Stephen Sondheim once joked that an album of his chart-topping songs would have to be titled Sondheim’s Greatest Hit, since he had only one, “Send In the Clowns.” Hal Prince, the legendary producer and director, has had a few more. Prince of Broadway, the revue that finally had its Broadway opening (Aug. 24, 2017) after five years of financing and creative delays, could have legitimately been subtitled Hal Prince’s Greatest Hits. (It’s set to close on Oct. 29, 2017.)
As a celebration of his seven-decade career, from The Pajama Game (1954) to Prince of Broadway itself, the show was a crowd-pleaser when I saw it on a rainy Saturday night over Labor Day weekend. As an exploration of Prince-Sondheim collaboration that resulted in eight original Broadway musicals — some landmarks, some now cult phenomena — it felt like a lite yet drawn-out version of David Loud’s A Good Thing Going, first presented at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 2015 and returning to the city on Dec. 4, 2017, for a sold-out performance at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Concert Hall.
Directed by Prince, with Susan Stroman as co-director and choreographer, the show might be considered a companion piece to the Roundabout Theater Company’s 2010 Sondheim on Sondheim, now making the rounds in a concert version. (In July 2017 it played at Tanglewood and the Hollywood Bowl.) There Sondheim comments on his life and work on video; here the nine cast members stood in for Prince, one by one reciting his reflections.
That, and the sort-of not-quite chronological order of three-dozen songs from Prince musicals, was the extent of the book by David Thompson, who let the numbers speak for themselves. One minute Emily Skinner was recounting Prince’s first meeting with Sondheim at South Pacific; the next, their partnership had begun with West Side Story. The logic of some segues was elusive. A lively “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman (1966) led straight into Follies, perhaps because of the need to assemble a Loveland-like set for “Beautiful Girls” behind the comic-book curtain.
Audience members arrived in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Freidman Theater to find a now-commonplace empty stage, furnished with a ghost light and lots of pulleys. “Broadway Baby” led off the overture arranged by music supervisor Jason Robert Brown (whose Parade was among the Prince productions represented in the show). To purists, it was jarring to hear snippets of Sondheim songs interspersed with those of other composers, as in the mini-mashup of “Maria” and “Evita.” Yet the show served as a reminder that there’s a lot more to Prince than just Sondheim, from Damn Yankees to Kiss of the Spider Woman. Projected titles of his shows were truly impressive, both in number and in execution as they floated in the air seemingly without touching the scrim. Beowulf Borritt’s set and projection designs also included subtle bands of light on a drop of the Cotton Blossom that kept “Ol’ Man River” from Prince’s 1994 revival of Show Boat visibly rolling along.
The quick shifts from one show to another meant quick changes for the actors as well. In the early scenes it seemed as if they might never truly become their characters, as opposed to just singing their songs. Then came Follies, and Karen Ziemba brought Sally to life, as Skinner did Phyllis. Later Ziemba traded in her normally bubbly persona for world-weariness and ultimately conviction as Fraulein Schneider in “So What?” from Cabaret.
Michael Xavier’s Frederik in “You Must Meet My Wife,” from A Little Night Music, was a hyper-accented British twit, perhaps a misguided homage to Jeremy Irons in the role at New York City Opera in 2003. While following suit with the accent, Skinner’s Desirée was far more successful in “Send In the Clowns,” ravishingly accompanied by 15-musician orchestra conducted by Fred Lassen.
In another disconnect, the show moved from there into Fiddler on the Roof with Chuck Cooper (Ben Stone in Follies just two scenes before) as Tevye. The shape-shifting Cooper later sang “Ol’ Man River” a good octave higher than Paul Robeson or William Warfield ever did, and Sweeney Todd’s “My Friends” to Ziemba’s convincing Mrs. Lovett.
The second act opened with Company, in which three-and-a-half couples serenaded Bobby on his birthday. Beyond a short blond wig, Skinner made no attempt to channel Elaine Stritch in “The Ladies Who Lunch,” offering a softer Joanne, but her “Ah-h-h-h-h-’ll drink to that!” came out as a primal scream. Later Skinner gave an incisive “Now You Know,” from Merrily We Roll Along.
Throughout, Stroman’s choreography was largely unobtrusive — except when it wasn’t. Brandon Uranowitz’s “Tonight at 8” from She Loves Me” borrowed heavily from Gene Kelly’s twirl around a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain. Tony Yazbeck, playing Follies’ Buddy as a hoofer, turned “The Right Girl” into a tap extravaganza, most effective (as Eleanor Powell so memorably proved) when the steps were small, quick and light. For those who experienced 1970 firsthand, Ziemba’s Swim and Jerk moves for Company rang a delightful bell.
Janet Dacal, Bryonha Marie Parham and Kaley Ann Voorhees rounded out the cast in roles ranging from ingénues (Maria, Christine Daae) to divas (Evita, Sally Bowles).
After an obligatory three-song nod to The Phantom of the Opera that felt as tired as the show itself, now in its 30th year, Prince of Broadway closed with a new song by Brown, “Do the Work.” It summed up Prince’s philosophy — take a chance, find your voice, tell the story — and the audience lapped it up.
The hardcore Sondheim crowd, though, would have found its takeaway early in the show in one of Prince’s reflections: “Never confuse hits and flops with success and failure.” Who knows that better?
DIANE NOTTLE is a New York-based writer on the arts, language and travel. She was an editor at The New York Times for 20 years, specializing in cultural news.