In his new memoir Sense of Occasion, Hal Prince explains that Prince of Broadway, the new Broadway revue celebrating and sampling Prince’s extraordinary 70-year career in the theater, “was entirely the idea of a Canadian producer” (not, in other words, Prince’s idea), and concedes that it is in several ways at odds with the landmark musicals for which Prince is best known.
The revue is intended “just to entertain” while by contrast “I have a reputation for doing ‘dark’ musicals, and certainly I have done shows to create controversy, to make political or social statements,” says the legendary theater artist who was the original producer of West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof; director of Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd; producer-director of Cabaret, Candide and Pacific Overtures.
Prince of Broadway is not dark and it doesn’t make a statement. (Knowledgeable theatergoers may well find it controversial as a result.) Yet, long after the unnamed Canadian dropped out of the project, Prince has made Prince of Broadway his own, choosing it for his first directing gig on Broadway in ten years. Despite what seems an ill-conceived idea, and for all its flaws, he and co-director Susan Stroman do manage to find some sweet spots in staging this highlights reel of a show.
A cast of nine Broadway veterans presents 36 musical numbers from 16 musicals. These are mostly beloved shows (including all those mentioned above), along with a few Prince favorites that didn’t catch on with the public, such as Merrily We Roll Along and Parade. Unlike most revues, the design team creates separate sets and costumes for each musical, most of which are represented by more than one song (Cabaret and Company each get four.) The intention here is surely to put the songs within the rich context of each musical, but it doesn’t consistently work.
Theatergoers who are not already familiar with these shows might not even be able to figure out what some of them are about, and, in any case, the highlights approach deprives most of them of the complexity that makes them so great. Even if one can see the connections between the songs within each musical, it’s a challenge to grasp how all the musicals fit together — because they don’t. Their only connection to one another is that Prince was in some way involved in their original production. That’s a far more tenuous thread than previous Broadway revues such as Sondheim on Sondheim. The effort to tie the musicals together, through an interstitial narration about Prince written by David Thompson, just makes things worse. Each of the cast members in turn speak a line or two as if they are Harold Prince, all wearing eyeglasses on their heads, in thin mimicry of a signature Prince habit.
“Everyone talks about their career in the theater. But rarely does anybody talk about luck. Never underestimate luck,” Brandon Uranowitz as Hal says at the beginning.
“Work with the best – that doesn’t mean the most famous – but the best,” Karen Ziemba as Hal says two and a half hours later.
If in between these unenlightening platitudes there are a handful of passably interesting biographical tidbits (most of them verbatim from Prince’s memoir), the overall effect evokes the kind of cheery, cheesy patter endemic to fundraising galas and award shows that focus on an “honoree.”
However much Prince of Broadway may disappoint as a whole, though, there is no denying how effectively it serves as a showcase for its cast, most of whom have been insufficiently appreciated for their tremendous talent. At the top of the list for me is Tony Yazbeck, whom aficionados will recognize as one of the stars of the recent On The Town revival. Here he gets the show-stopping number of the night, tap-dancing his way through “The Right Girl” from Follies (which we’re told is Prince’s favorite musical.) But Yazbeck also impresses in the two songs as Tony to Kaley Ann Voorhees as Maria from West Side Story, and in “A New Argentina” as Che from Evita, and in “This is Not Over Yet” as Leo Frank from Parade.
Chuck Cooper, one of the two African-Americans in the cast, is an actor I’ve admired since his Tony-winning performance in The Life 20 years ago. Here he sings, yes, “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat (one of the few revivals that Prince has directed), but he also gets to play roles for which he might not get considered in full productions, most memorably as Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, singing “If I Were A Rich Man.”
It’s too bad that the Fiddler on the Roof number is preceded by “Send in the Clowns” (the juxtaposition like a bad joke), and succeeded by “Wilkommen” from the Nazi-era Cabaret (a worse joke) causing a mild case of audience whiplash.
It’d be easier to give unconditional love to Prince of Broadway – which is after all celebrating the best of Broadway, and bringing Prince back on Broadway — if the shows it’s excerpting were sadly neglected. But many of them have been given superlative revivals in recent memory, half of them on Broadway within just the last five years, and two of them are on New York stages right now – Sweeney Todd Off-Broadway, and Phantom of the Opera, just three blocks away. That musical, the longest-running on Broadway, will celebrate its 30th anniversary on Broadway in January – four days before Harold Prince turns 90.
Can we get a real Prince musical out of him? As he writes in his memoir:
“Broadway is not the place to look for loyalty from the public, and sad as that is to the ego, it is one of the best things you can say about Broadway.”
Prince of Broadway is on stage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater (261 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, NYC 10036) through October 22, 2017.
Prince of Broadway . Book by David Thompson; Music supervision by Jason Robert Brown; Co-direction and choreography by Susan Stroman; Directed by Harold Prince . Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Howell Binkley, sound design by Jon Weston, wig design by Paul Huntley. Cast: Chuck Cooper, Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Michael Xavier, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba.