Prince was born in Manhattan and adopted in childhood by Milton A. Prince, a stockbroker, and Blanche Stern. Following his graduation from the Dwight School in New York, he entered the University of Pennsylvania at age 19, where he followed a liberal arts curriculum and graduated three years later. He later served two years with the United States Army in post-World War II Germany.
Prince began work in the theatre as an assistant stage manager to theatrical producer and director George Abbott. Along with Abbott, he co-produced The Pajama Game, which won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical. He went on to direct his own productions in 1962 beginning with A Family Affair and hit a series of unsuccessful productions.
He almost gave up musical theater right before he hit success with Cabaret in 1966. 1970 marked the start of his greatest collaboration, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. They had previously worked on West Side Story and at this point decided to embark on their own project. Their association spawned a long string of productions, including Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979). Following Merrily We Roll Along (1981), which was not successful, they parted ways until Bounce (2003).
Prince has directed operas including Ashmedai, Willie Stark, Madame Butterfly, and a revival of Candide. In 1983 Prince staged Turandot for the Vienna State Opera (conductor: Lorin Maazel; with José Carreras, Éva Marton). He directed two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's successes, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. He was offered the job of directing Cats by Lloyd Webber but turned it down.
Despite creating a number of hugely popular musicals in the late 1970s and 1980s such as The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd, and Evita, Prince had his first critical failure with Stephen Sondheim in 1981 with Merrily We Roll Along. Determined to bounce back, he started working on a new musical A Doll's Life with lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green that would continue the story of Nora Helmer past what Henrik Ibsen had written in A Doll's House. It was also badly received. Other commercially unsuccessful musicals includes Roza and Grind. Prince himself stopped producing and directing concurrently during this period because the process of financing a show had become so difficult.
Prince was the inspiration for John Lithgow's character in Bob Fosse's film All That Jazz. He was also the basis of a character in Richard Bissell's novel Say, Darling, which chronicled Bissell's own experience turning his novel 7½ Cents into The Pajama Game.
On May 20, 2007, he gave the commencement address at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In 2000, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
In 2006, Prince was awarded a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. The Harold Prince Theatre at the Annenberg Center of the University of Pennsylvania is named in his honor. In 2008 Prince was the keynote speaker at Elon University's Convocation for Honors celebration.
Prince co-directed, with Susan Stroman, the 2010 musical Paradise Found. The musical features the music of Johann Strauss II as adapted by Jonathan Tunick with lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. The book was written by Richard Nelson, based on Joseph Roth’s novel The Tale of the 1002nd Night. The musical premiered at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London on May 19, 2010 and closed on June 26, and starred Mandy Patinkin.
A retrospective of his work, titled Prince of Broadway, presented by Umeda Arts Theater, premiered in Tokyo in October 2015. The book was written by David Thompson with additional material and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown. The revue is co-directed by Susan Stroman and Prince. The revue is expected to open on Broadway in August 2017 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Prince married Judy Chaplin, daughter of Saul Chaplin, on October 26, 1962. They are parents of Daisy Prince, a director, and Charles Prince, a conductor. Actor Alexander Chaplin, best known as "James Hobert" on Spin City, is Prince's son-in-law.Something for Everyone (1970) - director
A Little Night Music (1977) - director