As a college student spending a year in London in the late 1970s, I wangled a writing assignment from a New York magazine that got me into every rehearsal of Evita, a musical then in its first production. The excitement in London was over the new show’s authors—Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had also written Jesus Christ Superstar. But for me, the best part was getting an up-close view of an idol: Harold Prince. He had produced shows from West Side Story to Fiddler on the Roof. And he was both producer and director of Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim musicals that were the soundtrack of my adolescence.
Sitting on folding chairs in church auditoriums and various rehearsal studios in north London, I got to see at close range how Prince shaped a production. I also got to talk to Rice and Lloyd Webber about working with one of the idols of their own youth. I soon understood why anyone who was ambitious to make a mark on or understand the musical wanted to win the Golden Ticket: the chance to work with Prince, who died Wednesday at the age of 91.
The way Prince worked was visually. Groupings of characters, placement on the stage in and out of light, and the audience’s gaze—this is what I saw evolve over the weeks, along with a sense of sequence from quiet to noisy, from solos and duets (“I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You”) to rousing, militaristic marches (“A New Argentina”). Pacing, blocking, and entertainment came first, but Prince’s shows also had a sure sense of style. The inspiration for Fiddler on the Roof, which he produced, came from the stories of Sholem Aleichem, but the guiding visual spirit, as Alisa Solomon wrote in Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” was the Russian French artist Marc Chagall. Follies began as a murder-mystery musical that Sondheim wrote with his friend, the playwright James Goldman (The Lion in Winter); it evolved into a richly sardonic comment on youth seen from the vantage point of age, not least because Prince had remembered a Life magazine photograph of the silent-film star Gloria Swanson standing in the ruins of a grand movie palace in New York. (“Hal said that’s what this show had to be about—rubble in the daylight,” Sondheim later said.) Company was about the difficulty of forming and keeping true connections in the spiky, glossy urban landscape of what is now called mid-century modern. (The brilliant set designer Boris Aronson, to whom the critic Frank Rich devoted a book, shaped all these shows.)