With "EVITA" and "Sweeney Todd, New York's current major musicals, Hal Prince clinches his position as our peerless stage director.

As Max Reinhardt dominated spectacle in the century's first half, through such still-remembered productions as "The Miracle" and "Oedipus Rex," Prince has been dominating the last half through his stagings of "Cabaret," "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Pacific Overtures" and now these concurrent Broadway successes.

Prince is the contemporary stage master of images, precise, crystalline, theatrical visions that brilliantly illuminate the texts and music of his favored associates. Both these new musicals, with no spoken dialogue, are stretching our American musical theater and it is not by chance that opera producers have been after him to stage such works as "The Girl of the Golden West" and "La Traviata."

Bitterness oozes through all Prince's works. And while I keep hoping that he will break through into a less chilling view of life, he is expressing what he feels is the dominant tone of our times -- disbelief, distrust, disgust. He cannot be dishonest about what he feels in a diseased world, and that is his prerogative.

I dislike the idea of "Evita" the moment I heard of it, for two close journalist friends had been booted out of the Perons' Argentina. When Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of "Jesus Christ Superstar," came up with their disc-cantata, "Evita, my disgust was strong, prejudiced and personal.

But on this equivocal material by authors who were born after the Peron era, Prince has created a seamless, prvocative statement about media manipulation.

The rise of an illegitimate, penniless illiterate to mastery over a vast nation surely is fit subject for drama, initially glimpsed, by the way, 15 years ago when Lawrence and Lee's "Diamond Orchid" failed to evoke the Prince so effectively captures.

Referring to the expensive complexities of production, Prince points out how the Broadway Theater version has evolved from his initial London staging. Rice and Webber had postponed transferring their disc to stage until Prince had time to take on the job. Now the alterations Prince made during the four-month, pre-Broadway tour have been incorporated into the continuing London original.

Introducing a symbolic "Xhorus" suggesting Che Guavera, who was 23 when Evita died of cancer, Prince has created a vital counterbalance to the whore who intrigued her way to power.

Seen for what she is and through those blatant good deeds of which she boasted, "Evita" has become a sort of contemporary "Macbeth" -- a provocative study in how power can be grasped, used and degraded. Through radio and film, Evita gripped the power of official media and forced Argentina and much of the world to think and react as she willed.

Films and slides are mixed in -- for the first time part of the action, not mere embellishments. Newsreels of Evita's appearances, her papal and France receptions, plus outsized reproductions of memorable Life magazine photographs give us the reason for Evita's success, the overlay of glamor on which Peron's wife built her public image. This warding of the media is Prince's underlying message: Beware.

While one cannot neglect the basic creation of Rice and Webber, Prince has turned what they formed as a question -- "Why Evita?" -- into a statement, "How Evita."

He also has shrewdly guided the three major performances. Patti LuPone's part as Evita calls for exhaustive discipline.Only shortly after the Broadway opening, I found her entire performance superb, a staggering melding of performing arts. (She was in the first Acting Company of John Houseman in the days when that company was welcome at Ford's.)

As Che, the now bearded Mandy Patinkin, so fine as the young lover of "The Shadow Box," is the commenting Chorus of Greek tradition. His robust playing of Evita's antithesis gives him a deserved if awkward edge at the encores. Most self-effacing of the trio is Bob Gunton's Juan Peron, revealing a Macbeth who has lived his life backwards. All in the company form a dynamic drill.

Harold E. Prince's present pinnacle was reached from that lowliest of theatrical posts: a.s.m, assistant stage manager.

Born in 1928 and raised in New York in a German-Jewish family addicted to theatergoing, Prince wanted to become a playwright. He didn't believe -- and still doesn't -- in "Drama Majors" and took liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1947.

He was a frothy, ginger-haired teenager when George Abbott took him on to assist in a TV series Abbott had begun for ABC. When that petered out (after its nominal star objected to working under a mere kid), Abbott assigned him to assist stage manager Robert E. Griffith for a musical that had originated at Catholic University, "Touch and Go," by Jean and Walter Kerr.

Drafted for the Korean War, Prince came back two years later, and Abbott immediately assigned him and Bobby Griffith to a new musical which turned out to be "Wonderful Town." The stage manager and his a.s.m. began plotting a musical of their own.

That collaboration between 21-year-old ebullient Prince and the sober Griffith, twice his age, was striking. Their first was "The Pajama Game," then "Damn Ankees" and "New Girl in Town," three hits in a row directed by their mentor Abbott. By '58, Prince was so vivid a Broadway fixture that there was a musical about him, "Say, Darling," which lifted Robert Morse to stardom as a brash, boyish producer who didn't amuse Prince one bit.

But on the way just then was the most creative Griffith-Prince musical, "West Side Story." It opened, an instant smash, in Washington the summer of '57 and they followed it with the Pulitzer-winning "Fiorello" and "Tenderloin." Bobby Griffith died unexpectedly in mid-'66.

To pulse-watchers Hal Prince's next steps seemed critical: Where would mercucial Hal be without his sturdy balance wheel?

He produced "Take Her, She's Mine," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," "Fiddler on the Roof," "She Love me" and then took over direction for a musical, "A Family Affair," two weeks from Broadway. That patient lived only five months, but those in on it declare that Dr. Prince's operation was a brilliant success.

Though few then realized it, that was Prince's turning point. He'd been wanting to direct but the difficulties, even for a producer, had been insuperable. The final preview of his staging for "Cabaret" in '66 revealed to this reviewer the particular genius of Princely stagecraft. i

That night I perceived that he had crystallized not merely the characters and events of Christopher Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," but their atmosphere. Through the emcee so searingly performed by Joel Grey and through scores of production details, Prince created an environment that added up to more than the basic words and music.

It is this uncanny ability to etch visual stage images that raises Prince above all our musical directors. Cutting down or mocking its splendors and reducing Bernstein's lush orchestrations, he found revival energies the initial "Candide" had lacked.

Through five couples, a bachelor and aluminum-glass settings, he made an urban statement on loneliness in "Company." By turning a theater into a shell, he made a disillusioned point with "Follies." Onto the rose film comedy of Ingmar Bergam, he spread a gray patina that became the elusive, haunting "A John Paul Jones opening up Japan to the West in "Pacific Overtures" baffled New York; but it triumphed on the West Coast and soon may again in London.

Last spring's Tony-copping "Sweeney Todd" exemplifies both Prince's gathering skill and lingering myopia.

The 19th-century melodrama about a vengeful barber who demands justice for injustices is set in an actual 19th-century foundry of iron and glass -- removed from a debilitated New England town to the Uris stage, a mindblowing sight. There is glittering black comedy daringly enlivened by Angela Lansbury as the Barber's consort, a fantastic exercise in how an actress can mesmerize by going 'way, 'way out. There is a brooding, equal counterpart in Len Cariou's Barber, sung and acted as few could achieve.

But there also is a portentiousness, a self-importance to Hugh Wheeler's book and Stephen Sondheim's score that tempts Prince to preach. The final half is a too-conscious effort to out-Brecht Brecht.

This is the area -- which Prince at least partially overcomes through his insertion of Che into "Evita" -- where I anticipate growth.

One hopes that he will find images for that "pursuit of radiance" John Cheever has described as "man's inclination toward light, toward brightness. One not only needs it," Cheever has written, "one struggles for it. It seems to be that one's total experience is the drive toward light."

For all his brilliant, perceptive images, I long for the day when Prince emerges from his tunnel of despair into the "pursuit of radiance."