Broadway Salutes Al Hirschfeld at Unveiling of Caricaturist's New Theatre

News   Broadway Salutes Al Hirschfeld at Unveiling of Caricaturist's New Theatre The last day of the Martin Beck Theatre and the first night of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre were celebrated at 302 West 45th Street on the evening of June 23.
The new marquee on the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.
The new marquee on the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. (Photo by Robert Simonson)

Gathered inside the Broadway theatre were the elite of the theatre community, there to honor and remember the late illustrator and witness the unveiling of the house's new marquee, an illuminated reproduction of one of Hirschfeld's most famous self-portraits.

Included in the crowd were Hirschfeld's widow, Louise, and Nina, the daughter the artist made famous by hiding her name in countless pen-and-ink drawings. Also present were 16 descendants of the vaudeville impresario Martin Beck, who built the Byzantine-style musical house in 1924.

The two-hour evening preceding the unmasking of the marquee was supervised by director Jerry Zaks and featured nearly three dozen Broadway stars. Unusually polished and entertaining for a memorial, the presentation began with an eloquent speech by playwright Arthur Miller, who, like everybody else present, was Hirschfeld's junior and began his career long after the illustrator began his in the mid-20s.

"A Hirschfeld drawing gave you wit and style you didn't know you possessed," quipped Miller, who added that he was convinced that the artist had grown his enormous beard to mask his reactions to the shows he saw. Miller's words were accompanied by a projection of a Hirschfeld of the playwright; every subsequent speaker was similarly shadowed by the caricaturist's vision of the man or woman.

Hirschfeld, a fixture at The New York Times, died Jan. 20, 2003, at age 99. He learned that a theatre would be named for him prior to his death. Carol Channing, dressed in vibrant red, told how she was first "Hirschfelded," and then sang a chorus of "Hello, Dolly!," a song she said Hirschfeld loved to hear her sing. After it was remarked that the first Broadway show Hirschfeld saw was something called High Jinks, a 1913 offering at the Lyric Theatre, erstwhile Producers stars Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick appeared. "Well, we're here," said Lane. "Shall we sing the biggest hit song from High Jinks of 1913?"

The two then warbled a tongue-in-cheek version of a silly, completely unrecognizable ditty from the forgotten show. The tune was about young love and giddy spirits and had plenty of "deedle deedle"-type nonsense lyrics in it. Its centerpiece was a recitation, spoken by Lane and acted out by sidekick Broderick. The two backed up the number with a bit of comic soft shoe.

Victor Garber sang a song about Nina, the Hirschfeld daughter whose name could be found several times in most any of her father's drawings. The song concluded with Garber introducing Nina Hirschfeld herself. Other highlights included Frank Langella's recitation of a 1941 William Saroyan tribute to the illustrator; theatre doyenne Kitty Carlisle Hart offering a rare singing performance; Audra McDonald rendering the Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me"; and two songs from Barbara Cook. Cook stilled the packed audience by delivering the second selection, the standard "We'll Be Together Again," without a microphone, filling the auditorium with the old-fashioned sound of an unamplified voice—a sound the would have been quite familiar to Hirschfeld, who saw nearly a century of Broadway theatre.

The performance concluded with a version of "Give Me Regards to Broadway," sung by a chorus of theatre luminaries, including Brent Barrett, Stephen Bogardus, La Chanze, Mark Jacoby, Liz Callaway, Kevin Chamberlin, Malcolm Gets, Marge Champion, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Adam Pascal, Sutton Foster, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Whoopi Goldberg.

The audience was then directed outside, where Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, Jujamcyn President Rocco Landesman and the New York Times' Arthur Gelb cut the ribbon on the new marquee. The recreated illustration shows the bearded, woolly-eyebrowed Hirschfeld dipping a quill pen into his very brain. The lights lit up in such a sequence as to repeatedly draw the artist's uplifted arm and pen, as if Hirschfeld himself were tracing one of his immortal lines.

The Al Hirschfeld Theatre will have its first day as a working theatre on June 24, when Man of La Mancha, starring Mitchell, begins its current week of performances.