He was associate producer of The Pajama Game (1957) and of Damn Yankees! (1958), stage producer of the Broadway version of The Pajama Game (1957), Damn Yankees! (1958) and West Side Story (1961).
He was partner of Harold Prince. By age 26, Prince felt ready to try his wings as a producer. In partnership with fellow George Abbott protégé Robert E. Griffith, he acquired the rights to a popular novel, 7 1/2 Cents, a comic depiction of a strike in a pajama factory. The novice producers hired their former boss, George Abbott, to collaborate with the book's author, Richard Bissell, in adapting the novel for the musical stage. Abbott also directed the show, with assistance from Jerome Robbins. The dances were staged by a talented Broadway newcomer, choreographer Bob Fosse. The show's composers, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, were also making their Broadway debuts. Prince and Griffith collected small contributions from over a hundred small investors, including the cast and crew of Wonderful Town. The resulting show, The Pajama Game, was the surprise hit of the 1954 season; it immediately recouped its investment and won Broadway's Tony Award as Best Musical of the Year.
Prince and Griffith followed their first hit quickly with Damn Yankees, based on another popular novel, about an aging baseball fan who sells his soul to the devil to become a young ball player and lead his beloved Washington Senators to victory. Abbott, Fosse, Adler and Ross all returned for a second hit production, which made a star of dancer and comedienne Gwen Verdon and brought Griffith and Prince their second Tony Award for Best Musical. Griffith and Prince had earned a reputation for bringing their shows in on a tight budget, paying off their investors early, and taking a hands-on approach to every detail of their productions.
The West Side Story Broadway production team in 1957: (l. to r.) lyricist Stephen Sondheim, scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, producers Hal Prince and Robert Griffith (seated), composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins
Although Prince's first two shows were fun-filled romps in the established George Abbott manner, darker colors were appearing in Prince's choice of subject matter. New Girl in Town, a musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's somber drama Anna Christie, found Abbott and Prince working again with star Verdon and choreographer Fosse. Verdon and Fosse had formed an offstage partnership, and would soon marry. Abbott and Prince found themselves at odds with the pair over some of Fosse's choreography, which they considered too raunchy for Broadway. Prince and Fosse did not work together again, and throughout his career Prince has preferred ensemble shows to star vehicles. New Girl in Town enjoyed a modest run, but Griffith and Prince were ready for a more inspiring challenge.
They leaped at the chance to work with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins on their dream project, a Romeo and Juliet story, set among New York street gangs. West Side Story thrilled audiences with its powerful score and dynamic dancing. For the first time, Broadway audiences saw a musical present a serious, dramatic story in a contemporary setting. The day before the show opened, National Guardsmen escorted the first African American students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. West Side Story's implicit plea for tolerance resonated powerfully in a nation gripped by ethnic conflict. A landmark in American theater, West Side Story became a beloved classic. It also marked the Broadway debut of songwriter Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show's lyrics and would play a major role in Harold Prince's subsequent career.
Griffith and Prince took on another unusual project in 1959, with Fiorello, an affectionate look at the early career of New York City's beloved mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. The music and lyrics were by the up-and-coming team of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. The show not only won the Tony Award for Best Musical, but a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rare honor for a musical.
Robert Griffith died in 1961, and Prince continued on his own, supported by an army of loyal investors. Prince had long hoped to direct, and made his Broadway directing debut with a non-musical play, Family Affair, in 1962. The same year, Prince married Judith Chaplin, the daughter of film and theater composer Saul Chaplin. The Princes have two children, daughter Daisy, a theater director, and son Charles Prince, a conductor.
After Robert Griffith's death, Harold Prince produced Stephen Sondheim's first Broadway musical as a composer, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. A musical adaptation of ancient Roman farces, the show starred Zero Mostel, and was directed by the ageless George Abbott, with a last-minute assist from Jerome Robbins. The production won the Tony Award for Best Musical and an additional award for Prince as the show's producer.
The producer Harold Prince was in Boston rehearsing another show with his partner Robert E. Griffith when they heard about the crisis in Manhattan, and the two of them decided to keep West Side Story alive. Their gamble seemed worthwhile when it opened in Washington to fabulous reviews-and Bernstein bumped into a weeping Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter during the intermission. --Charles Kaiser. The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (Kindle Locations 1370-1372). Kindle Edition.Further Readings:
The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Grove Press (June 10, 2007)
Amazon: The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of a Lambda Literary Award, The Gay Metropolis is a landmark saga of struggle and triumph that was instantly recognized as the most authoritative and substantial work of its kind. Filled with astounding anecdotes and searing tales of heartbreak and transformation, it provides a decade-by-decade account of the rise and acceptance of gay life and identity since the 1940s. From the making of West Side Story, the modern Romeo and Juliet tale written and staged by four gay men, to the catastrophic era of AIDS, Charles Kaiser recounts the true history of the gay movement with many never-before-told stories. Filled with dazzling characters — including Leonard Bernstein, Montgomery Clift, Alfred Hitchcock, and John F. Kennedy, among many others — this is a vital telling of American history, exciting and uplifting.
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