“A Helluva Grand Time!”
“I’m having a helluva grand time!,” says legendary Broadway producer Harold (Hal) Prince at the end of his biographical program note for Prince of Broadway, the Manhattan Theatre Club’s dazzling new musical revue surveying the crème de la crème of Prince’s amazingly successful career. And “a helluva grand time” is just what most theatergoers are going to experience at this abundantly well-stocked arrangement of top-flight numbers from classic shows that 21-time Tony winner Prince either produced or directed (or both), beginning with The Pajama Game in 1954.
Although we hear only a fragment from that show’s “Hey There,” we get full versions of 36 numbers from 16 other shows, plus a rousing company finale called “Do the Work,” added for the occasion by Jason Robert Brown, who’s also responsible for the thrilling new arrangements, orchestrations, and musical supervision.
Conceptually, the show makes no breakthroughs in the jukebox musical tradition. In practice, it’s little more than a sequence of famous (and a few not so famous) numbers, many, but not all, introduced by one of the company’s ultra-talented nine members (four men and five women), representing Prince himself. They dress differently but always in black, and either sport Prince’s trademark horn-rimmed glasses on their foreheads or hold them in their hands as they provide biographical snippets (written by David Thompson) related to the various shows. Don’t expect these sketchy tidbits, though, to offer any significant insights.
It’s also too bad that some shows lack any commentary at all; unless you’re a Broadway fanboy or fangirl, whatever information the script provides is largely irrelevant in helping you understand the context for most of the songs. Thus when Brandon Uranowitz and Bryonha Marie Parham sing (very well) a pair of songs from She Loves Me, if you don’t know the story, you may not get what the plot- and character-related lyrics are saying.
To give us an idea of the range of Prince’s musicals, a projection of one title logo after the other (created by set designer Beowulf Borritt) flies toward the audience, announcing 31 hits and flops. This is the theatrical giant who in one capacity or another helped birth the following productions, listed here in the same non-chronological order projected in the show. Asterisks indicate those represented in Prince of Broadway, the number of their songs performed given in parentheses:
The Pajama Game* (1: two lines),
West Side Story* (2)
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Damn Yankees* (1)
Flora, the Red Menace
New Girl in Town
She Loves Me* (2)
A Family Affair
On the Twentieth Century
“It’s a Bird . . . , It’s a Plane . . . , It’s Superman”* (1)
A Doll’s Life
A Little Night Music* (3)
Sweeney Todd* (3)
Merrily We Roll Along
Kiss of the Spiderwoman* (2)
Fiddler on the Roof* (1)
Show Boat (in revival)* (2)
And, of course, there’s Prince of Broadway itself.
To be sure, Prince didn’t write, compose, or choreograph these shows. His contributions were principally as producer and, most significantly, director, which makes the idea of a revue dedicated to his work considerably different from similar shows focused on the contributions of writers (lyricists, actually), composers, or choreographers. And, while shows about the dances of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, for example, recreated those choreographers’ achievements, Prince of Broadway doesn’t really do the same for Prince’s work, which depends often on trimmed-down versions. Thus this show dedicated to one of most important geniuses in musical theatre history isn’t actually so much about his directorial choices but about the shows his imagination helped bring into the world with the assistance of a vast array of other talents, many of whom he acknowledges in his program notes.
Borritt’s set, a bare, black-bricked background with theatrical ropes and pulleys at either side, accommodates a sequence of simplified but still substantial scenic units or backdrops. Howell Binkley’s lighting does wonders, wig master Paul Huntley has outdone himself, and costume virtuoso William Ivey Long has matched him in the array of costumes he’s perfectly recreated or reimagined from these fabled shows.
During the finale, Karen Ziemba, herself one of Broadway’s best, declares that if you’re going to succeed in the theatre you should always “work with the best—that doesn’t mean the most famous—but the best.” Those words apply perfectly to Prince of Broadway’s ensemble, some of them better known than others, but all of them representative of Broadway’s finest musical performers.
Most are known principally as singers but watching their graceful body language when they sing is like seeing the lyrics and their emotional underpinnings dancing before your eyes. Despite Stroman’s choreographic gifts, actual dancing—as opposed to dance-like movement—is in short supply; however, when the remarkable Tony Yazbek, who sings as beautifully as any leading man (listen to his “Tonight” from West Side Story, for example), dances to “The Right Girl” from Follies, you get an evening’s worth of tapping terpsichore wrapped up in a single unforgettable routine.
There are so many tour de force performances it’s impossible to say which are the most memorable. Should I mention Janet Dacal and Michael Xavier’s comic cavorting as Clark Kent and Sydney doing “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird . . . ? Dacal’s powerhouse “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita? Emily Skinner’s quietly poignant “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music or her cuttingly ironic “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company? Bryonha Marie Parham’s raising goose bumps as Sally Bowles singing “Cabaret”? Chuck Cooper’s gloriously playful Tevye doing “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof? Karen Ziemba’s stomach-churningly funny “The Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd? Kaley Ann Voorhees and Michael Xavier’s lyrically soaring duets from Phantom of the Opera?
Only time will tell if Hal Prince will remain creatively active as long as his fabled mentor, George Abbott, who continued to direct past his 100th birthday. If Prince of Broadway is any indication, one can only hope he manages to do so. And that he, like us, will continue to have “a helluva grand time” whenever he does.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th St., NYC
Through October 22