David Leopold couldn’t wait for The New York Times to arrive on his family’s doorstep.
As a kid, Sunday mornings were spent racing through the paper’s pages until he reached that week’s Al Hirschfeld drawing, which would depict the latest production about to open on Broadway. Leopold didn’t necessarily know who the subjects were. Rather, he was enamored with finding all of the hidden “Ninas” — after the birth of Hirschfeld’s daughter, he would place her name in random spots throughout the artwork.
As fate would have it, Leopold decades later found himself still counting “Ninas,” but this time, in Hirschfeld’s studio at the request of the artist himself. Hired as Hirschfeld’s archivist, Leopold visited the space about twice a week for 13 years. One day, Hirschfeld tasked Leopold with counting the “Ninas” in his latest drawing — though he thought he hid five, he could only find four. According to Leopold, this weekly hunt became a “national insanity” spanning 54 years. Therefore, Hirschfeld had to get it right.
“He came to rely on me just like I came to rely on him,” said Leopold.
Though Hirschfeld passed away in 2003 at the age of 99, he can still rely on Leopold, creative director of the nonprofit Al Hirschfeld Foundation, to ensure his artistic legacy lives on. Leopold is heading to Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, on Wednesday, Sept. 28, to host the new multimedia presentation Hirschfeld’s Broadway.
The world premiere features fascinating accounts of Hirschfeld’s life and his involvement with the most beloved productions to hit New York stages, from Hairspray and Annie to The Phantom of the Opera and Mamma Mia!, all drawn by him.
Following the show, there will be a public gallery of Hirschfeld’s artwork, with hand-signed limited edition prints available for sale at Playhouse Deck. Proceeds from the sale will be split between the Bucks County Playhouse and Al Hirschfeld Foundation.
While Leopold admitted that he could chat for hours about Hirschfeld’s work, which also includes drawings for film and television, he assured theater-goers that Hirschfeld’s Broadway won’t be that long and will center on the artist’s longtime love for theater.
“Hirschfeld saw more opening nights on Broadway than anyone. By the ‘90s, if he was late, which was rare, they would hold the curtain until he arrived,” said Leopold, who penned the 2015 book The Hirschfeld Century: A Portrait of the Artist and His Age. “He was such a link to the whole tradition of Broadway. And his drawings appeared the Sunday before shows opened. So, when he drew Guys and Dolls for instance, he didn’t know whether it was going to be a big hit or a big flop. That’s not what he was interested in. He was a visual journalist who was capturing the essence of the show. His drawings are great because they show all of this activity yet reveal none of the plot.”
These drawings became widely known as the “logo of American theater.” Even if one was unable to physically attend a Broadway show, they knew what was happening thanks to Hirschfeld’s drawn-from-life view.
Over the years, Hirschfeld saw and sketched it all, from Barbra Streisand’s audition for her first Broadway show to the opening of Bucks County Playhouse in 1939. In fact, the drawing Hirschfeld sketched for this event almost cost him his career, but we’ll let Leopold tell that story next week.
Hirschfeld couldn’t please everybody with his drawings, which were typically done in black and white and utilized exaggeration and distortion to, according to Leopold, make it look “more like the person than the person did.”
Still, he pleased most.
“It was a hard feat because actors are some of the vainest people on the planet,” said Leopold with a laugh. “One would think they would run away from him, or his appearance at a theater would be a very awkward moment. Rather than be awkward, performers would see him and throw their arms open to give him a big hug. They loved what he did and Hirschfeld loved everybody. He gave up political work when he was still quite a young man because he realized he was closer to Groucho Marx than he was to Karl Marx.”
Some artists spend years trying to find themselves and understand what kind of work they want to produce. Hirschfeld, on the other hand, didn’t have this problem. By the age of 25, his pieces were being viewed by millions. Not only were they appearing in The New York Times, he was hired by film and television studios to create publicity posters, including one for The Wizard of Oz, and other promotional materials.
Even as Hirschfeld got older, he didn’t slow down. He kept finding new ways to do things. In the ‘70s, he was asked to contribute drawings to an arts column, which only gave him a few inches to work with. After years of having his art at the top of the fold of the former “Drama” section, many thought this to be beneath him. But Hirschfeld was up for the tiny challenge and created 520 drawings for this initiative alone.
In total, his work amounts to approximately 10,000 drawings, with Leopold and the foundation continuing to stumble across new things.
Despite being in the studio nearly every day for the majority of his life, it never felt like work to Hirschfeld (the only work he did was in the garden). Even during his final months, his talent and drive didn’t waiver.
“People looked at these drawings and thought they were the best work that he had done in his whole career,” said Leopold. “An 82-year career, you’re going to cover a lot of ground, especially for someone like him who genuinely loved what he did. He’s not just some guy who drew the theater. This was a person who was intimately involved in all aspects, knew all the players.”
Unintentionally, and somewhat to his alarm, Hirschfeld’s drawings — especially the ones featuring hidden “Ninas” — were used by the U.S. Army to train pilots in bombing targets. Basically, if they could find the “Ninas,” they would be able to find a target.
A University of Pennsylvania researcher also used Hirschfeld’s drawings to train doctors in spotting easily-missed issues on an X-ray, such as a small tumor.
For Leopold, it’s a thrill to share these stories and more with audiences who grew up viewing Hirschfeld’s work, as well as younger generations who didn’t have that opportunity but are keen to learn about him.
“We see older people come because it’s a nostalgia trip for them and younger people come because it’s fascinating to them,” he said. “He’s a window into a world that, in some ways, no longer exists and yet is a tradition today.”
Regarding the next generation of Hirschfeld enthusiasts, Leopold believes they see his drawings as the artist did.
“He wanted to create a drawing that stood on its own two feet that didn’t have anything to do with its topical news value. Young audiences see this because the news value isn’t important to them. They don’t know Katharine Hepburn. They respond to the drawings themselves,” said Leopold.
If Hirschfeld were alive today, Leopold doesn’t think there’s a specific person or production he’d want to cover.
He would want to draw it all.
“This is a man who, if he was at a restaurant or something and he was a little bored, he might start drawing on the table cloth or napkin,” he said.
In Leopold’s opinion, a particularly honorable trait of Hirschfeld’s was his ability to not turn his nose up at Broadway revivals. He could see a show four or five times and still find a unique way to cover it visually. Each actor brought something new to the role, so there was always something new to depict on paper.
“He would start talking about the show as if he had never seen it,” said Leopold. “He viewed things in a context of where they were in that moment. His work was always fresh. It was never done in the past tense.”
If you go: “Hirschfeld’s Broadway” is at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St. in New Hope, for one night only on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, with proceeds benefiting the theater and Al Hirschfeld Foundation. Visit BucksCountyPlayhouse.org or call 215-862-2121 to purchase tickets. Visit alhirschfeldfoundation.org for more information on the foundation.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com