How Hal Prince shaped 'How to Dance in Ohio' on Broadway

The late, 21-time Tony Award-winning director and producer was heavily involved in the musical's development and was set to direct the show before his death.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Harold Prince, affectionately known within the industry as "Hal," went down in history as the driving force — either as director, producer, or both — behind some of the 20th century's most beloved musicals. West Side Story. Fiddler on the Roof. Cabaret. Sweeney Todd. The Phantom of the Opera. The list goes on for miles.

But before any of those were storied classics, they were unknown, original musicals breaking into a busy Broadway scene. New works were Prince's bread-and-butter throughout his career, right up until his death in 2019. Truly, right up: Mere days before his passing, he was reportedly giving notes on his final project, the musical How to Dance in Ohio, which debuted on Broadway on November 15.

Based on Alexandra Shiva's 2015 documentary of the same name, How to Dance in Ohio dramatizes the stories of autistic young adults preparing for a spring formal dance, part of a social skills program at their group counseling center. Shiva was inspired to make the documentary to not only celebrate autistic people and their coming of age, but also shed light on the challenges they face as they begin to age out of institutional support.

One such autistic person who inspired this project? Lucy Chaplin, Prince's now-25-year-old granddaughter.

She is not a character in the show or a subject in the documentary, but the film is dedicated to her. Prince, entirely separately, wanted to produce a Broadway show about autism in her honor. And it just so happened that, through a seemingly destined chain of events, Ohio came full-circle to land on his desk.

It was 2017 when Shiva approved writers Jacob Yandura and Rebekah Greer Melocik to musicalize Ohio. "Around the same time, we met Ben Holtzman and Sammy Lopez, who are two [of Ohio's] early producers," Yandura recalled. "They were looking for a show to just start from the ground up."

"Ben was working in the Hal Prince office, and Hal said he wanted to do a show about autism. And Ben was like, 'Well, I think we have the right people for you.'"

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Prince almost immediately signed on to direct, and he, Yandura, and Melocik worked closely on How to Dance in Ohio for the next two years. Prince staged early workshops. He took detailed notes in the margins of three copies of the script. He, the writers, and the producers recorded every meeting they had about the show.

"He gave us all of his wisdom right from the beginning," Yandura said. And suddenly, on July 31, 2019, that written and recorded wisdom, and the team's memories of their collaboration, were all that was left.

Director Sammi Cannold eventually took over the reins from Prince thanks to Yandura, who invited her for a coffee meeting via Instagram that led to an interview for the job. Like Prince, she has an autistic relative (her brother) and was already familiar with the documentary.

"I was very daunted and humbled by the potential task of picking up where this legend left off," Cannold remembered. "Those [recordings and notes] have been my north star as I've been working through the show and trying to honor the vision of what he intended this piece to be, while, of course, never actually being him."

"To make my Broadway debut while trying to uphold that that vision has been the greatest honor," she continued. Yandura, Melocik, and a majority of the principal cast make their Broadway debuts alongside her, too, after they finally premiered the completed show in Syracuse in 2022.

Considering Prince's passion for new work and talent, How to Dance in Ohio seems like it turned out just as he'd have wanted.

Top image credit: The world premiere of How to Dance in Ohio at Syracuse Stage in 2022. (Photo by Curtis Brown)
In-article image credit: Harold Prince.

Originally published on

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