or heard, but no audience member can definitively gauge the extent to which the director, rather than the actor’s impulse or the writer’s stage directions, shapes what the actor does onstage; even people present at rehearsals have been known to disagree violently about whom to credit. Producing, even back when there were only one or two producers per show and the multitudes now billed above the title were merely investors, was and remains a still more nebulous art, which can include anything from an elaborately detailed conception down to mere hectoring, bullying, and threats.

So, though Prince of Broadway consists entirely of excerpts from works that Prince directed and/or produced, it does not contain anything you could directly describe as his work. Even the spoken text between numbers, in which the eight cast members take turns speaking as Prince, can’t confidently be called his words: The program credit says “Book by David Thompson.” Yet, of course, it is all Prince. If you know him, the words sound like him. If he didn’t write or compose “If I Were a Rich Man,” or “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” he was there when they were put into rehearsal; he presumably gave notes, as producer in the former case and director in the latter, on how they should be staged and performed. They must have something to do with him, but Prince of Broadway has found no effective way to tell us what.

Instead, this tribute to a great producer-director basically honors the songwriters he’s worked with, again desultorily, offering an arbitrarily chosen string of songs and song sequences, some familiar and some not. Ineffective at conveying the scope of Prince’s relation to the numbers, the show also displays remarkable uncertainty about shaping them into a revue. Minor or ineffective numbers jostle against ultra-familiar hits. Set designer Beowulf Boritt struggles indecisively between elaborate and minimalist evocations of shows past. Because Prince’s innovative shows emphasized overall context and cumulative effect, many of the numbers don’t lend themselves to the revue form’s spotlighting. Unwisely, Prince and Stroman have at many points sought to re-create an emotional buildup that only happens when you’re experiencing the original show as a whole. I felt particularly sorry for Bryonha Marie Parham, who puts enormous, and futile, effort into an all-stops-out attempt to re-create the shattering effect of Cabaret’s title song. It doesn’t work because it can’t. We’re watching a revue, not a performance of Cabaret. But Prince and Stroman seem to have overlooked that fact.

There are brighter spots. Chuck Cooper handles a range of assignments, including Tevye and Sweeney Todd, authoritatively. Karen Ziemba, painfully underused, delivers a powerful “So What?” from Cabaret. Brandon Uranowitz clowns his way drolly through “Tonight at Eight” from Bock and Harnick’s She Loves Me (1964). And Tony Yazbek taps his frantic heart out to “The Right Girl” from Follies. They and their colleagues could easily have triumphed in a revue built around them and tailored to their particular strengths. But this one isn’t. It’s built instead around an untenable concept: showing the audience the greatness of somebody whose extraordinary yet intangible achievement is never visible in the work onstage, only inferable from it.

In a way, Prince of Broadway’s relative flatness reveals that the secret behind Harold Prince’s success has always been his self-effacing modesty: He has had the sense to assemble the most gifted collaborators within his reach, toss them a challenging notion or two, and then stand aside while their work carried his ideas to extraordinary fruition, stepping in now and again to polish the results. His sagacity deserves a better-sustained tribute than this, but for full objectivity it would probably have to be directed by one of his rivals — and in his time on Broadway, he can hardly be said to have any.

Prince of Broadway
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
212-239-6200
manhattantheatreclub.com
Through October 22

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