The American Theatre 1962 to 2002 as seen by Hirschfeld

A sign of the vitality of American theater in the 1960s is how many shows that Al Hirschfeld caricatured at the time are currently on New York stages in revivals: 1776, A Delicate Balance, Funny Girl, Fiddler on the Roof (see below.) But what does that say about the vitality of Broadway now?
That was one of my first thoughts while leafing through “The American Theatre 1962 to 2002 as seen by Hirschfeld“ (The Al Hirschfeld Foundation, 245 pages), which is being published in conjunction with an exhibition of Hirschfeld’s art work at the new Museum of Broadway; both the exhibition and the museum are opening to the public on November 15th.
The exhibition will also include drawings from an earlier collection, “The American Theatre as seen by Hirschfeld,” first published in 1961 and featuring 250 works from the first 40 years of his career. 

In 2003, Hirschfeld had been planning to put together a sequel to that collection, showcasing the second 40 years of his career, but died before that could happen, five months short of his 100th birthday. 

 The new book is being billed as the largest collection of Hirschfeld’s theater work that has ever been published, but it is only the latest iteration of his drawings, which have been packaged and repackaged numerous times. It’s surely a reflection of the artist’s talent that these drawings, most of which originally appeared in a newspaper, are still in circulation two decades after his death. It may perhaps be a reflection as well of the diligence of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation. But I think it is also an ironic testament to the enduring appeal of live theater’s evanescent moments being captured just before they disappear.

“Line as movement – prancing, skipping, twisting and dancing – was the vehicle through which Hirschfeld conveyed the adrenaline rush of live theater…” Michael Kimmelman writes in the first of the half dozen essays and articles reprinted in the book, most of them originally published in the New York Times, where his caricatures appeared for more than seven decades. Each of the essays, a page in length, is from a different decade, and all are about Hirschfeld rather than about the theater he was chronicling. If this feels like a missed opportunity, still, the history of New York theater is effectively communicated by Hirschfeld with “a dot of an eye, a swirl of a hairdo, a flick of a nose, a gap of a mouth, a sinuous rubbery hand,” as cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer wrote in 2003 (one of the essays excerpted in this collection.) Or as playwright Terrence McNally put it in 1991: “No one ‘writes’ more accurately of the performing arts than Al Hirschfeld. He accomplishes on a blank page with his pen and ink in a few strokes what many of us need a lifetime of words to say.”

1960s Shows Currently Revived

Funny Girl, 1964. Barbra Streisand sees the reflection of the real Fanny Brice in the mirror

Fiddler on the Roof, 1964, Austin Pendleton, Julia Migenes, Tanya Everett, Joanna Merlin, Zero Mostel, Gino Conforti and Maria Karnilova

A Delicate Balance, 1966, with Jessica Tandy, Henderson Forsythe, Carmen Mathews, Hume Cronyn, Rosemary Murphy and Marian Seldes.

1776, 1969, Paul Hecht, Howard Da Silva, Clifford David, William Daniels, Ronald Holgate and Ken Howard.

Other Decades

Annie, 1977, Barbara Irwin, Robert Fitch, Dorothy Loudon, Andrea McArdle, Reid Shelton, Sandy and Raymond Thorne

Phantom of the Opera, 1988, Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford

Beauty and the Beast, 1994, Terrence Mann and Susan Egan

Rent, 1996, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Taye Diggs, Fredi Walker, Adam Pascal, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Anthony Rapp, Adina Menzel, and Jesse L. Martin

White Tie and Tails, 2002 Off Broadway, Tommy Tune

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

1 thought on “The American Theatre 1962 to 2002 as seen by Hirschfeld

  1. For the record, more than half of the drawings in this new collection have never appeared in a book of Hirschfeld’s work before. There are also color works included, most of which have never been in a Hirschfeld book before.

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