Many people got their great big introduction to Hal Prince on some Broadway stage. I got mine at the Luskin’s discount appliance store, on Park Heights Avenue near the old Uptown Theater, in the vanished summer of 1958.
Some friends of my parents gave me a belated bar mitzvah gift — a $25 gift certificate to Luskin’s record department, where the LPs were going for $2.99 apiece back then.
I had every budding teenager’s intentions: I would glut myself on Long-Playing albums by Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and The Coasters and The Drifters, and The Shirelles and the Everly Brothers.
All that stood in the way was my parents, who had driven me to the store with a kind of educational larceny on their minds.
“Oh, look,” I heard my mother exclaim, as she sifted through a record rack. “’The Pajama Game.’
“Oh, boy,” I called over from a nearby rack. “Chuck Berry.”
“And look,” said my father, “’West Side Story.’”
From “The Pajama Game,” I knew from nothing. Likewise, in that distant summer, “West Side Story.”
And certainly, not a thing did I know about some guy named Hal Prince, who was just getting started with those two legendary shows. But, until he died this week, at 91, Prince was Broadway royalty. And, in that moment at the Park Heights Luskin’s, he opened a world of music that’s played in my head — and millions of people’s — for the last six decades.
As a producer and director, he brought us “West Side Story” and “The Pajama Game” and then such epics as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Company,” “Evita,” “Fiorello,” “A Little Night Music,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” and on and on, winning an astonishing 21 Tony Awards for himself along the way.
He helped keep alive the Great American Songbook when rock and roll was taking over most of the country.
We could still hear rock and roll every hour of the day on the radio — but, in some little corner of the world, which arrived on our record players and in live performances, Prince brought music and theater that was more sophisticated, that was wittier and darker and funnier than anything rock and roll offered.
“The Pajama Game” offered us the rollicking “7 1/2 Cents” and “Hernando’s Hideaway,” but they were slyly wrapped in a tale of the timeless struggle between management and workers.
“West Side Story” had all the heartache of any teen’s rock and roll song, but the story counted for something bigger — about America’s post-war struggle between whites and dark-skinned immigrants that still goes on, and the doomed romance that broke everyone’s heart at the end.
“Fiddler on the Roof” connected us — all of us, not just the Jews of this particular tale — with our family histories. Ah, we thought, so this is what it was like back then, on the other side of an ocean.
“Cabaret” took us back to the darkness that preceded the Holocaust, and “Company” brought us the anxieties of modern-age relationships. Other Prince shows broke ground on sexuality, on politics, on race.
My parents really ticked me off that day at Luskin’s. I still remember every album they made us bring home besides “West Side Story” and “The Pajama Game.” It was bunch of other stuff I’d never heard before.
Nothing much — just “South Pacific” and “Carousel” and “My Fair Lady” and “Oklahoma” and “Guys and Dolls.”
There was still time for Elvis and Little Richard and the others. I heard them every day and night on the radio. But Hal Prince helped open a whole world of music beyond that. It’s playing in my head right now, and will forever.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).