NINA HIRSCHFELD’S FATHER’S NEWEST COLLECTION By Peter Filichia
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many does an Al Hirschfeld caricature rate?
On the other hand, you may be speechless and offer none, after strolling through Memory Lane (and Shubert Alley) with THE AMERICAN THEATRE AS SEEN BY HIRSCHFELD 1962-2002.
The man who was so important to Broadway (and points beyond) is memorialized in a new collection published courtesy of his foundation. There’s Angela Lansbury in MAME, holding onto that crescent moon for dear life (if not for DEAR WORLD). Beatrice Arthur’s Vera Charles glares in judgment as Jane Connell’s Agnes Gooch has her hands tightly clasped as she hopes for the best.
Hirschfeld’s subjects had attitude. The way Mae Questel timidly looks at Chita Rivera as the all-too-worldly-wise Anyanka in BAJOUR suggests that she knows there are no guarantees in life. William Daniels has a flummoxed expression, for at this point he’s unable to figure out how to get the votes to ratify the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – or in any year thereafter. Cassie is popping her hat in A CHORUS LINE, but who is Zach to complain? He’s shown doing the same thing.
Two side-by-side drawings of Audra McDonald leave no doubt that her characters are having man-problems, first with Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in RAGTIME and later with Dante in MARIE CHRISTINE. For BARNUM, Glenn Close gives Jim Dale a morose “He’ll never, ever change” look. That’s nothing compared to what Liza Minnelli, as the title character in FLORA THE RED MENACE, gives to Cathryn Damon whose character is trying to snatch her beau from her. If looks could kill, Hirschfeld would have had one fewer character to draw.
Dorothy Loudon’s louche expression shows that when she was doing ANNIE, she had an easy time with “Easy Street.” When she and Vincent Gardenia are seen dancing in BALLROOM, her face shows that she’s having a great time while his doesn’t. This must be the moment when he’s decided to tell her that he’s a married man.
A few drawings are in living color. One of the best has Richard Rodgers surrounded by characters for whom he provided music, including THE KING AND I’s Yul Brynner. All the hair he’s missing on his head seems to have been relocated to his chest.
Hirschfeld obviously wanted to acknowledge whom he believed to be the most vitally important person on THE PRODUCERS. He drew Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Cady Huffman, Gary Beach and Brad Oscar on stage at the St. James, but above them all, dead center on the proscenium arch where we usually see a gilded cherub or a godlike figure, is a smiling Mel Brooks.
You probably know the Hirschfeld drawing that’s pictured on MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG’s almost-original cast album. “Almost,” because Jim Walton, seen on the cover, wasn’t playing Franklin Shepard, Inc. when previews started; James Weissenbach was, and that’s who Hirschfeld drew before he had to return and do a patch-up job.
Rebecca Luker looks sad in THE SECRET GARDEN, but not as sad as we’ve been since we lost her. She’s only one of many who, we’re reminded, is no longer with us. There’s Ruby Keeler, to whom Hirschfeld gave six legs. Well, she did seem to be a hexapod when she hoofed it up in NO, NO, NANETTE.
Hirschfeld must have attended a lunch break of JEROME ROBBINS’ BROADWAY, for he shows the notoriously hard-to-please director-choreographer smiling broadly. This is the same Robbins who wore a T-shirt to rehearsals that said, “It’s going well. Thank you” to short-circuit any observer’s “How’s it goin’?”)
The term “masterstroke” wasn’t coined for a Hirschfeld drawing, but it might have been. See how few lines he needed to replicate Cheryl Freeman in THE WHO’S TOMMY. He needed not many more to show Dick Cavett looking beside himself when he was beside a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.
Sometimes Hirschfeld would go out-of-town to get a head start on his New York Times deadline; when he did, he would write the name of the city next to his signature. So, we know he went to Boston to see I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, where he caricatured only three cast members: Elliott Gould, the leading man; top-billed Lillian Roth and then – no, not Jack Kruschen, Harold Lang, Ken LeRoy or Marilyn Cooper, all who were billed in that order, but Barbra Streisand.
He knew a star when he saw one.
Hirschfeld displayed that he didn’t just have an eye for art, but also for artists four years later in his return to Boston to catch CABARET’s break-in. He positioned stars Jill Haworth and Bert Convy over featured players Jack Gilford and Lotte Lenya, as you’d expect, but whom did he place above them all? Joel Grey, who nabbed the best reviews of all in the role that would get him the first of many awards.
One of Hirschfeld’s wittiest ideas came mid-year in 1972. He drew Tevye and Golde in a footrace, pulling ahead of Clarence and Lavinia Day who were followed by Jeeter Lester. What an imaginative way to say that FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was becoming Broadway’s long-run champion, passing LIFE WITH FATHER, which had previously eclipsed TOBACCO ROAD.
Hirschfeld signed every drawing with his surname in ten thin, extended letters. However, for SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, he instead drew his name with a multitude of dots.
You get the point(ilism).
More often than not, Hirschfeld put a number next to his name. Those who knew what it meant immediately started scouring the drawings to see if they could find that many – shall we all say it in unison? – Ninas.
Good thing that in 1946 Al and Dolly Hirschfeld didn’t name their newborn daughter Gertrude. Those letters would be hard to place in a drawing, and we would have never had the fun of finding Nina’s name embedded in feathers, folds, fringes and beyond. “Nina,” with nine vertical lines and one horizontal one, was ideal for such artistic shenanigans.
So, there’s one in the hair of Armelia McQueen in AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’, a few in the wrinkles of Debra Monk’s sleeve in ASSASSINS and many on the edge of Liliane Montevecchi’s tutu in GRAND HOTEL. As Douglas Bernstein and Denis Markell said in their witty song “Ninas,” Hirschfeld could have put them “on the foot of Edith Head and on the head of Horton Foote.”
In this book, HAIRSPRAY boasts the most Ninas: eight. Locating them all will be a nice challenge after you’ve had no problem spotting the ones in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS and on James Naughton in CHICAGO.
As Lee Remick sang in ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, “Easy.”
After I saw her in the drawing with Lansbury and Harry Guardino in that musical, I played the cast album. That turned out to be one of the best by-products of THE AMERICAN THEATRE AS SEEN BY HIRSCHFELD 1962-2002. It spurred me to revisit those great performances and songs we can all still savor on recordings.
Hirschfeld’s drawing of Lee Roy Reams in 42ND STREET inspired me to return to “Dames,” which I had put on “Repeat” for weeks after the CD release. Ralph Carter’s sharing some good times with Virginia Capers in RAISIN motivated me to hear him again sing “Sidewalk Tree.” Cyril Ritchard, four times the size of Anthony Newley – a comment on their characters in THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT—THE SMELL OF THE CROWD – sent me to “Sweet Beginning,” one of the most beautiful final numbers in any musical. The broad smile on the face of Imogene Coca – she’s the one who put up the stickers “Repent for the time is at hand” – led me to ON THE 20TH CENTURY, which starts with one of the most exciting overtures ever.
Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but Hirschfeld’s caricatures and cast albums will result in your saying thousands more.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.