REVIEW: Behind the Scenes Royalty Takes Center Stage in “Prince of Broadway”
King of Broadway is more like it. With 54 Broadway credits to his name and a record 21 Tony Awards under his belt, Director/Producer Harold Prince's life in the theatre is singular. No one has – or ever could – surpass his record or match his role in shaping American musical theatre. But unlike contemporaries Sondheim, Kander and Ebb, Herman, Fosse, and Robbins, his achievements have remained uncelebrated in revue. Until now.
“Prince of Broadway,” which opened at the Samuel Friedman theatre Thursday night, is a first-rate revue akin to “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway”, featuring 35 songs from 16 Prince-helmed productions and performed by a boffo cast of 9 players. I walked into the theatre wondering if this form could do Prince justice. After all, he is best known for staging epics like “Follies”, “The Phantom of the Opera”, and “Show Boat”, each boasting huge casts, lush orchestras, and a cavalcade of sets and costumes. But, as Prince recently noted, while many of his shows featured spectacular moments, they were never spectacles themselves. In fact, Prince has always been a master at using negative space, nestling intimate performances amidst sweeping milieus, and letting the audience create the rest with their imagination. And that is precisely what he and longtime collaborator and once upon a time mentee Susan Stroman have done here, creating a delightful evening of theatre by way of musical travelogue through some of the greatest shows in history: “Damn Yankees”, “West Side Story”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Cabaret”, “Company”, and “Sweeney Todd”, to name a few. The shows and songs featured are the headlines, and Prince and Stroman have coached remarkable performances of substance and depth. The show falls short, however, in offering any direct insight into Prince’s process or style, instead simply letting the work speak for itself. It is a revue, after all. An excellent revue, but nothing more.
Prince himself never appears on stage, neither in voice or in visage. Rather, each member of the cast takes turns uttering his words – his signature oversized eyeglasses perched atop their heads – unassumingly sharing tidbits of theatrical lore from his storied career. The evening could easily be consumed by such tidbits, but bookwriter David Thompson has done a good job balancing their interpolation, allowing the musical scenes to shine as they should, and the pace to move at a sauntering clip. Jason Robert Brown provides the orchestrations and musical supervision, weaving what could be a cacophony of 60 years of showtunes into a seamless symphonic evening, and penning a new, rousing closer called “Do the Work,” which instructs the audience to use Prince’s lifetime of creative risk taking and daring do as inspiration in their own life’s work.
Prince recently said of the cast that every member is “the best.” And he’s right. A trio of legends delivers as always: Chuck Cooper’s “If I Were A Rich Man” and “Old Man River” are masterful, Karen Ziemba’s “So What?” chilling, and Emily Skinner’s interpretation of “Send in the Clowns” (what song has been sung, and mis-sung, more?) refreshing. But, it is a trio of rising stars who steal the show: Tony Yazbeck (who performs a dazzling, tap-infused rendition of “The Right Girl” from “Follies”), Brandon Uranowitz (a veritable chameleon), and Bryonha Marie Parham (powerhouse vocals) each give us showstoppers that prove why they belong up there with “the best.”
Any devoted Prince fan will no doubt leave the theatre disappointed that some deeper cuts didn’t make the bill, but the Prince catalogue contains an embarrassment of riches from which to mine. I would love to see numbers from “Flora the Red Menace” or “Zorba”, two underappreciated Kander and Ebb collaborations from the 60s that bookended “Cabaret”, but one could just as easily lament the absence of material from “On the Twentieth Century” or “Pacific Overtures”, two Prince-led gems of the 70s that couldn’t be more different in style and substance. The one “flop” that does receive a delicious cameo is the long-forgotten critical (though not commercial) hit, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman ...”, the Superman musical.
Suffice it to say, the offerings herein are superb, even if mostly obvious, which begs the question: who is the devoted Prince fan after all? Can average contemporary theatregoers name the most influential directors in the theatre today? Much less one whose last prominent, wholly original new work premiered in 1998? That’s why “Prince of Broadway” finds its home at the non-profit Manhattan Theatre Club, in a limited run, but it’s also why “Prince of Broadway” is important. It’s history. And because theatre is ephemeral, it needs to be told—er, performed—again and again for new audiences.
Bottom line: if you like musical theatre, and you’ve already seen everything else new worth seeing, you can’t go wrong with “Prince of Broadway”, an enjoyable revue featuring top-notch performances of top-notch material. If you are a more serious student of musical theatre history or craft, this is a must see.
"Prince of Broadway"
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club)
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Opening Night: August 24, 2017
Final Performance: October 22, 2017