Prince of Broadway was a labor of love – my love for Hal Prince. Hal had always been my champion, always there with sound advice and encouraging words. We started as collaborators, and over some 30 years, we developed a wonderful and trusting friendship. When Hal asked me to co-direct and choreograph Prince of Broadway, I could not say yes fast enough.
Hal is a legend in our business, having been involved in some of the most innovative and groundbreaking musicals ever created. And he is the recipient of 21 Tony Awards — no one will ever be able to say the same. Prince of Broadway celebrates six decades of his remarkable career, featuring excerpts from shows such as West Side Story, Cabaret, Evita, A Little Night Music, Company, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof, and Phantom of the Opera, to name but a few.
I began working on the show with Hal, accomplished book writer David (Tommy) Thompson, and musical genius Jason Robert Brown. We set out to create an evening to honor Hal as the person and Hal as the extraordinary theater visionary – in short, we wanted to let the audience in on how Hal Prince came to be Hal Prince.
We met in Hal's famous office at Rockefeller Center. Walking in was like stepping into a library of the greatest moments in theatrical history. Every inch was covered with show posters, photos of theater luminaries, ephemera from all the musicals, operas, and plays he brought to be – not to mention all the books he wrote!
We were celebrating his yesterdays, but Hal was only ever focused on the future, the next show. He moved forward with such positivity, excited by the possibility of what idea lay just around the corner. He gave me a great piece of advice when we first met: "When you open a show, no matter what the response, the very next day, have a meeting for another show. The next show." I took that advice to heart, and no matter what show I'm about to open, I schedule a new team of creatives, ready to talk about a new story, for the very next day.
Hal challenged you to do your best work, and his energy was infectious. He firmly believed a fruitful collaboration was the bedrock for theatrical success and wanted everyone on the same page. Each time I left our meetings, I felt inspired – and in need of a nap!
We had been introduced to an outstanding producer named Kumiko Yoshii. Kumiko was devoted to the creation of Prince of Broadway. She loved the concept of the show and had tremendous respect for Hal and his team. Kumiko organized an out-of-town engagement at the ORB Theater in Japan. Talk about out-of-town! Used to be Chicago was "out-of-town", now it's Tokyo!
After five weeks of rehearsal, we headed to Tokyo with high hopes of delivering a fabulous show. We were far from home, so there was nothing to distract us from our work, giving us time to hone the show. Jason sorted the arrangements and orchestrations while Tommy tweaked the book. Hal and I focused on the actors. By the time Opening Night arrived, we were in terrific shape. The show was embraced by Japanese audiences. It was, in fact, a tremendous experience. Now we began thinking about how to adapt the show for Broadway.
Tokyo also provided the added adventure of seeing all the sites this spectacular city has to offer with Hal Prince! One of the first things Hal ever said to me was, "Traveling will expand your mind. You must observe different cultures and lifestyles firsthand. It will boost your creativity." Traipsing around Japan with Hal, Tommy, and my associate James Gray was a thrill. We went everywhere – the Tsukiji Market, Meiji Shrine, Takeshita Street, Shibuya Crossing, Kyoto. And everywhere we went, Hal would regale us with the history and importance of the place. We ate sushi every single day — like fresh-out-of-the sea, chop-it-up-while-it-is-still-moving sushi!
When we got back to New York, the first thing we all did was have a steak! Then we went back into rehearsals. Our goal was to reshape the show using all we had learned in Tokyo. Hal's career is so immense, the sheer volume of material available to us was daunting. We had to pick songs that enhanced the narrative but also gave each cast member several opportunities to shine.
Manhattan Theatre Club, headed by Lynne Meadow and Barry Grove, joined Kumiko and her company Gorgeous Entertainment to co-produce the show. Lynne had a terrific long-standing relationship with Hal. Lynn and Stephen Kaus (Associate Artistic Producer) were hands on in helping the team and always had encouraging words. We were lucky to be surrounded by such supportive producers who saw Prince of Broadway as the important retrospective of Hal's illustrious career that he deserved. The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre was the perfect space for the show – intimate and beautiful.
Prince of Broadway celebrates not only Hal's career but also the hand he had in making these iconic roles soar to their own spot in theater history. He wanted the show filled with these characters singing the lyrics of his renowned collaborators. Hal wasn't looking for exact recreations of those original performances. Still, we needed actors who could make the material feel as vital as it was to those performers who had poured their hearts and souls into it originally. We found a sensational group.
With these new actors in front of him, Hal wanted to explore what they could do and allow himself to be inspired by them. That gave the show a dynamic energy. Each song was approached like a monologue and, in a show filled with musical gems, everyone got their star turn. Some of the highlights were Bryonha Marie Parham belting out "Cabaret", Emily Skinner singing "The Ladies Who Lunch", Karen Ziemba singing "So What", Michael Xavier singing "Company", Chuck Cooper with "If I Were a Rich Man", Brandon Uranowitz in "Dressing Them Up", Janet Dacal singing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", Tony Yazbeck in "This Is Not Over Yet", and Kaley Ann Voorhees, singing "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again".
Most of the staging was simple and without much choreography. Dance is found in segments from Damn Yankees and Superman. And Hal came up with the fantastic idea to include one of his favorite songs – "The Right Girl" from Follies. He wanted an entirely new choreographed piece. I was lucky to have Tony Yazbeck on board to create the tap dance of a heartbroken man. Tony and I worked with Jason Robert Brown to create a sensational dance arrangement, using tap as a powerful percussive instrument that evokes regret, loss, frustration. Tony stopped the show every night, and his performance garnered him the Chita Rivera Award for Outstanding Male Dancer in a Broadway show.
Jason Robert Brown put together a magnificent overture for Prince of Broadway, with musical licks from about 19 of Hal's shows. As the overture played, logos from 41 of Hal's Broadway shows flashed on a screen, one after the other. It was overwhelming – how one man could have shepherded so many quintessential shows! I maintain Jason's overture is one of the best ever written for the theater.
Incredible work was also done by costume designer William Ivey Long and scenic designer Beowulf Boritt. They paid homage to the original art of several legendary set and costume designers – Boris Aronson and Florence Klotz, among them. Even though they were paying tribute, William and Beowulf still made it feel fresh and new.
Prince of Broadway was an unbelievably entertaining and thought-provoking night in the theater. I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to create with Hal, to be one of his collaborators. Working on Prince of Broadway with Tommy and Jason made me even more acutely aware of the extraordinary contributions Hal Prince made to our industry. "Don't live in the past," he would say. "If there's any secret to my longevity, it's living in the future. And a little bit in the present." That's what I admired most about Hal – his excitement for whatever was next.
We were all so dedicated to Hal – cast, producers, crew, creatives. Referring to his mentor George Abbott, Hal said, "All you need as a young artist is one person, who you respect, to say, 'You can do this. Do it!'" Hal Prince was my George Abbott.
What a wonderful gift to have been part of Hal's very last Broadway show. One of the greatest honors of my life has been to work alongside this imaginative Prince, who will always remain the real King of Broadway.
Book by David Thompson
Musical Supervision by Jason Robert Brown
Direction by Harold Prince
Co-Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design by William Ivey Long
Lighting Design by Howell Binkley
Sound Design by Jon Weston
Musical Direction by Fred Lassen