A jukebox musical whose selections begin with “Hey There” from 1954’s The Pajama Game and end with “Do The Work,” as up-to-the-minute as opening night in 2017, should be catnip to Broadway fans. Especially when the numbers serve to illustrate a legendary career, as they do in Prince of Broadway, which opened Thursday at the Friedman Theatre. The royal personage in question is Harold Prince, who has amassed 21 Tony Awards as producer (West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof) and director (Cabaret, The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd) of some of the most spectacular hits – and notorious flops (A Doll’s Life, Grind) – in Broadway history. In several cases, even the flops (She Loves Me, Follies) were hits, when the judgment of history is given equal weight with box-office receipts.
Prince of Broadway bristles with the joyful noise of familiar songs delivered by a gifted and versatile cast of nine, under the direction of Prince himself, with an assist from Susan Stroman (The Producers, Scottsboro Boys). Jason Robert Brown’s high-octane overture quotes composers as disparate as Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber, not to mention J.R. Brown. It sets the scene for a celebration of a theater maker who still refuses to be pigeonholed as high- or middle-brow. A director who deserves the honor not only for championing many of the greatest stage artists of the late 20th century, but for making their work urgent and central to an audience lured from Times Square by movies, TV and rock arenas.
A musical survey of a producer-director’s résumé is a particular kind of challenge. Sondheim, Bernstein, Kander & Ebb and many others have had successful tribute shows. Three bars and a couple of phrases tell you instantly when you are in their territory. The musicals staged by Jerome Robbins, the dance-based director with whom Prince worked on West Side Story and Fiddler, could be identified by the sweep of movement that characterized his shows.
But what’s the through-line connecting one Hal Prince show with another? That can’t be answered by a bus-and-truck style staging of “Tonight” from West Side Story, no matter how affecting the delivery by Tony Yazbeck and Kaley Ann Voorhees as Tony and Maria. Nor by Michael Xavier’s full-throttle “Being Alive” from Company or, from the same show, Emily Skinner (in full Elaine Stritch drag), belting out “Ladies Who Lunch.”
What connects these and the other shows is Prince’s disdain for realism. Like his forebear Busby Berkeley, Prince sees the stage as a palette for dreamscapes, some friendly and others the stuff of nightmares.
And that’s why Prince of Broadway is, despite the warm bath of the Broadway songbook, such a colossal disappointment. Sweeney Todd may take place mostly in a cramped pie shop, but Prince surrounded it with Eugene Lee’s horrifying cityscape of a London choking on the Industrial Revolution. Eva Perón delivers her anthemic “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” from a balcony, but Prince framed Evita with Timothy O’Brien and Tazeena Firth’s eye-popping Russian Constructivist pageant of banners and projections and crowds.
Who can forget the countless haunting images provided by Maria Björnson’s proscenium-bursting set and luscious costumes for the lugubrious Phantom of the Opera? Or Jerome Sirlin’s filmic sets for Kiss of the Spider Woman, which allowed Prince to create cinematic effects – pans, sweeps, close-ups – through the ingenious use of irises and projections that took us out of the dehumanizing cell and into the imagination of a window-dresser imprisoned and tortured for the crime of being homosexual?
These are the signatures of the Prince of Broadway, nowhere in evidence in the show that bears his name. The company of five women and four men frequently don Prince’s signature brow-perched specs, and Scottsboro Boys author David Thomspon has provided a sketchy, self-congratulatory script. Yet the show fails to make the case for one of the greatest showmen of our time.
If you don’t have those images in your head, along with the stories behind the songs, you may well find yourself struggling to figure out what one scene has to do with the next. The show begins in the early Fifties but soon abandons chronological order, which can make the narrative thread even more confusing. And while lip-service is paid to the value of flops in building a career, there are no songs from A Doll’s Life, Grind or any of the other shows that filled the dark period between the failure of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, in 1981, and Phantom, which opened in London in 1986. (The absence of anything from Candide is another mystery.)
That said, there are some dazzlements in the show. An emulation of the “Loveland” sequence from Follies concludes with Yazbeck’s sensational tap number, “The Right Girl.” The treasure that is Karen Ziemba is in full subtle force with “So What?” from Cabaret (which would have provided a brilliant Kander & Ebb contrast to Sondheim’s “Now You Know,” from Merrily, wonderfully delivered by Emily Skinner – if they weren’t set so far apart). Janet Dacal is passionate and sexy in the Evita segment. Brandon Uranowitz is magnificent as the Emcee singing “Willkommen” and the devastating “If You Could See Her” from Cabaret.
And I loved the quiet tributes, in Beowulf Boritt’s sets, to Prince’s pantheon of set designers – among them, “Eckart 1963” above the door to the shop in the “She Loves Me” sequence (for designers William and Jean Eckart) and the stash of “Eugene Lee Tea” on the shelf of Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop, in Sweeney.
Prince of Broadway took several years and had a number of false starts on the way to the Friedman. There was some industry grumbling about the difficulty in getting the show financed, though compilation musicals are hugely risky. It finally was presented a couple of seasons ago at two Japanese venues, with the promise of a Broadway transfer that didn’t materialize. It’s likely that the spectacle for which Prince is known fell by the wayside in fitting the show to the modest Friedman, which is the flagship of the nonprofit Manhattan Theatre Club. Here, it’s underpopulated and and looks cut-rate: a Prince of Broadway that would serve brilliantly as the entertainment at an honorary luncheon sponsored by, say, the Drama League.