David Leopold, Creative Director of The Al Hirschfeld Foundation and the creative force behind both the just released book and the just opened exhibition The American Theatre as seen by Hirschfeld, has spent more than 30 years studying the artist’s work, the first thirteen of those serving as Hirschfeld’s archivist and visiting him in his studio once or twice a week. A follow-up to his previous volume The Hirschfeld Century: A Portrait of the Artist and His Age, the lavish 256-page tome showcases four decades, from 1962-2002, of almost 300 drawings of casts, scenes, backstage portraits, and posters from the most notable and lesser-known stage productions of the time, as captured by the self-described “characterist” in his signature calligraphic style.
They include Hirschfeld’s distinctive linear depictions of such hits as Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, Cabaret, Annie, Sweeney Todd, Les Misérables, Fences, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Rent, Angels in America, and Hairspray, and such theater legends as Stephen Sondheim, Neil Simon, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Tom Stoppard, and Hal Prince, in the largest collection of Hirschfeld’s theater work that has ever been published. Along with the images, the new edition features a foreword by Michael Kimmelman, and chapter introductions by Brooks Atkinson, Brendan Gill, Maureen Dowd, Terrence McNally, and Jules Feiffer.
In conjunction with the book release, Leopold curated a special inaugural exhibition for The Museum of Broadway, which opened to the public today, taking visitors through nine decades of Hirschfeld’s iconic images of American theater in twenty-five drawings and prints dating from 1929-2002.
David generously made time during this busy week to answer my questions about his perspective on Al Hirschfeld and his latest tributes to the artist, his work, and the theater.
What is it about Hirschfeld?
David: That is a question people have been asking for almost a century, and when he passed, they asked, “Who’s the next Hirschfeld?” There is none. He was a sui generis figure, and his art, which we often call “caricature” for lack of a better word, really isn’t. It’s not pejorative, it’s exaggerated for emphasis, so we’re laughing with the subjects, not at them. The joie de vivre comes through in his drawings – just look at them! They’re fresh, they move, they look and feel timeless.
When did you first discover his work and decide to make it the focus of your career?
I’m not sure that I ever decided; it decided for me. I was probably around seven or eight, living in central Pennsylvania, with nothing to do, when my parents, who subscribed to The New York Times, asked me to look for the name of Hirschfeld’s daughter “NINA” that he hid in his illustrations. I’m one of five children, so we would all compete to see who could find it first. That led me on a path that would change my life! In college, I got a degree in Theater History and Administration and did a lot of research. Then one day, I was researching portraits by the 1930s artist Ben Solowey that appeared in the Times and the Herald Tribune, and they often appeared side by side with Hirschfeld’s, so I thought I should contact Hirschfeld. I was surprised to see that his number was listed in the phone book, but I was too nervous to call, so I wrote him a letter. I received a warm response, inviting me to his house for tea. I went, we hit it off (of course he hit it off with everybody, he was genuinely a nice guy), and he asked me to archive his work.
Al lived in the present, he didn’t think in terms beyond the contemporary, so I put everything in order, to make it easier for him to find. And in doing that, we both got to learn about what he had done in the past. Even longer than the time he spent drawing theater, some 76 years, he drew Hollywood and later TV – he did more covers for TV Guide than any other artist. I would visit him at least once a week and I hold the record for the most free lunches in the Hirschfeld home! We talked about the theater and art and we shared a vocabulary of his drawings, we knew what we were talking about and understood each other. He was a great raconteur; he didn’t like to talk about himself, but we talked about his art, often when he was drawing because he was always drawing, as he looked forward to seeing how it turned out.
Once he asked me how many NINAs I saw in one of his works – four or five? He could only find four and he thought there were five, and if he got the number wrong there would be lots of mail. He would get so caught up in drawing that the NINAs came out organically, as if his pen took over, with no conscious thought. They were spontaneous drawings; he was both a spectator and a participant. There aren’t too many artists you can say that about, but you can about Hirschfeld.
What criteria did you use in selecting the images and essays for the new book?
For the images, I looked to Al’s original first volume of The American Theatre as seen by Hirschfeld, which he designed, curated, and published in 1961, featuring 250 works from the first 40 years of his career that were both of well-known shows and great drawings of flops. There were certain drawings that had to be in the new book, like Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly! I also went with the greatest drawings, the ones that could stand on their own feet, even if the show only lasted a week, like It’s Nice To Be Civilized; the drawing is stupendous, even if the show wasn’t successful! I looked at the drawings for the aesthetics – every single one, then narrowed it down, limited by how many pages the book would be. As an editor, it’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in! I also wanted to have a whole color section, including Beauty and the Beast – the first color illustration he did for the Times – since most people only know his black-and-white drawings.
Do you have one favorite Hirschfeld drawing that encapsulates everything you love about his style?
No, because that’s like asking a parent who’s your favorite child! I curate a lot of shows, and it usually takes three years or longer; I’ve been looking at Hirschfeld’s work professionally for 32 years now and I still get very excited when I see it. Some of my recent favorites are the ones he drew for the Times Friday theater column for fourteen years, for an inside page, one column (6 x 3”) format. He cleansed those works of any unnecessary detail, though some are still complex. They’re stunning; I think they’re some of his best work, and a portrait of Chita Rivera is one of my favorites.
How did you become involved with The Museum of Broadway?
About three years ago, the Foundation heard about it and we reached out to them. You can’t tell the story of Broadway without Hirschfeld! We started to learn about the fresh take of the Museum – a real experience with dynamic displays that are both informative and engaging, which will electrify and inspire the theater community. They would ask us, “Did he ever draw . . .?” and the answer was always “YES!” so we were constantly feeding them images. There are about twenty Hirschfeld works hung throughout the Museum, and then they also offered us the first show in their special exhibition space, which features drawings from the nine decades of his career.
What can visitors expect in the exhibition?
You will see everything from Hirschfeld’s sketchbooks, with his initial impressions of shows like Hello, Dolly! and Waiting for Godot, to his drawings of such legendary stars as Patsy Kelly, Ethel Merman, and Jimmy Durante, scenes from popular shows like Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, a collage of the 1936 season of summer theaters on the Eastern Seaboard, and a portrait of Nina at 21, with her parents’ names hidden in the drawing instead of hers. We’ve also created an app that lets visitors make their own Hirschfeld portrait, and there’s a replica of the barber’s chair that Al sat in and drew all his work in. For a man with a lot of hair on his head, he sure spent a lot of time in his barber chair!
In addition to the book and the exhibition, The Al Hirschfeld Foundation is offering a selection of prints, signed by the stars depicted, in an online fundraising auction that closes on November 20. Can you tell us about it and how it supports the mission of the non-profit organization?
Over the years, people have asked about getting prints of their favorite Hirschfeld drawings, but we never did posthumous prints before. Then in talking with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, we thought that since Al couldn’t sign the prints himself, what if the performers in them did? We first organized an auction of twenty very limited-edition prints to support Broadway Cares and our Art Education Program in July of 2021, and it raised over $100,000. For this sale with Heritage Auctions, we are offering limited edition prints, sold one at a time, of 21 different pieces. When they’re gone, they’re gone. The selection includes Bernadette Peters in Sunday in the Park with George, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Joel Grey, and my favorite, Chita Rivera in The Rink – each with a certificate of authenticity and the celebrity’s signature. It’s a great opportunity for people to get the most requested images, while raising funds for an important cause in the theater community that Hirschfeld loved and immortalized in his art.
Many thanks, David, for giving us an inside look at Hirschfeld and his work, and your exciting new book and exhibition.
The American Theatre as seen by Hirschfeld runs through Sunday, April 30, 2023, at The Museum of Broadway, 145 West 45th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-49, plus tax and fees), call (212) 239-6200, or go online. The museum is open 10 am-10 pm, seven days a week. Everyone must show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a photo ID to enter the building.
For more information on the book and how to order it, you can watch the trailer below: