I’ve sadly found the adage, “never meet your heroes” to be mostly true: That palpable disappointment of thrilling encounters rendered lifeless and sour by hardened ego(s). But there are heroes, and there’s Hal Prince.
I first met him on a bitter December morning in 2016 at my audition for Prince of Broadway—a retrospective of Hal’s earth-shaking, game-changing career, running for a limited time at Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by the legend himself in tandem with Susan Stroman. I was to prepare the Emcee from Cabaret, Molina from Kiss of the Spiderwoman, and George from She Loves Me. Not one, but three dream roles from a bucket list I began compiling when my age was in single digits.
That morning I remember nervously pacing the halls of MTC’s rehearsal space. I remember forgetting my lyrics—more than once. I remember Hal’s unflinching smile. I remember feeling the safest I’d ever felt at an audition. I remember calling my father from the corner of 43rd and Eighth to say simply, “So, I just auditioned for Hal Prince.” That’s pretty much it. Adrenaline obliterated the rest.
Five months later, however, after being cast in Prince of Broadway, I received an email from Hal’s assistant inviting me to his office at Rockefeller Center for a proper face-to-face before rehearsals began. The office was everything you’d imagine it to be—photographs with Stephen Sondheim, Angela Lansbury, and Elaine Stritch, memorabilia, original posters of Follies, Evita, and Company, a small handful of the 21 Tonys awarded to Hal over his 60-plus-year career. Every fiber and strand of my childhood Broadway dreams right here in vivid technicolor reality. But, despite the giddiness and awe of standing tangibly inside of a dream, experience taught me to prepare well for the disappointment of meeting another hero.
He greeted me with a hug, the warmth of which melted every ounce of hardened trepidation, looked me in the eyes and said, “God, you’re good.”
We sat down, and began a chat that would last a little over two hours. We talked about George Abbott; how Hal lied on his resume to land his first job. We talked about Cabaret, Joel Grey, and the documentary of the cast recording for Company that I watched every single day (sometimes twice a day) when I was 12. We commiserated about the current state of commercial Broadway theater and connected deeply about “taste”—an elusive thing, the degradation of which threatens the future of the American Theater.
There was a candor, a humility, a groundedness to the conversation that shattered all expectations. And the connective tissue between all of it, Hal insisted, was luck. This, he said, was what Prince of Broadway would be about: work, yes, but moreover, never underestimating the element of luck.
I said, “I don’t know, 21 Tony Awards might prove luck to be somewhat moot, don’t you think?”
“Think again, pal.” He said with his characteristic knowing grin.
I looked around some more, waiting patiently for Hal’s ego to peek out from behind framed notations of Sweeney Todd and Phantom of the Opera, or from below notes signed by former presidents, anywhere among the floor-to-ceiling validation, adoration, and reward. But, it never showed. Not in the two hours I spent with him alone in his office. Not once between opening and closing of Prince of Broadway. Never in the time that I knew and loved him.
No. The floorboards of our rehearsal space and the walls of the Friedman Theatre pulsated with generosity, collaboration, two feet planted in the present, and an eye on the future. In the cloth of the Emcee’s coattails and the ice in Joanne’s vodka lived a deep love and respect for actors and designers, and an immovable reverence for talent.
In rehearsal, while Bryonha Marie Parham shook the earth with “Cabaret” and Emily Skinner blew off the roof with “Ladies Who Lunch,” I watched Hal enter a euphoric state—not soaking in the memories of an illustrious past, but sunbathing in the glorious radiance of the talent directly in front of him. This was the natural state of a man without ego. A genius without vanity. A man who loved theatre as much as he loved his family—and he loved his family. Hal loved. Period.
As someone born into a world teeming with the monumental work of the singular Hal Prince, I naively assumed he’d live forever. And while we mourn the loss of the great father of contemporary musical theater and look sadly into the colossal void he leaves behind, I have to wonder if perhaps my assumption wasn’t so naive. I mean, Hal’s contribution to the art form created permanent genetic mutations, and his vision will be embedded in its DNA for the rest of time.
His quest for truthful, thoughtful, and complex storytelling continues today; it will continue tomorrow. The family of theater makers he began over 70 years ago will continue to expand exponentially, and his legacy will pass on and on and on to those who are not yet born. He might be lost, but he is not gone.
And, if luck is the thing, dear Hal, we were damn lucky to have you.
Brandon Uranowitz is a Tony-nominated actor best known for his roles as Adam Hochberg in An American in Paris and Mendel in the 2016 Broadway revival of Falsettos. He was nominated for a third time this year for his featured performance in Burn This.
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