Ever since Stephen Sondheim died last month, certain images have been flaring in my head, so insistently that I have to catch my breath. They …
Ever since Stephen Sondheim died last month, certain images have been flaring in my head, so insistently that I have to catch my breath. They come with sound, of course — they’re inseparable from the music that feeds them. And they possess those heightened but elusive qualities that only firsthand memory confers.
Alexis Smith, in red spangles, winking at the audience as she launches into an irresistibly rhymed confession of a divided self in “Follies” (from 1971, and my first Broadway show). Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou rising through the stage floor as waxwork corpses, singing one of the most chilling reprises in Broadway musical history, in “Sweeney Todd” (1979). Mandy Patinkin finding anguished, atomic energy in a painter’s obsessive quest to render a hat on canvas in “Sunday in the Park With George” (1984).
Strangely, the visuals that come closest to evoking such moments are not the photos or videos of performances but, instead, black lines — and whorls and swirls and loops — on white paper. They are the work of the great theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose drawings of all things theatrical in the Sunday New York Times have entranced me since I was a child in North Carolina. Even then, these pictures seemed to breathe and move in a way the photographs in the same pages never could. Somehow, they even smelled like Broadway to me.
Recently, I’ve been looking through his drawings of works by Sondheim, who seems particularly to have engaged and inspired Hirschfeld. They span the decades, from “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” (for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics) in the 1950s to “Passion,” Sondheim’s last new show on Broadway, from 1994. In these drawings, I have found something like a past-recapturing, Proustian madeleine, made of ink instead of flour and sugar.
These seemingly simple pen strokes — and the ellipsis of the white space, which your own, happily collaborative mind fills in — are anything but static. They tremble with energy, tension and, above all, character, as it is conjured in real time on a stage.
Hirschfeld always said he would rather be called a “characterist” than a caricaturist. His illustrations of Sondheim, the most complex character portraitist in the Broadway songbook, make you understand why. Caricatures are a shorthand for the physical traits that make stars distinctive: Angela Lansbury’s immense Tweety Bird eyes, for example, or Bernadette Peters’s Cupid’s bow mouth.
Hirschfeld nails such elements of physiognomy. He also endows them with the exciting emotional temperature that heats up every Sondheim song. The Lansbury he draws as the corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper of “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and as the cannibal pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” are recognizably the same woman.
But you can also feel how Lansbury physically and psychically inhabits these roles in the slope and size of her shoulders, in the focus in those saucer eyes — manically mesmerized as Cora, fretful and eager as Mrs. Lovett. After staring at the “Whistle” illustration, in which Cora’s outsize ambition dwarfs the frame, I could swear that I saw that production, though I couldn’t possibly have.
Consider Hirschfeld’s Joanna Gleason, restless and leery as the Baker’s Wife in “Into the Woods.” Or Patinkin and Peters — he all penetrating angles, and she, self-contained curves — as the incompatibly in-love artist and model of “Sunday.” Or Donna Murphy, as implacable and demanding as some Assyrian god, as the sickly, love-consumed Fosca in “Passion.”
The diversity and scope of tone and substance embodied in drawings, in all their gleeful concentration of energy, make you understand why a Sondheim character remains a holy grail for singing actors.
For the record, those figures include the inhabitants of two Sondheim shows now happily in revival in New York: “Assassins” (a dark show that left me sleepless after I first saw it Off Broadway in 1991), currently at the Classic Stage Company, and “Company,” Sondheim’s breakthrough work from 1970 about being single in a world of Manhattan marrieds.
The latest version, which opens Thursday night, has been reconceived in a gender-reversed version by the director Marianne Elliott. I caught its first incarnation in London and look forward to seeing it again. In the meantime, I find an odd and comforting appropriateness to this period of mourning Sondheim in Hirschfeld’s sketch of the original show.
Hirschfeld portrays the show’s leading man, the ambivalent bachelor Bobby (Dean Jones), surrounded by and submerged in the tantalizing phantoms of the women in his life. You get the impression that Bobby will never be free of their presences. Typically, Bobby appears to regard this life sentence with both regret and pleasure. Me, I feel only pleasure — and so much gratitude — at the prospect of being haunted for the rest of my life by the ghosts of Sondheim performances past.
Ben Brantley was the chief theater critic of The Times for more than two decades, writing more than 2,500 reviews before retiring from regular reviewing in 2020.
Images from The Al Hirschfeld Foundation/www.AlHirschfeldFoundation.org
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