In “Prince of Broadway,” Broadway’s King Crowns Himself
Harold Prince has won 21 Tony awards, making him far and away the most recognized recipient of Broadway’s most coveted prize. One cannot help but to proclaim that Prince has made an indisputable, significant, historic contribution to Broadway — specifically the musical.
Prince was contributing like gangbusters from his very earliest days, as an assistant stage manager to the original Broadway legend, director George Abbott, and increasingly so after he co-produced The Pajama Game with his then-partner, Bobby Griffith, back in 1954. He was such an exploding tuner-grenade that in 1958 he was widely assumed to be the model for the ambitious and energetic Ted Snow, the character played by Robert Morse in the now-forgotten musical comedy Say, Darling.
From its very inception, then, Prince of Broadway shouldn’t be anything but top-drawer entertainment. It takes the form of a revue at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre that Prince has directed as a valentine to himself, abetted by co-director and choreographer Susan Stroman. And, as such, it lives right up to its promise. (Let’s set aside that when it comes to titles, the director-producer doesn’t mind regarding himself as Gotham royalty.)
To be sure that the audience keeps firmly in mind who they’ve gathered to honor, Prince himself is present on stage in the form of a nine-performer troupe each sporting the black-framed glasses that Prince almost always wears, typically pushed up on his brow. Together and individually, Chuck Cooper, Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham, Emily Skinner, Brandon Uranowitz, Kaley Ann Voorhees, Michael Xavier, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba reprise numbers from 17 landmark tuners — The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, She Loves Me, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, Follies, A Little Night Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, Company, Evita, Show Boat, Merrily We Roll Along, Parade, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sweeney Todd and The Phantom of the Opera — that the showbiz whiz either produced-directed or simply directed. Were they billed in order of performing eminence rather than alphabetically, they’d all be first.
Come Tony nomination time next spring, any of these nine performers could easily get a supporting nod. Here’s a list of which numbers I think could earn it for them, starting with Yazbeck’s electric tap routine in “The Right Girl,” followed by Parham’s “Will He Like Me?,” Cooper’s “If I Were a Rich Man,” Ziemba’s “The Worst Pies in London,” Uranowitz’s “Tonight at Eight” (with its inspired breathlessness); Dacal’s “Buenos Aires,” Xavier’s “Being Alive,” Skinner’s “Send in the Clowns” (though dressing her in Elaine Stritch-like ensemble for “The Ladies Who Lunch” is a bad idea), and Voorhees’ “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.”
Some words now about those substitute Princes narrating throughout what book there is. Written by David Thompson, the script is pretty much and-then-I wrote or else and-then-I-produced-directed. Occasionally, one of the Princes will give some other (auto-)biographical info. At one point it’s even vouchsafed that in a mid-career valley, Prince had eight flops in a row.
That is to say that Thompson doesn’t delve deeply into Prince’s contributions — and he certainly could. Perhaps it’s not Prince alone who’s responsible for the mid-to-late 20th century maturation of the musical comedy — so much so that the word “comedy” often must now be dropped. West Side Story, Cabaret, Evita, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Kiss of the Spider Woman — these are all testimony to that proud achievement. Nor does the narration plumb the ins-and-outs of Prince’s collaborations at meaningful length. The most important, of course, would be Prince’s partnership with Stephen Sondheim, but there is no mention of their rift, now mended, following the 1981 failure of Merrily We Roll Along.
One of the Princes does report that the 1971 Follies, bankrolled at a then-record $800,000, didn’t recoup. That Prince sniffs “I didn’t care,” and explains that, to him, the advancement of the musical art is as meaningful as commercial success. From Prince’s vantage position this may be true, but maybe it wasn’t to any Follies investors seated in the auditorium.
Since with Prince shows there’s so much from which to choose, one inevitably misses some favorite songs and sequences. There’s nothing here, for example, from Zorba, Pacific Overtures or On the Twentieth Century. There’s nothing from New Girl in Town, which starred Gwen Verdon.
Which brings up another lapse. Dance has been an eminent element in Prince musicals. But for some reason — and with no less than Susan Stroman on hand — there’s little beyond Yazbeck’s spectacular tap solo to remind the crowd of that fact. Making matters even stranger, there’s Ziemba, often in an outfit with a swingy skirt, not even letting loose with a single twirl.
As for the look of things, set and projections designer Beowulf Boritt conjures unfolding suggestions of the 17 shows included, but does it before a little-changing black unit that looks like a burnt-out birch forest. Possibly it’s intended as a nod to the darker aspects of Prince properties. William Ivey Long rises to the multifarious costume challenges, as he always does. So do lighting designer Howell Binkley and sound designer Jon Weston.
Jason Robert Brown, who composed the score for the Prince-directed Parade, had a helluva challenge with the arrangements (conducted by Fred Lassen), and meets it head-on. He also contributes a closing song called “Do the Work.” It smartly summarizes what might be the imperative by which Prince has lived and, at 89, still lives: if you keep on working at it with even more than 20/20 vision, look what can result.”