Reviews | Al Hirschfeld’s drawings captured Stephen Sondheim better than any photo

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Since the death of Stephen Sondheim last month, certain images run through my head, with such insistence that I have to catch my breath. They come with sound, of course, they are inseparable from the music that feeds them. And they possess those lofty but elusive qualities that only first-hand memory bestows.

Alexis Smith, in red sequins, winks at the audience as she embarks on an irresistibly rhymed confession of a divided self in “Follies” (from 1971 and my first Broadway show). Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou crossing the stage like wax corpses, singing one of the scariest covers in Broadway musical history, in “Sweeney Todd” (1979). Mandy Patinkin finds atomic energy distressed in a painter’s obsessive quest to render a hat on canvas in “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984).

Oddly enough, the visuals that come closest to evoking such moments are not the performance photos or videos but, instead, black lines – and whorls, swirls and loops – on white paper. . They are the work of the great theater cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, whose drawings of all things theatrical in the Sunday New York Times have fascinated me since I was a child in North Carolina. Even then, these images seemed to breathe and move in a way that photographs on the same pages never could. In a way, they even smacked of Broadway to me.

Recently, I looked through his drawings of works by Sondheim, which seems to have particularly engaged and inspired Hirschfeld. They span decades, from “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” (which Sondheim wrote the lyrics for) in the 1950s to “Passion,” Sondheim’s last new Broadway show, in 1994. In these drawings , I found something like a Proustian madeleine from the past, made of ink instead of flour and sugar.

Those seemingly simple pen strokes – and the ellipse of white space, which your own happily collaborative mind fills – are anything but static. They tremble with energy, tension and, above all, personage, as it is evoked in real time on a stage.

Hirschfeld always said he preferred to be called a “character” rather than a cartoonist. Her illustrations of Sondheim, the most complex character portrait painter in Broadway’s songbook, make you understand why. Caricatures are shorthand for the physical traits that set stars apart: Angela Lansbury’s huge Tweety Bird eyes, for example, or Bernadette Peters’ arched Cupid’s mouth.

Hirschfeld nails such elements of physiognomy. It also endows them with the exciting emotional temperature that heats up every Sondheim song. The Lansburys he draws as corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper from “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and as cannibal baker Mrs Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” are recognizable by the same woman.

But you can also feel how Lansbury physically and psychically inhabit these roles in the slant and size of her shoulders, in the focus in those saucer eyes – hypnotized maniac like Cora, restless and greedy like Mrs. Lovett. After watching the illustration for “Whistle,” in which Cora’s over-the-top ambition overshadows the setting, I could swear I saw this production, even though I couldn’t get it.

Consider Hirschfeld’s restless and suspicious Joanna Gleason as the baker’s wife in “Into the Woods.” Or Patinkin and Peters – him all penetrating angles, and she self-contained curves – as an artist and model in love with “Sunday” incompatible. Or Donna Murphy, as relentless and demanding as an Assyrian god, like sickly Fosca and in love with “Passion”.

The diversity and breadth of tone and substance embodied in the drawings, in all their joyful concentration of energy, make you understand why a character from Sondheim remains a holy grail for singer-songwriters.

For the record, those numbers include the inhabitants of two Sondheim shows now happily reborn in New York City: “Assassins” (a grim spectacle that left me sleepless after seeing it for the first time on Off Broadway in 1991) , currently at the Classic Stage Company, and “Company,” Sondheim’s groundbreaking 1970 work on being single in a married world in Manhattan.

The latest version, which opens Thursday night, has been reimagined in a gender-reversed version by director Marianne Elliott. I saw her first incarnation in London and can’t wait to see her again. In the meantime, I find a strange and heartwarming fit to this period of mourning for Sondheim in Hirschfeld’s sketch of the original show.

Hirschfeld portrays the show’s main man, the ambivalent bachelor Bobby (Dean Jones), surrounded and immersed in the tantalizing ghosts of the women in his life. One has the impression that Bobby will never be free from their presence. Generally, Bobby seems to view this life sentence with both regret and pleasure. Me, I only feel pleasure – and so much gratitude – at the thought of being haunted for the rest of my life by the ghosts of Sondheim’s past performances.

Ben Brantley was the Times’ chief theater critic for more than two decades, writing more than 2,500 reviews before stepping down from regular criticism in 2020.

Images from the Al Hirschfeld Foundation / www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org

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