Famed Broadway producer-director Harold Prince died Wednesday at 91.

Famed Broadway producer-director Harold Prince died Wednesday at 91. Credit: Manhattan Theatre Club

Harold Prince, the daring producer and director who earned a record 21 Tony Awards and helped shape much of the significant musical theater in the second half of the 20th century, died Wednesday. He was 91.

Prince was in transit from Europe to New York and died in Reykjavik, Iceland, following a brief illness, his publicist Rick Miramontez said. 

Prince is most closely identified with his staging of six groundbreaking, sophisticated Stephen Sondheim musicals in 11 years, including “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music.” But the director also turned out commercial blockbusters, including “The Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest-running show, and “Evita" — both by Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose melodic, crowd-pleasing spectacles are generally considered the aesthetic opposite of Sondheim’s heady, articulate works.

“Farewell, Hal. Not just the prince of musicals, the crowned head who directed two of the greatest productions of my career, 'Evita' and 'Phantom.' This wonderful man taught me so much and his mastery of musical theatre was without equal,” Lloyd Webber said in a statement.

Raised in New York by his mother and stepfather, Prince entered the University of Pennsylvania at 16 and graduated three years later. With his lively curiosity and intelligence, he quickly learned the Broadway business as associate stage manager to the legendary George Abbott, becoming his co-producer in 1954 on “The Pajama Game.” Among Prince's other producing/co-producing credits are “West Side Story,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Damn Yankees” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

As a Broadway fixture, he was easily identified by the reading glasses perpetually perched on the top of his head. As a director, he was cherished for taking dark journeys into unlikely subjects, including “Cabaret” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Except for a boldly political revival of the landmark 1927 musical “Show Boat” in 1994, Prince was only interested in creating new shows.

Prince's adventures with Sondheim pushed the old stop-action-and-sing traditions of the American musical toward the seamless “concept” show and even progressive opera. They began in 1970 with “Company,” an edgy song cycle about a Manhattan bachelor with commitment issues, and their brilliant collaboration imploded in 1981 after their first flop, the beloved but structurally troublesome “Merrily We Roll Along.” The partnership resumed briefly in 2003 to work on “Bounce,” a problematic show that eventually opened in New York, with a different director, as “Road Show.”

As Prince told author Craig Zadan for the 1986 book “Sondheim & Co.,” the composer and director first met at the opening of “South Pacific in 1948. When Prince returned from the Army in 1952, he had a now-famous conversation with Sondheim at Walgreen’s drugstore. Prince remembered “sitting there at the counter having sandwiches and milk shakes and talking about the theater and what we hoped our place in it could be … what we thought was wrong with it and all the things we wanted to do to fix it.”

After the professional split, Sondheim began a collaboration with James Lapine and created the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sunday in the Park With George,” along with “Into the Woods” and “Passion.”

Prince hit a dry spell, directing short-lived premieres of “A Doll’s Life,” "Roza” and ”Grind.” In 1998, he took a chance on a little-known young composer/lyricist named Jason Robert Brown. The result was “Parade,” a wrenching show that, in pure Prince style, dared to put music to the tragedy of Leo Frank, the Brooklyn Jew lynched in 1913 in the South. Although the difficult piece only ran 84 performances, it earned nine Tony nominations and won for Alfred Uhry’s book and Brown’s score.

In addition to his 20 competitive Tonys, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. His alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, named a theater in his honor. His last production, “Prince of Broadway,” a celebratory compendium of his career, ran from August to October 2017.

For all his triumphs, Prince was always concerned about the future of the commercial theater and the toughness of raising money for adventurous productions.

In 2013, at the 25th anniversary of “Phantom,” he complained to the Huffington Post about the proliferation of safe revivals instead of risky new musicals. “I don’t know why people don’t want to take the chance,” he said. “Audiences are very willing to be taken somewhere. To ask an audience beforehand what it wants is probably a mistake. Much better you should tell them what you want and hope they agree with it.”

As early as 1999, speaking at a library retrospective of his work, he said, “It distresses me that it almost has become a pejorative. … Because, basically, if we’re really honest, the best of Broadway is as good as it gets in this country.”

Prince is survived by his wife of 56 years, Judy; his daughter, Daisy, a director; son Charles, a conductor; and his grandchildren Phoebe, Lucy and Felix. As per Prince's wishes, there will be no funeral but a celebration of his life featuring members of the theatrical community will take place in the fall.

Broadway marquees dimmed their lights in his honor Wednesday night.

Here are some highlights of Prince's career.

PRODUCER

"The Pajama Game" (1954)

"Damn Yankees" (1955)

"West Side Story" (1957)

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (1962)

"Fiddler on the Roof" (1964)

"Side by Side by Sondheim" (1977)

DIRECTOR

"Cabaret" (1966) (also producer)

"Company" (1970) (also producer)

"Follies" (1971) (also producer)

"A Little Night Music" (1973) (also producer)

"Sweeney Todd" (1979)

"Evita" (1979)

"The Phantom of the Opera" (1988)

"Sweeney Todd" (1989)

"Show Boat" (1994)

"Prince on Broadway" (2017)

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