August 26, 2017

The "Prince of Broadway" is Too Stately

Whether you walk out of Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre feeling as though you got you money's worth after seeing Prince of Broadway is going to depend on what you go into the theater expecting. Folks who go into this musical retrospective of Hal Prince's nearly 70 years in the business looking for insights into the legendary director and producer's career (or into the man himself) are probably going to feel shortchanged. But those eager to see and hear fondly remembered moments from some of Broadway's most beloved shows are likely to feel they got full value.

I, alas, fall more into the first group. And I can't say I'm surprised by that. Prince, who will turn 90 in January, has been wanting to do this show for years. But despite his having a track record that includes 21 Tonys and, with Phantom of the Opera, the longest running show in Broadway history, no one seemed excited enough about this show to want to put money into it.

Although Prince probably could have funded the show himself with a few months of his Phantom residuals, he clearly didn't want the show to come off as just some vanity project. Which is how it has ended up at the nonprofit MTC for a limited run that is scheduled to end Oct. 22 (click here to read more about the show's long journey to the stage).

What Prince really wanted—and totally deserves—is the full throttled commemoration of his work that was given to the other men whose reputations and contributions rival his: Jerome Robbins (his Jerome Robbins' Broadway ran for 633 performances and won the Tony for Best Musical in 1989) Bob Fosse (his eponymous and posthumous tribute ran for 1,093 performances and won the Best Musical Tony in 1999; and Stephen Sondheim (he's been given two tribute shows, Side by Side by Sondheim in 1978 and Sondheim on Sondheim in 2010.)

Prince certainly belongs with them on Broadway's Mount Rushmore. And Prince of Broadway touches on the high points of his career including the original productions of Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof, which he produced; and the original productions of She Loves Me, Cabaret, Company, Evita, Follies (his personal favorite), Kiss of the Spider Woman, Sweeney Todd and, of course Phantom, which he directed (click here to see photos of some of them).

But there's no thematic through-line that ties the shows together. And no attempt to establish a connection between these works and the man who made them or to provide context about the times in which he did it.

Prince is virtually the father of the concept musical and yet this show lacks a concept. It may be sacrilege to say it, but Prince of Broadway might have benefited from having someone other than Prince, who co-directed this production with Susan Stroman, at its helm since that might have provided a way for the show to probe deeper into his genius.

The veteran book writer David Thompson has attempted some connective dialog in which the actors in the cast, all wearing sunglasses on the tops of their heads in the style that has become Prince's trademark, take turns quoting remarks Prince has made about his work. But the quotes are basically just another way of saying "And then I did this..."

The numbers themselves are all more than fine. How could they not be? And they're terrifically performed by a nine-member cast lead by Chuck Cooper, Tony Yazbeck and Karen Ziemba (click here to read an interview with her).

But anyone who has been to a Broadway-related benefit dinner has seen similarly well-done reinterpretations done before. And anyone with access to cast albums or a Spotify account can hear the original performances.

Still, even I enjoyed watching Cooper shimmy soulfully as Fiddler's Tevye and Ziemba bring a sweet ditzyness to Sweeney's Mrs. Lovett. And Yazbeck brought the house down as he tapped his way through Buddy's breakdown in Follies.

I was more moved by Yazbeck's rendition of "This is Not Over Yet" from the short-lived Parade, although that may be because that 1998 show about the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory supervisor falsely accused of the rape of an Atlanta girl at the beginning of the last century, was the last Broadway show I saw with my mother.

And I suspect Prince of Broadway will provide a similar stroll down nostalgia lane for lots of the people who see it. The man sitting next to me couldn't restrain himself from humming along with some of the tunes that clearly meant the most to him.

Meanwhile, the ladies online for the restroom at intermission sang the show's praises out loud. "That Ben Brantley is really losing it," one of them said, complaining about the negative review The New York Times critic gave the show. Lots of heads nodded in agreement.

Maybe they're right and naysayers like Brantley and me are expecting too much. For if nothing else, Prince of Broadway is a reminder of all that Hal Prince has given to musical theater—and of how much all of us who love it are in his debt.

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