PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 11-19: The End of a Line

News   PBOL'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, Jan. 11-19: The End of a Line It may seem strange saying so, since he was "only" a caricaturist, but the death at 99 of Al Hirschfeld, who drew the plays and personalities of the American theatre for more than seven decades, truly marks the end of an era.

We will never see the artists of the New York stage the same way again, because, in many ways, we have for so long seen them the way he did. Few alive today saw the playwrights and critics of the Algonquin Round Table, yet we all have an idea of how they looked because of Hirshfeld's widely reprinted illustration. Many more can say they saw Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly!, yet their descriptions of her performance are all very likely to remind one of The Line King's immortal drawing of the befeathered and beaded actress as Dolly Levi. (One can't help but think that if Hirschfeld had drawn the performers that dominated Broadway from 1900 to 1925, we would be more familiar with them.) Even our vision of Mr. Hirschfeld himself is heavily based on his own self-portraits.

Hirschfeld had a bigger impact on the public than any American illustrator since the mid-19th century's Thomas Nast. Hirschfeld's art did not topple any political figures, as Nast's did. What he did was more akin to Nast's other famous accomplishment: Santa Claus. Nast's depiction of the jolly old elf, in white beard and red suit, became the nation's shared idea of Father Christmas. Similarly, the combination of sweeping lines, quick ink strokes and dots from which Hirschfeld conjured his portraits are known and silently shared by all theatremakers and theatregoers.

Actors will suffer for his loss. For decades, it has been a badge of honor to have been the subject of Hirschfeld; it was proof that you had arrived as a performer. Actors purchased the original drawing of themselves and hung the framed work in a prominent location in their home or dressing room. Generations of thespians may now flounder indefinitely, not knowing if the theatre has completely welcomed them or not. Hirschfeld is no longer here to tell them.

The New York Times, too, is diminished. Hirschfeld first drew for the Gray Lady in 1926 and has worked for it ever since. His work added flair, wit and vibrancy to the august broadsheet's pages, and silently affirmed its status as the paper of record as far as the New York theatre was concerned. It's not clear whether the Times will try to replace Hirschfeld with another caricaturist. One thing is certain, however: they can't.

There was another loss to the theatre this week. Nell Carter, the sassy and stout singer who blazed to fame after her Tony-winning appearance in the Fats Waller revue Ain't Misbehavin', died suddenly on Jan. 23. She was only 54. She was rehearsing to star in a 30th anniversary production of the musical, Raisin, inspired by the play A Raisin the Sun, for International City Theatre in Long Beach, CA. (That show will go on with another actress, the theatre announced.) Before Metamorphoses, the Ovid-inspired work created by Mary Zimmerman, finally closes, it will have traveled one of the strangest roads ever trod by a Broadway show. After triumphing at various regional house over several years, the experimental, elementally theatrical show finally found a home in New York's Off-Broadway theatre Second Stage. That in itself was an achievement. It opened weeks after the devastating events of Sept. 11, 2001, but instead of succumbing, its collection of stories about love, death and redemption found a hungry audience. The show became an unlikely Broadway transfer and bounced to the Circle in the Square, the only theatre on Broadway that could accommodate its central set piece: a swimming pool.

Metamorphoses went on to further surprise the community by becoming a box office success. It recouped its investment in a few months and Zimmerman walked away with a Tony Award for Best Direction. During its entire run, it lost money for only four weeks. But two of those weeks were consecutive and fell in December, so the owners of Circle in the Square, hot for a potentially more lucrative property, imposed the "stop clause" and forced the show out. It announced a closing date on Feb. 16.

But Metamorphoses didn't really want to close. So the producers began to look to the place from whence the show came: Off-Broadway. Ben Sprecher, who runs the new Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street, confirmed that Metamorphoses is one of several works circling that stage. If the show does make the move, it will be, without a doubt, the only Tony-winning production to be found Off-Broadway. It may proved a good move. Ovid was sent into exile by the powers that be, too, and has fared pretty well over the years.

A couple actresses with firm jawlines will be visiting Off-Broadway soon. Tovah Feldshuh has been named the Gold Meir of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre's production of William Gibson's Golda's Balcony. The show begins March 13 And Kate Mulgrew will be Kate Hepburn in Tea at Five, set to commence at the Promenade on Feb. 25.

The Classic Stage Company of Off-Broadway loses its artistic directors with a pretty predictable regularity. Barry Edelstein announced this week that he would step down as the top man at CSC after five years of doing some, say, unorthodox things with works by Moliere and Jonson. That's about as long as his predecessor, David Esbjornson, spent at the place, who himself matched the time clocked in by Carey Perloff. (Compare this to Lynne Meadow, who has run Manhattan Theatre Club for 30 years, or Todd Haimes, who will probably never let go of the wheel of the good ship Roundabout.) Perloff went on to be a.d. at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre, while Esbjornson has become the helmsman of choice for literary lions like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. Time will tell what the next act of Edelstein's career will hold.

Finally, Jerry Herman, who hasn't brought out a completely new stage musical in 20 years, will finally present his latest musical, titled, in typically chippy Herman fashion, Miss Spectacular. Don't look for it on Broadway, though. The show will bow in Las Vegas. Tommy Tune will direct, taking him back to the desert where he starred in EFX. And the star of the small-town-girl-hits-it big plotline? Well, we'll all find out at the same time, because the lucky starlet will be chosen via an eight-episode reality television series set to air in late 2003. Will that make her a survivor or an American idol?

Al Hirschfeld, a scene from <i>Metamorphoses</i>, Nell Carter in the Broadway revival of <i>Ain't Misbehavin'</i>
Al Hirschfeld, a scene from Metamorphoses, Nell Carter in the Broadway revival of Ain't Misbehavin' (Photo by Hirschfeld: Castle Hill Productions, Inc. ©1996, <i>Metamorphoses</i> by Joan Marcus, Carter: Martha Swope)