BWW Review: PRINCE OF BROADWAY Celebrates The Great Characters, Stories and Themes Nurtured By Harold Prince
Harold Prince, who has been honored with 21 Tony Awards for his seven decades of achievements as a Broadway producer and director, did not write one word nor compose one note of the 17 musicals represented in the enrapturing new revue that bears his name.
He didn't choreograph any of the dances and while he shares directing credit with Susan Stroman, who also supplies the choreography, the musical scenes played out on the Friedman stage are not exactly replicas of the work that earned his initial fame.
So what exactly is being celebrated in Prince of Broadway? The answer to that question starts becoming apparent when George and Amalia of SHE LOVES ME each sing a nervous solo anticipating their blind date. It continues when Buddy of FOLLIES angrily reacts to the indifference he receives from his wife, Sally, which he claims has driven him to cheat on her. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC's Fredrik puts on a happy face when singing of the virtues of his young, virginal wife to his ex-lover Desirée, who follows with a ballad faking amusement at the way their relationship has turned. By the time FIDDLER ON THE ROOF's Tevye starts imagining what life would be like if he possessed a small fortune and three characters from CABARET deal in their own ways with the rise of the Nazis in their homeland, the connecting thread of Prince of Broadway becomes apparent.
It's the characters. It's the themes. It's the stories. Because all of the great songs of Broadway, all the astonishing dance routines, all the stellar performances don't really cling to our collective memories without the foundations supplied by those who create, interpret and nurture musical theatre's dramatic content.
Harold Prince, who began his career as a protégé of the great director/bookwriter George Abbott (a man who did as much to bring heart and empathy to musical comedy as Oscar Hammerstein II did for musical drama) was the greatest force in the mid-20th Century when it comes to nurturing writers and composers to explore serious, contemporary adult themes in American musical theatre; and to do it without losing that presentational showbiz pizzazz that defines the genre.
"Work with the best," the evening's honoree is quoted as saying. "That doesn't mean the most famous, but the best."
So the nine-member company of Prince of Broadway includes several performers who may not be very well known outside the boundaries of Times Square, but would be considered of top shelf quality when it comes to musical theatre.
Jason Robert Brown's orchestrations include a dazzling overture that mixes a myriad of melodies and musical styles. The visuals provided by designers Beowulf Boritt (sets) and William Ivey Long (costumes) suggest the work of their predecessors and David Thompson's book bridges musical scenes by having cast member quoting Prince's thoughts on his career while sporting his famous eyeglasses on the forehead look.
The standard formula of Golden Age musical comedy is represented by having the boys deliver a rousing rendition of DAMN YANKEES' "Heart," but then we get a taste of Prince's adventurous spirit with Tony Yazbeck's Tony and Kaley Ann Voorhees' Maria performing WEST SIDE STORY's "Tonight," in a scene that surprised 1957 audiences by taking a Shakespearean moment usually played on a balcony and transferring it to a New York City fire escape.
When Yazbeck returns to the stage as Buddy from FOLLIES, he nearly stops the show with an extended tap dance sequence that embellishes "The Right Girl" with numerous dramatic textures expressing the anger and heartbreak of a man who has never found romantic contentment. The dancing is great. The acting makes it spectacular.
PRINCE OF BROADWAY is at its best at such moments; when today's stars put their personal stamp on classic roles. Like when Chuck Cooper's Tevye sings "If I Were a Rich Man" with giddy, child-like playfulness. Or when Karen Ziemba's Fräulein Schneider sings CABARET's "So What?" with a touch of defensive anger. Or when Emily Skinner, as COMPANY's Joanne, smooths off the rougher edges of "The Ladies Who Lunch," replacing self-hating reflection with above-it-all wit.
Though Prince of Broadway celebrates the past, there are still a couple of places where audience members may be reminded of the present, such as when, as CABARET's Emcee, Brandon Uranowitz gets to the anti-Semitic line that finishes the otherwise silly "If You Could See Her." Chuck Cooper's powerful voice and commanding presence makes him a natural for SHOW BOAT's "Old Man River," but here the show strays away from the original lyric and opts for the revised words used by civil rights activist Paul Robeson when he would sing the number in concert.
"Get a little drunk and you land in jail" is replaced by "Show a little grit and you land in jail" in this version, with the rest of the lyric changed to show a determination to fight against injustice."
"Never confuse hits and flops with success and failure," says Harold Prince, who regularly created theatrical brilliance for productions that lost a lot of money.
Leading with a history of examples, Prince of Broadway not only encourages theatre artists to take risks, but instructs those who produce theatre to do the same.