Remembering Hal Prince: 12 Broadway Luminaries Share Their Stories

Remembering Hal Prince: 12 Broadway Luminaries Share Their Stories

Hal Prince was already 87 years old by the time I first met him. It was 2015, I had just started covering the theater beat, and he invited me to his office at Rockefeller Center to talk with him and the lyricist Sheldon Harnick about the development of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which was about to be revived on Broadway.

I was struck, of course, by the walls lined with memorabilia that seemed to reflect the entire history of Broadway. And it was a treat just to see his eyeglasses, perched atop his head, like they appeared in years and years of photographs. But mostly what I remember is his incredibly sharp memory — he was regaling me with stories, about Zero Mostel and Marc Chagall and the origins of the song “Tradition,” describing incidents that had taken place decades earlier but sounded as if they had happened the previous week.

Now it is Broadway’s turn to share memories about Mr. Prince. In the hours since he died on Wednesday, at the age of 91, it seems like everyone on Broadway has a story about him — as a collaborator or a mentor or an inspiration. We asked a dozen people influenced by Mr. Prince about their recollections; these are edited excerpts from interviews conducted by phone and email.

Joel Grey

An actor and director who in 1966 starred as the Master of Ceremonies in the original Broadway production of “Cabaret.” Mr. Prince directed and was the lead producer.

He called me and said, “How’s everything, Joely?” — he’s the only person I ever allowed to call me Joely — and I said, “I think I’m quitting the business. I just can’t do it anymore.” He said, “Well, I think I have a part for you — it’s a German M.C.” I heard the score, and I thought, “That’s pretty good!” but I was very concerned about being a song-and-dance man, and not an actor, and I wasn’t feeling anything deep about it. Then the night before the last rehearsal, I had this dream about this terrible nightclub performer I had seen in St. Louis, somebody who did every low trick possible to get an audience to like him — cheap and begging and outrageous and disgusting — and I thought, “Maybe that’s the kind of character this is.” I said to Hal, “I’d like to try something different,” and he said, “Go for it.” So I took all the things that I despised and I added them to “Willkommen.” The girls in the cast were aghast at what I was doing, and everybody was staring at me, and when I finished I thought, “That’s the end of my career.” Hal came over, and I was sort of teary, and he put his arm around my shoulder, and he said, “Joely, that’s it!”

Lynn Nottage

A playwright who in 2004 got a note from Mr. Prince — whom she did not know — calling her Off Broadway play “Intimate Apparel” a “masterpiece” and saying, “in one fell swoop — well, more accurately, one glorious night — you’ve reversed my growing despair for the future of theater.” Ms. Nottage has since won two Pulitzer Prizes.

Like most aspiring theater artists of my generation, I’d grown up in awe of his work, as it represented the gold standard on Broadway. So, you can imagine my surprise when I opened an envelope to find words of praise from the master director. I didn’t know Mr. Prince, but I was immensely moved by the fact that he had taken time out of his busy schedule to share how much he had enjoyed one of my Off Broadway plays. His gesture of kindness and grace taught me something about the importance of community and the responsibility that we have in nurturing our fellow artists.

Raúl Esparza

An actor who in 1998 starred as Che in a touring production of “Evita,” which Mr. Prince had directed on Broadway.

I’m Cuban, and I played Che when my own family had fled the revolution after Castro came to power, and my whole life Che had been presented as a villain. I was struggling, and on the edge of thinking “This is not going to work.” I was trying all my crazy ideas — playing with what Che could be, trying to see if he could be an unreliable narrator, and Hal watches a run-through, pulls me aside and says, “Hey, kiddo, you’re spectacular. Follow your heart.” And then he tells the entire cast, “The show is in beautiful shape, and I want you all to let Raúl do whatever he wants to do — let him create his own version of this man.” For Hal, “Evita” was about the way images are manipulated, and, of course, he thought my idea that maybe Che was untrustworthy was interesting. I don’t know that “Evita” can support any of that, but he didn’t care — he said “Go your own way,” and he said it in front of the cast, and it made me feel like a door had just opened and I had been invited into something that was bigger than myself.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

The composer who wrote the music for “Evita” (which opened in 1979) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1988), both of which Mr. Prince directed. “Phantom” is the longest-running show in Broadway history.

The first contact I ever had with Hal Prince was when he sent a telegram saying he wanted to direct and produce “Jesus Christ Superstar” after the recording came out in 1970. I was the greatest Hal Prince fan alive — I had seen “Cabaret” and “Company” and thought he was extraordinary — but I only got the telegram after the management company had already made a deal with Robert Stigwood. Then about four years later, I had a disastrous musical in London — “Jeeves” — and I got this letter hand-delivered from Hal saying he’d been to see the show and that I should keep the music and use it in something else. He was at the Savoy Hotel, and I thought, “I’m going to give him a telephone call,” and he said, “Well, come ’round and have a drink.” I was quaking when I met the great man, and he said, “You mustn’t be discouraged about this. What are you thinking of doing next?” I said “I’m going to work again with Tim Rice, and we’re thinking of doing a musical on Eva Perón.” He said, “When you finish this thing, if you do, will you bring it to me first?” He was just extraordinary to me. Broadway will never be the same — this is the end of a golden era.

Graciela Daniele

A dancer in the original Broadway cast of “Follies,” which opened in 1971 with Mr. Prince producing and co-directing.

In “Follies” I played the role of Young Vanessa but, most of all, I was an assistant choreographer to Michael Bennett, from whom I learned more than I could ever say. I remember one day, during tech, sitting with Michael in the house while there was a discussion about something (I wish I could remember what) and Hal turned to me and said, “What do you think?” That question, from that brilliant man, was perhaps the reason which encouraged me to become a choreographer and, later on, a director. I will always thank him for those words which taught me the true meaning of collaboration.

Stephen Sondheim

Mr. Sondheim, a composer and lyricist, met Mr. Prince in 1949, and they worked together on musicals including “West Side Story,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”

When he was in his late 20s, Hal asked me to teach him two things: how to play the piano and how to drive a car. He was too impatient for the piano and soon gave up on it. He was also too impatient for driving, but he did it anyway. The first time I let him take the steering wheel alone, he exuberantly barreled forward, yelling exasperated expletives through the open window at every other driver on the road, attesting to their lack of courtesy, their inefficiency in making turns and their ignoring speed limits, among other things. In this case I gave up first, and Hal drove a car for the next 60 years of his life.

And another recollection from Mr. Sondheim:

One of the astounding things about Hal is that he never listened to music for pleasure, only for work. However, he had been brought up on Broadway musicals of the 1940s, as had I, and that gave him a rather conservative ear: The dissonance in the score of “West Side Story” opened it up it a bit, but every time I’d play a new song for him, he would often ask me, “Will I like that?” I would usually assure him, at which point he would shrug in resignation, and the song would at least go into rehearsal, though sometimes not for very long. Hal’s openness to things he didn’t immediately respond to was one of the things that made him such an ideal collaborator.

Sarah Brightman

She starred as Christine Daaé in the original Broadway cast of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which opened in 1988.

He understood the dark side of it, the opulent side of it, the madness and the vulnerability. I had done a fair amount of research, and he gave me a lot of confidence because he actually trusted what my line of thought was. I remember him sitting and watching the scenes, and this huge smile would come over his face. I do remember him saying, “I need the lyrics to be really clear here,” and often you’d have to forgo a little bit of beauty so you could be understood. He would watch every moment really carefully, and he was just a really safe person to be working with.

Patti LuPone

She starred as Eva Perón in the original Broadway production of “Evita.”

During the pre-Broadway run of “Evita” in Los Angeles, Hal came to my dressing room in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, took me by the shoulders and told me that he was going to make an announcement to the whole company after the show about an item that was to appear in a New York gossip column. He assured me it was not true and we would laugh about it in 20 years. I remember thinking, “Aw, come on, I can keep a secret … not. And you tell me this before a show and expect me to perform with this thing that’s not true racing around my brain?” After the show Hal told the company that an article in Suzy Knickerbocker’s column was coming out the next day saying that I was being fired and Elaine Paige was waiting in the wings to replace me in the role. Years later in a random conversation the theater critic Clive Barnes told me this was in fact true, that the producers had called him for his advice. Clive’s response to them was “Let Patti figure it out.” It’s 40 years later, and I’m still not laughing. Thank you for protecting me, Hal. R.I.P.

Chita Rivera

In 1957 she starred in the original production of “West Side Story,” which Mr. Prince co-produced, and then in 1993 she starred in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” which he directed.

When we were rehearsing “Kiss of the Spider Woman” it was interesting and complicated for me, as I played two roles — Spider Woman and Aurora. Spider Woman was the conscience, narrator, the future and death. She was many things, and I was nervous and impatient with myself. Hal was wise enough to allow me to find her as we went along. I remember the moment I realized I found her. I was standing on a ladder, supposedly flying, and boom! “Oh, that’s who she is!” Thanks to Hal for allowing me to do just that.

Susan Stroman

She choreographed the 1994 revival of “Show Boat” that Mr. Prince directed. She also co-directed, with Mr. Prince, the 2017 revue “Prince of Broadway,” a retrospective of his work.

At a very young age I received two great pieces of advice from Hal. Travel whenever you can — exposing yourself to different cultures and distinctive art will only enrich your mind and abilities. And make sure that after every opening night, no matter the outcome, you have a meeting for a new project scheduled the very next morning. He was courageous, confounding, and one of the greatest collaborators. I will miss being summoned to his office.

Jason Robert Brown

The composer/lyricist, a longtime collaborator with Mr. Prince’s daughter, Daisy, worked with Mr. Prince on “Parade” (1998) and “Prince of Broadway.” But before those shows, Mr. Prince helped Mr. Brown land his first job on Broadway: as a rehearsal pianist for “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Of all the things I was taking in, I remember this as being the most powerful: During one scene which had been blocked fairly far upstage, Hal called for the actors to freeze in place, and he and Ruthie Mitchell (his assistant) went to the last seats on the far left and right sides of the theater. From there, Hal shouted into his microphone for the actors to take one step downstage. Try one more. O.K., that’s good. And then he and Ruthie moved one seat further back and repeated the process. Four times, five times, until he got to the last row. I was so surprised that he would bother to sit all the way over in those seats, which were famously the last ones to get sold; I thought surely someone with 19 Tony Awards would delegate that job to someone else. Knowing what I know now, of course he wouldn’t. The most consistent thing about Hal was that he treated every person in that theater with respect, including the lowest-paying audience member sitting all the way house left.

Thomas Kail

The director of “Hamilton,” which opened on Broadway in 2015.

I had the great luck to become pals with him in early 2015. I was so nervous to sit with him, because I had been studying his life and work for years, and I didn’t want to freak him out with obscure trivia I had learned. I told him I once heard a quote of his, which I promptly blurted out — and I certainly mangled — three minutes into the meal. “I heard once after a very long technical rehearsal — where you spent hours trying to move a chair a few feet to the other side — you said, ‘It is days like these when I’m sure I’ll live forever, and it is opening nights that I remember that eventually I will die.’” I told him it made me weep when I’d read it. This summed up the way such rigorous focus can make time disappear. It spoke to the deep immersion theater asks of us, and I’d never heard it described so eloquently. He looked at me, shook his head and laughed and said he didn’t recall saying it. He then asked me what I was working on. Hal always wanted to move forward, to keep crashing ahead. He didn’t like to look back, he always wanted to keep going.

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