- Historic Sites
Through Hirschfeld’s Eyes
FOR SEVENTY YEARS HE HAS DEFINED HOW WE SEE THE WORLD OF THEATER
July/August 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 4
The assumption in this play is that you reopen the time capsule at the site of the 1939 World’s Fair. In opening the capsule, we take out various objects that are in there. Well, all of that works. But then you’re suddenly in 2076, and now you’ve got to get music that’s being played in 2076. Well, the composer, naturally, is living in our time and age, and he wants royalties on this music, so he can’t go too far off. Vernon Duke, who was a hell of a good composer, he had six harpists in this. It was almost impossible. It was such a disaster we had to leave the country.
Broadway has long been called the “fabulous invalid.” How’s the patient doing today?
There are more theaters now than ever before. Broadway itself is suffering, but off-Broadway and off-offBroadway are flourishing. And now each production is like starting U.S. Steel: You need eight million dollars to put on a musical. You used to need twenty thousand dollars for a musical; five thousand, eight thousand dollars for a straight play. The producer had complete control and used his own judgment; now it’s committees, and everybody has a point of view. It’s a difficult thing. And the whole star system is gone. People run two or three years in a production, the production closes, and you never hear of them again. They open a boutique on Madison Avenue, selling underwear or something.
If the star system isn’t what it used to be, is that also true for the performers you have to draw? I know you’ve often expressed a preference for actors who don’t close a door but slam it—people like Zero Mostel, Carol Charming, Katharine Hepburn, Ray B#8217;f6iger, Bert Lahr, or the Marx Brothers.
Yes, the extroverts, the exploded ventricles, the bigger-than-life performers—they’re gone. Well, not gone, but changing form. The performer today is actually better equipped to perform than at any other time I can remember, particularly in musicals. I mean, a girl who used to be able to tap-dance—well, everybody would single her out and write special material for her. Now these girls come on and do ballet. I mean, tap dance is almost Kinderspiel .
But you find caricaturing them more challenging?
Well, it’s difficult to establish a trademark for them. With Zero or Carol Channing or Helen Hayes, everybody knew what they looked like, so it was easy, since all humor is based on recognition. I remember Ray B#8217;f6iger telling me that he copied what was in my drawings. I looked at him as though he was bereft of his senses. I said, “That’s ridiculous. All I’m doing is eliminating gravity, just pushing what you’re doing a little further.” He said, “Well, that’s what I copy.” Those performers knew what they looked like. They invented themselves.
I wonder what you think Broadway’s—or live theater’s—prospects are, as well as what the outlook is for graphic arts, given all this electronic competition?
I tried drawing on a computer for a CD-ROM, and it’s very difficult to control what you’re doing. But that may be improved. Trying to guess the future—it’s one of those things I’m not good at. As for the theater, well, it managed to compete against radio and television; I imagine it still will exist yet. The fabulous invalid has a way of surviving.
The Margo Feiden Galleries on Madison Avenue, which has been selling your original drawings and lithographs now for thirty years, estimates that you’ve produced seven thousand original drawings over the past seven decades. Do you have a favorite?
The one I’m working on. If it works out, that will be my favorite.