Broadway Blip: The Prince of Grand Street
The final installment in my series on composer-lyricist Bob Merrill is about his short-lived musical The Prince of Grand Street. Despite having many delightful moments, it was a musical that suffered from many issues despite a solid premise that, if executed differently, may have enjoyed a better reception. Instead, it was plagued with challenges, including the wrong star playing the lead, and the show shuttered out-of-town, never opening on Broadway.
Bob Merrill wrote the music, lyrics and book for The Prince of Grand Street. The story followed a performer of the Yiddish Theatre (inspired by Boris Thomashefsky). Playing, in part, like a sketch comedy, the musical was the story of Nathan Rashumsky, a star of the stage who would play a variety of iconic characters (Huck Finn, Abraham Lincoln), giving them a Jewish slant. Merrill had a great character, even a handful of agreeable songs for The Prince of Grand Street. What he couldn’t manage to shape was a discernible plot. The musical ambled about, from sketch to sketch, but never really telling audiences much about the performer or his life.
The musical starred Robert Preston in what could have been his final Broadway performance, had the show actually lasted past its out-of-town tryout in. Preston was a beloved star of the Broadway stage, having charmed audiences in two hits: The Music Man and I Do! I Do! A Tony-winner with a confident energy that endeared him to audiences, he would have seemingly been the ideal choice to headline such a star vehicle as The Prince of Grand Street. But his presence was not enough and many thought him miscast in the role of Rashumsky.
Joining Preston in The Prince of Grand Street was a talented troupe, many of whom had already done great things onstage, in film and on television. Among the ranks were Neva Small, Werner Klemperer, David Margulies, Bernice Massi, Sammy Smith, Alan Manson, Addison Powell, Alexander Orfaly, Richard Muenz, Walter Charles, Darlene Anders and Sam Levene.
The musical was directed by Gene Saks, who never really grasped how to approach the material. Many close to the production seem to have felt that he was trying to downplay the Jewish nature of the story, opting toward a telling that would appeal to a wider audience. This is arguably apparent in his casting of Robert Preston in the lead when the musical would have been better-suited with a Sid Caesar type. Saks and Merrill, together and separately, didn’t quite know what to do with The Prince of Grand Street. At odds with the material and premise, they just kept trying new things, hoping that something would stick. It didn’t, and The Prince of Grand Street would never make the journey to Broadway.