How do you begin to assemble a show based upon all of the Broadway musical productions connected to Hal Prince over a legendary career spanning nearly seven decades? How do you choose from roughly 5,000 songs in those shows? Accordingly to the creative team behind Prince of Broadway, with love, a desire to let everyone shine, and a focus on character numbers.
Distinctive characters, many of whom can be summoned up by name, have been a hallmark of Hal Prince produced and directed shows. Even after eliminating mostly choral or dance numbers, the options were voluminous.
What survives the cut could be described as greatest hits from many of Broadway’s greatest hits. Among the shows included in the production are West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Evita, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, and Showboat.
The ingenuity and creativity of the show goes far beyond a standard Broadway revue. While the nine member ensemble each take turns speaking some biographical history and “Hal Princisms” (all while wearing glasses perched on top of their heads in characteristic Hal Prince style), the focus of the show is strictly on the music. That approach is in keeping with the desires of the self-effacing Mr. Prince.
Jason Robert Browne plays the overture to Prince of Broadway.
The cast actually takes the stage first to set up a beautiful overture of 17 songs orchestrated by Broadway composer Jason Robert Browne, who played a key role in the show’s music. This approach overcomes the perennial challenge of audience members who insist upon talking until the actors take the stage (a major pet peeve of this writer).
The two-act show is a challenge to the entire artistic team. Numerous “eleven o’clock numbers” are played nearly back to back, keeping the ensemble cast in constant motion and giving the orchestra barely enough time to turn the pages.
Each musical featured is performed on individual sets with the performers in appropriate show costumes. Original set designers, choreographers, and costumers are honored in the program, but while the staging and other details are homages to their contributions, the numbers feature new adaptations.
One new twist is given to “The Right Girl” from Follies. An original choreographed sequence features Tony Yazbeck conveys the psychological trauma of a man who realizes his wife no longer loves him. It’s the first time this highly emotional number has even been performed through tap dancing, and the choreographers (Susan Stroman assisted by James Gray) are particularly proud of their work on that number.
Prince of Broadway went through a lengthy gestation period and was first produced in Japan nearly two years ago (performed in English, but with subtitles). During the show’s development, many numbers were tried and cut. For some time the original opening song in Prince of Broadway came from the opening number in the little known Grind (“This Must Be the Place”), an unsuccessful 1985 musical about a mostly African-American burlesque house in 1930s Chicago starring Ben Vereen and Leilani Jones. Ultimately, it just didn’t fit.
Similarly, several songs were tried in the closing spot, but none seemed an adequate summation of Hal Prince’s career and his approach to musical theatre. As a result, a new song written by Jason Robert Browne called “Do the Work” was commissioned for the show.
The production took a while to make it to Broadway because the producers wanted Prince of Broadway to play in an intimate theatre. The Samuel J. Friedman Theater certainly qualifies. The string section of the 15-person orchestra actually plays in a 5th floor dressing room because the orchestra pit is too small to hold them.
To those worried that Prince of Broadway will lack the distinctive Hal Prince touch, he was intimately involved in its creation and direction, attending every rehearsal even as he closes in on 90 and works on other projects. Also, due to his strong relationships with his collaborators (many of whom he was instrumental in starting and spurring their careers), everyone freely granted the rights to use any number the show wanted to feature.
I think some of the New York critics have been a little too negative because they wanted Prince of Broadway to be the equivalent of a work that would explore the complexity and darkness of Hal Prince the way that All That Jazz explored Fosse. Yes, it’s just a revue, but what a revue! Multiple breath-taking sets, great music, and an outstanding ensemble giving terrific performances.
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.