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Theatre & Performance Broadway director and producer Hal Prince pushed the boundaries of musical theatre

In this June 4, 1995, file photo, Harold Prince holds his Tony award for best director in a musical for Show Boat, at Broadway's Minskoff Theater in New York.

Richard Drew/The Associated Press

Harold Prince, a Broadway director and producer who pushed the boundaries of musical theatre with such groundbreaking shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Cabaret, Company and Sweeney Todd and won a staggering 21 Tony Awards, has died. Mr. Prince was 91.

Mr. Prince’s publicist Rick Miramontez said he died Wednesday after a brief illness in Reykjavik.

Mr. Prince was known for his fluid, cinematic director’s touch and was unpredictable and uncompromising in his choice of stage material.

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Along the way, he helped create some of Broadway’s most enduring musical hits, first as a producer of such shows as Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof, and later as a director, overseeing such landmark musicals as Cabaret, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, reached by phone Wednesday, told the Associated Press that it was impossible to overestimate the importance of Mr. Prince to musical theatre. “All of modern musical theatre owes practically everything to him.”

In addition to Mr. Lloyd Webber, Mr. Prince, known by friends as Hal, worked with some of the best-known composers and lyricists in musical theatre, including Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, John Kander and Fred Ebb, and, most notably, Stephen Sondheim.

During his more than 50-year career, Mr. Prince received a record 21 Tony Awards, including two special Tonys – one in 1972, when Fiddler became Broadway’s longest-running musical, and another in 1974 for a revival of Candide. He also was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor.

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A musical about Mr. Prince called Prince of Broadway opened in Japan in 2015, featuring songs from many of the shows that made him famous. It landed on Broadway in 2017.

It was with Mr. Sondheim, lyricist for West Side Story, that Mr. Prince developed his most enduring creative relationship. He produced A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), the first Broadway show for which Mr. Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics.

They cemented their partnership in 1970 with Company. Mr. Prince produced and directed the innovative, revue-like musical that followed the travails of Bobby, a perpetual New York bachelor ever-searching for the right woman.

Company was followed in quick succession by Follies (1971), which Mr. Prince co-directed with Michael Bennett; A Little Night Music (1973); Pacific Overtures (1976); and Sweeney Todd (1979).

Their work together stopped in 1981 after the short-lived Merrily We Roll Along, which lasted only 16 performances. It wasn’t to resume until 2003, when Mr. Prince and Mr. Sondheim collaborated on Bounce, a musical about the adventure-seeking Mizner brothers that had a troubled birth and finally made it to Broadway as Road Show.

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Mr. Prince was mentored by two of the theatre’s most experienced professionals – director George Abbott and producer Robert E. Griffith.

“I’ve had a unique life in the theatre, uniquely lucky,” Mr. Prince wrote in his midlife autobiography, Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-Six Years in the Theatre, which was published in 1974. “I went to work for George Abbott in 1948, and I was fired on Friday that year from a television job in his office. I was rehired the following Monday, and I’ve never been out of work since.”

Born in New York on Jan. 30, 1928, Mr. Prince was the son of affluent parents, for whom Saturday matinees in the theatre with their children were a regular occurrence. A production of Julius Caesar starring Orson Welles he saw when he was 8 taught him there was something special about theatre.

After a stint in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Broadway, serving as stage manager on Mr. Abbott’s 1953 production of Wonderful Town, starring Rosalind Russell.

In 1957, Mr. Prince did West Side Story, a modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet told against the backdrop of New York gang warfare. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with a score by Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Sondheim, it, too, was acclaimed.

Yet even its success was dwarfed by Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which Mr. Prince produced and Mr. Robbins directed and choreographed. Set in Czarist Russia, the Bock-Harnick musical starred Zero Mostel as the Jewish milkman forced to confront challenges to his way of life.

Mr. Prince got his first opportunity to direct on Broadway in 1962. The musical was A Family Affair, a little-remembered show about the travails of a Jewish wedding. Its Broadway run was short but A Family Affair gave Mr. Prince a chance to work with composer John Kander. Four years later, Mr. Kander would provide the music for one of Mr. Prince’s biggest successes, Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories.

Cabaret established Mr. Prince as a director of first rank. With its use of a sleazy master of ceremonies (portrayed by Joel Grey), the musical juxtaposed its raunchy nightclub numbers with the stories of people living in Berlin as the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s.

As he became more interested in directing, he withdrew from producing altogether.

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Among his more notable achievements were On the Twentieth Century (1978) and two of Mr. Lloyd Webber’s biggest hits, Evita (1979) and The Phantom of the Opera, in London (1986), New York (1988) and around the world.

He was a champion of imagination in the theatre and tried never to rely on technology to give his shows pop. “I believe the theatre should take advantage of the limitations of scenery and totally unlimited imagination of the person who is sitting in the audience,” he told AP in 2015.

Mr. Prince worked for Canadian impresario Garth Drabinsky, overseeing productions of the Tony-winning Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), a lavish remounting of Show Boat (1994) and a short-lived revival of Candide (1997).

He also worked as an opera director, with productions at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Chicago Lyric Opera, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and more, and directed two films, Something for Everyone (1970) and a screen version of A Little Night Music (1977).

He leaves his wife of 56 years, Judy; his daughter, Daisy; his son, Charles; and his grandchildren, Phoebe, Lucy, and Felix.

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