The marquee lights of Broadway were dimmed on Thursday after news broke that legendary producer and director Hal Prince had passed away aged 91.
Born Harold Smith Prince to German Jewish parents in New York in January 1928, he went on to become the top musical theatre producer of the 20th century, winning an unparalleled 21 Tony Awards, a feat unlikely ever to be beaten.
He worked with both Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim on huge hit shows such as Evita, Company, Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret and Sweeney Todd.
Among his best-known work was his production of Fiddler on the Roof for its record-breaking run of 3,242 performances between 1964 and 1972. Years later he revealed that he at first turned it down.
“They offered me Fiddler on the Roof and I said ‘that’s wonderful but I can’t do it because I’m a German Jew and I don’t understand that social behaviour, I have no opinion, I don’t disdain it [but] I don’t think I could put it on the stage.’”
He suggested choreographer and director Jerome (Jerry) Robbins get involved “to give it universality, beyond a Jewish audience,” but said Robbins “wouldn’t go into rehearsals until he’d gotten out of them what the show was about in larger terms”.
Robbins repeatedly asked the writing team what it was about, and was always met with an unsatisfactory answer. “Finally, in exasperation, one of them said ‘look, it’s about tradition.’ And he said ‘that’s it, that’s it right there. Write about tradition. Everyone will understand tradition. That will make this specific story for everybody.’”
Prince spoke often about the importance of Yiddish theatre, and worked with some of the biggest Jewish names in the business, including lyricist and songwriter Sheldon Harnick and composer Leonard Bernstein, always keen to share learning.
“This wonderful man taught me so much,” tweeted Lloyd-Webber on Thursday, as the news filtered through. “His mastery of musical theatre was without equal.”
His repertoire included opera, directing classics such as Turandot in Vienna, Madam Butterfly in Chicago, and Faust in New York, and in 2015 he directed a musical revue showcasing his own life and career, titled ‘Prince of Broadway,’ which premiered in Japan. It capped a 60-year career which began in 1955, when he co-produced the Tony Award winning ‘The Pajama Game.’
Prince passed away in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik and his family said there would be no funeral but rather a celebration of his life this autumn.
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