It’s not disingenuous to ask what, exactly, Prince of Broadway is attempting to celebrate – apart from the guy in the title, Harold Prince. Is it the tricky art of producing? How business and art will forever struggle in the commercial theater? How Prince rolled with the times? Any one of these themes would have been meaty and informative. Instead, this Manhattan Theatre Club production is two-plus hours of excerpts from shows produced and/or directed by Prince from the 50s through the 90s, most of which we’ve seen live or on tape in superior versions. Now and then, an actor enters with eyeglasses perched atop his or her head (a well-documented Prince habit) and offers a dry quip or a rueful remark about lousy reviews, but none of it sticks or advances the story of Prince’s life or the changing fashions of Broadway. The patchy, shallow affair feels so much like a cruise-ship entertainment, I started getting seasick.
No one wants to fling barbs at a figure as influential and accomplished as Prince, whose work with Stephen Sondheim alone earned him a place in the pantheon, but Prince of Broadway feels like a missed opportunity to explore a major career and share lessons from show business. It’s a victory lap without visible struggle or heartache, a theatrical memoir by someone fuzzy on details or who won’t open up. In other words, a greatest-hits revue co-directed by Prince and Susan Stroman, with a “book” by David Thomson. About three dozen numbers chart Prince’s amazing career from The Pajama Game to 1998’s Parade, with generous helpings of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sondheim and Kander & Ebb.
These musical selections are gamely performed by a cast of troupers who have varying success putting a fresh spin on iconic numbers. Hard-working hoofer-crooner Tony Yazbek is the most successful, turning in passionate lovers from West Side Story’s Tony to Buddy in Follies (he taps ferociously in “The Right Girl”). Bryonha Marie Parham has a limber, velvety voice she uses to electrifying effect in Sally Bowles’s anthemic “Cabaret” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Bass powerhouse Chuck Cooper gives a moving rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” But there are also misfires, such as Emily Skinner’s laughably overwrought “Ladies Who Lunch” and cheesy, nearly self-parodying re-creations from Phantom of the Opera. The latter case is especially pointless. Just three blocks south we could see the long-running Phantom. If only Prince or Stroman had tried an alternative approach, like stripping away familiar set and costumes elements, anything but a waxworks reproduction on an MTC budget.
Speaking of money: A director friend likes to share a Prince story. He was rehearsing a scene that had rats scurrying across the floor, red eyes glowing in the dark. (Maybe it was Phantom?) These mechanical, remote-controlled rodents were malfunctioning, holding things up. Prince wanted them replaced, immediately. The production assistant balked that doing so, on such short notice, would be very expensive. Prince exploded, roaring across the room, “Doesn’t money talk in this town?!” I love that story, which epitomizes the sort of refreshing vulgarity I associate with Broadway musicals. It’s a secondhand anecdote, so I probably shouldn’t repeat it. But what the hell. Prince of Broadway, fully authorized and squeaky-clean, left me hungry for backstage bitchery. In a long program note, Prince says that he’s been lucky, he had terrific collaborators, and the economics of Broadway 50 years ago allowed you to fail until you had a hit. Hal, baby, all that may be true, but it doesn’t make for much drama.
David Cote is a theater critic, journalist, playwright and opera librettist based in New York.