Out on the street after a recent performance of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Prince of Broadway, a flurry of activity surrounded a figure getting into a town car. “It’s him,” a friend whispered. And yes, there were the famous glasses perched atop the forehead. Harold Prince had come to see the show he had co-directed (with Susan Stroman) of well-known songs from the Broadway shows he had either directed or produced over the last 60-plus years.
This turns out to be a strange, uneven conceit and also a perfectly pleasurable evening out: there are 36 songs, slickly performed by a group of nine committed, sometimes exquisite performers. Yet for all this is a jukebox musical of musical hits, it comes with not nearly enough biography of its subject attached.
It’s as if the 89-year-old Prince is being used as a handy linking device to stage some familiar toe-tappers, rather than being integral to the show itself.
Sure, when they are not singing, the nine performers appear as Prince himself with glancing stories and homilies from his illustrious career, glasses perched atop their foreheads. But the contents of these narrative interjections is scant at best. We learn that musicals are tough to mount, that it’s surprising when critical flops turn out to be commercial successes, and vice versa too.
But there is no detail of the tough times, no indiscreet back-stage talk, and no penetrating examination of life, character, motives and desires of Prince himself, who has won a record-breaking 21 Tony Awards. Prince of Broadway is not enough about the Prince of Broadway.
With well-known songs from musicals the focus, one’s mind goes to their composers, or performers. There is little here about direction and production, and so the artistry of Prince the man is elided. But Prince has directed this production, so is evidently content with the balance of being present and not-present at his own feast.
On the plus-side you have two and a half hours of songs, and one incredible piece of tap-dancing, for which Tony Yazbeck—as Buddy singing ‘The Right Girl’ from Follies (1971)—wins a deserved round of ovation, or multiple rounds of ovation as his tap dancing stop-starts during a series of glorious performative crescendos.
There is more show stopping from Janet Dacal as Sydney singing ‘You’ve Got Possibilities’ in It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane… It’s Superman (1966) to Clark Kent hiding his Superman identity under a crisp suit. Bryonha Marie Parham performs a thunderous ‘Cabaret’ from Cabaret (1966), and ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ from Show Boat (1994), with Chuck Cooper’s Joe providing a brooding and quietly rageful take on ‘Ol’ Man River’ from the same musical.
The problem with a compendium of greatest hits is the snacking element. The staging of the 36 songs is impressive, but hearing songs plucked out of musicals makes you yearn for not only the musicals themselves, but also for the musical and emotional trajectory the songs exist within.
The re-enactments—from Damn Yankees (1955), West Side Story (1957), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973)—are lovely to watch and also puzzling because of the shifts in tone and intensity.
Some of the songs have no introduction voiced by one of the ‘Princes,’ and so the neophyte audience member will have no idea what the song is or where it is from. Sure, you could argue that Prince of Broadway is for Broadway fans, unashamedly so, but it shouldn’t assume knowledge—or inexplicably attach explanations and introductions to some songs and not others.
It’s hard to deduce, given this scattergun approach, what material or which collaborators have given Prince the most pleasure to work alongside, but I’ll take a wild guess on Stephen Sondheim. Armed with champagne flute, Emily Skinner as Joanne in Company (1970) sings ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ with a respectful echo of the vinegary cynicism of Elaine Stritch (“another vodka stinger,” followed by that curdled cry).
Karen Ziemba and Chuck Cooper also drain every delirious drop from Sweeney Todd’s (1979) ‘The Worst Pies in London’ and ‘My Friends.’ Ziemba also delivers a crisply disdainful ‘So What’ from Cabaret.
It’s good to see the less-hummable but just as notable in the show, like Yazbeck’s ‘This Is Not Over Yet’ from Parade (1998), and Brandon Uranowitz showing just how strong and resilient camp can be in ‘Dressing Them Up’ From Kiss of The Spider Woman (1993); and ‘Tonight at Eight’ and ‘Will He Like Me’ from She Loves Me (1963) sung by Uranowitz and Parham.
The most rankling sequences are from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. The second half takes a ho-hum diversion for Evita (1979), with ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ being bizarrely belted from way back in the depths of the stage. At the end come the three big numbers from The Phantom of the Opera, with the Phantom (Michael Xavier) gripping Christine’s (Kaley Ann Voorhees) face with a stalker’s passion.
The show ends with the production’s one original song, Jason Robert Brown’s ‘Do The Work,’ with all the performers as Prince, glasses perched on heads, emphasizing that he today gets the same thrill of working as he always has. He’s still going, still relishing every moment.
This is a warm, if frustrating bran-tub, the fundamental negative—the under-baked presence of Prince himself—highlighted by a note from the amazing man himself within the show’s Playbill. This self-penned surf through a life is so much more illuminating about who Hal Prince is, at least in Hal Prince’s eyes, than anything that we see or hear on stage.
“I met everyone who worked on Broadway—every playwright, every director and every star,” he tells us. Sadly, you never see the delicious-sounding circus of that in Prince of Broadway.
Prince of Broadway is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, NYC. Book tickets, through October 22, 2017, here.