At the Harold Prince Memorial, which of the esteemed producer-director’s many musicals was represented by the most songs?
If you weren’t at the Majestic Theatre on Dec. 16, you might guess THE PAJAMA GAME, DAMN YANKEES, WEST SIDE STORY or FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. After all, they were among Prince’s biggest household-name hits.
Here’s betting, though, that as soon as you thought of them, you eliminated them from contention. No, the best way to celebrate Prince wouldn’t be to feature shows that he’d “merely” produced. Although Prince had started his career in earnest by raising money for productions, his goal in his soul was always to direct.
After Jason Robert Brown had conducted a thrilling overture, we suspected that it would be CABARET. For out came Joel Grey — one of the comparatively few iconic original cast members of Prince’s productions who’s still with us – to Wilkommen us.
And despite the fact that Bryonha Marie Parham would later do a dynamic rendition of “Cabaret,” that landmark musical wouldn’t lay claim to having the most songs represented that day; Grey had only sung a few bars.
As he did those fifty-three years ago, Grey occasionally wielded a cane with the aplomb he had done at the Broadhurst, Imperial (or Minskoff in the later revival). Yet we also got the impression that he might have needed it to steady himself from time to time. As another song in CABARET goes, “So what?” At least he’s still here.
That expression brings us to FOLLIES. With John McMartin gone, Michael Cerveris was called by director Susan Stroman to do a haunting rendition of “The Road You Didn’t Take.” But that’s all we heard from the legendary score by, of course, Stephen Sondheim, who was the first to speak.
He wouldn’t be the only one on stage who had been born on March 22nd. Andrew Lloyd Webber showed up to pay tribute, too.
Oh, of course, you’re saying, what with Lloyd Webber there, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA had to have had the most songs represented. It IS by far Prince’s biggest success, with 13,278 performances as of this writing with many more to come.
To put it another (remarkable) way, if you add all the performances from the first twenty-six shows on which Prince’s name was on the window cards and Playbill title pages – twenty-six, mind you, from THE PAJAMA GAME in 1954 to THE VISIT almost twenty full years later – they wouldn’t amount to the number of performances that PHANTOM OF THE OPERA itself has already amassed.
And yet, PHANTOM was only represented by one song. The surprise was that it wasn’t “The Music of the Night” but (for my money, the much more beautiful) “All I Ask of You.”
Alas, Steve Barton – the original Raoul – is no longer with us, either, for he died in 2001 at the much too young age of forty-seven. Sarah Brightman is still alive, yes, but she might well have not wanted to be on the scene with former husband Lord Andrew on the premises. As a result, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Meghan Picerno beautifully did the duet.
Lloyd Webber was represented twice, though, when Janet Dacal came out to do a dynamic “Buenos Aires” from EVITA. Why no Patti LuPone? Perhaps everyone remembered her recent airing of her long-ago issues with Prince.
(Yeah, before EVITA, LuPone hadn’t been on Broadway for more than a year – when she was relegated to a few glorified walk-ons in WORKING. Prince “only” gave her the role that led to a Tony and established her as a star. Not only that, her next job will be in a show that may not have existed had Harold Prince not had the courage to produce and direct when it seemed to be a very risky proposition.)
We got one (and only one) song from SHE LOVES ME. With Barbara Cook having passed, Sierra Boggess did the honors with “Will He Like Me?” Then Jason Robert Brown stepped down from his conductor’s perch to introduce “This Is Not Over Yet” from his PARADE. Brent Carver wasn’t there, but give original leading lady Carolee Carmello immense credit for flying in the day before she was to open HELLO, DOLLY! in Memphis to sing “This Is Not Over Yet” with Tony Yazbeck.
So what show yielded two songs?
What an irony. The Prince musical with the fewest number of performances – a mere sixteen – was given the most attention.
Considering that MERRILY is a show about (literally) looking back, it at first glance seemed fitting for a retrospective show. However, one after another who took to the podium to praise Prince said that he wouldn’t dwell on the past and would only concentrate on the next show, not the last show.
So why MERRILY? Because Stephen Sondheim’s score is so magnificent? Sure, but don’t overlook the mystique surrounding it. After Prince and his co-producers read the much-too-harsh reviews, they were wise enough to say to Broadway “You don’t want us? Okay. We know when we’re not wanted. We’ll leave.”
If they’d stuck it out for 193-money-bleeding performances, the show would have just been another also-ran. With such a short run, hundreds of directors have since said “I can fix it!” which is one reason (among many) why it hasn’t remotely disappeared.
And so we heard “Old Friends” via the best thing that ever could have happened: the three performers who officially opened the show in 1981 were there to replicate it. Never mind Ann Morrison would have to come up from Sarasota; she was there with Lonny Price and Jim Walton. “Who’s like us? Damn few” they sang while proving it right then and there.
Then more than three dozen artists who’d worked with Prince (or wish they had) – from Loni (EVITA) Ackerman to Karen (PRINCE OF BROADWAY) Ziemba – sang MERRILY’s thrilling “Our Time.” The song was originally sung by performers much younger, but it was apt, for where Harold Prince was concerned (with very few years excepted), Broadway was always his time.
Joel Grey returned to end the show with the “Wilkommen” reprise that concludes CABARET: “Auf wiedersehen, a bientot …” he sang.
Yes and no. Five hours after the event had concluded, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA took that very stage and reiterated that the work of Harold Prince still lives on.