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Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes
FOR SEVENTY YEARS HE HAS DEFINED HOW WE SEE THE WORLD OF THEATER
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
In recent years there’s no question about what I will do if there’s an opening. There are only one or two a week, at the most. It used to be a hassle because there’d be four or five openings in one night. You’d have first-, second-, third-, fourth-string reviewers. They’d take them from the sports department to cover a show. And then there was the question of what we’d use for the first page of the drama section. It usually was based on the track record of the producer or the star or the playwright.
And now they call you up and say, will you do this or that?
Yes, or if it’s something that I want to do, I might suggest it, and they usually say fine, go ahead.
I know you’re not much for nostalgia, but today’s casualness is a far cry from the glamour that once was Broadway, isn’t it? Do you miss that glamour?
I don’t know that I miss it. But I can’t get used to the idea that on opening night a fellow takes his overcoat off and he’s in his shirtsleeves or dungarees. They used to come with top hats and in carriages. At Forty-second Street and Broadway you’d have about eight or ten droshkies out front. That disappeared, of course. These things change across time, and you get used to it. It’s only when I’m reminded of them that I realize that the changes have been great. It happens so gradually.
Has your ability to spot a potential hit gotten better over the decades you’ve been assessing plays?
It’s about the same as when I started: usually wrong. You don’t learn anything. I’ve seen plays on the road that I thought were going to be big hits but turned out to be disasters, and I’ve seen shows that I doubted would even make it to Broadway that turned out to be hits.
Away We Go was one of those. It opened in New Haven in 1943. Lawrence Langner, the producer, was nervous about its prospects, and he asked me to have a coffee with him in the Taft Hotel after a New Haven performance. I come into the Taft, and there’s Billy Rose [then proprietor of the famous Golden Horseshoe nightclub and husband of the Follies comedienne Fanny Brice] and Mike Todd [future husband of Elizabeth Taylor and later the producer of Around the World in 80 Days ] at a table, and I sat with them. Lawrence came in and sat down with us and said, “Listen, I’ve asked you fellows here to tell me the truth about this. I have no idea about musicals. Is it any good? Just level with me.” Well, Mike Todd said, “Do you want the truth? Listen, if it was my show, I’d close it. Forget it. You don’t have a chance. Just close it.” Rilly Rose says. “Wait a minute, there are a couple of tunes in there that are not bad. If it were mine, I’d certainly open in Boston and work on it and try to rearrange it.” And I said I liked the ballet in it.
Well, I came back to the Times with a report that this show might not reach Broadway. So I went up to Boston to see the new Ziegfeld Follies , starring Milton Berle, deciding that I would do a drawing on that instead. During the intermission the press agent from the Theatre Guild came over and said, “Listen, stay over and catch the matinee tomorrow of Away We Go . We’ve changed the title to Oklahoma! , and it’s not bad.”
I went to the opening night of Oklahoma! , and the curtain rises. There’s an unknown actor, Alfred Drake, who opens with a song that used to end the first act, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'.” And you realize that you’re in the presence of a hit. That’s what happens. But it damn near closed out of town!
Now in 1947 you became part of an incredibly talented quartet of would-be musical creators, with S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash, who had worked on Kurt Weill’s smash One Touch of Venus , and the composer Vernon Duke. Perelman asked you to collaborate with him on the book of a new musical, Sweet Bye and Bye , and it didn’t even survive its tryouts in Philadelphia. How could guys like you produce such a flop?
Well, you never know what an audience’s reaction is going to be until you have it up there on the stage. Sweet Bye and Bye takes place in the future. And we discovered that writing music for the future is almost impossible. In prose you can be as satirical as you want about the future. Visually you can do it. And Ogden’s lyrics were marvelous. But once the music starts, either you’re back in the year when you’re sitting there watching it or it’s pretentious.