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Hirschfeld Theatre Dedicated With Stories and Songs

One of Broadway's best shows was presented free to the public last evening by Jujamcyn Theaters and The New York Times. It culminated in the rededication of the Martin Beck Theatre, built by that vaudeville producer in 1924, as the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in honor of the brilliant artist who died on January 20 of this year. (He was born in St. Louis, June 21, 1903.) It's worth a trip to West 45th Street and Eighth Avenue just to see the superb new marquee that duplicates in white neon the self portrait of Hirschfeld dipping a pen into his brain for inspiration.

That drawing was seen onscreen at the start of the 90-minute program, which began with taped remarks by Walter Cronkite. Each participant was introduced by a Hirschfeld caricature of him or her. The first speaker was Arthur Miller, who claimed that looking at one of the artist's drawings was "the best thing for tired blood." There followed taped tributes by a number of performers, including Harvey Fierstein, Mel Brooks, Jane Krakowski, Dick Latessa, Brian Dennehy, Melissa Errico, Bebe Neuwirth, John Lithgow, Frank Langella, Bernadette Peters, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Mary Stuart Masterson, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bill Maher, and Stanley Tucci.

Carol Channing, resplendent in red, came on to speak about being "Hirschfelded" as her caricatures, beginning with 1948's Lend an Ear, were shown on screen. The master's drawings of her, Channing declared, were "the honor of my life." She then sang a little of "Hello, Dolly!" Next up were Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who performed "Something Seems Tingle-Ingleing," from an Otto Harbach-Rudolf Friml show called High Jinks.

Frank Langella spoke about how it had been better to watch his receding hairline in Hirschfeld drawings than in the mirror. He read a 1941 letter from William Saroyan, who wrote of his admiration for Hirchfeld. A montage of Hirschfeld images of comedians was followed by caricatures of Times writers such as Walter Kerr and the next speaker, Frank Rich, who recalled Hirschfeld's love of steak and Jack Daniels. Rich also related that Hirschfeld considered Christopher Plummer "a much better Jack Barrymore than Jack Barrymore" in the actor's 1997 Tony-winning portrayal of the late actor, because the real Barrymore was "too hammy."

Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick
on stage during the Hirschfeld tribute
Victor Garber sang a song called "Nina," which led to the appearance on stage of Nina West, the artist's daughter, whose first name was famously concealed in her father's drawings. Marge Champion spoke of celebrating her 20th birthday at Hirschfeld's home, because she was then dating a friend of his. She remembered Hirschfeld saying that he "never worked a day in [his] life," since "work is something you don't like to do," and he loved what he did. A compilation of Hirschfeld drawings of dancers followed. Hirschfeld once said that he most enjoyed drawing dancers and, secondly, comedians.

Whoopi Goldberg said that when Hirschfeld and his second wife, Dolly Haas, attended a rehearsal of her first one-woman Broadway show, she looked out into the audience and saw "Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus." When Mike Nichols told her who Santa was, Whoopi was nervous about meeting him, because she had spent years looking for Ninas. She told Hirschfeld of her admiration and admitted that she couldn't always find the hidden name. His subsequent caricature of Whoopi featured 40 Ninas and he sent her a note explaining that he "wanted to make sure you could find them all." A montage of drawings depicting Harlem life followed.

Kitty Carlisle Hart sang "Here's to Life." An Andy Rooney tape about Hirschfeld was shown, after which Rooney spoke briefly: "Jerry Zaks [who supervised the show] said it would be good theater if I came out and said hello. Well, if that's good theater, hello." The sublime Barbara Cook sang "A Wonderful Guy" from South Pacific and (sans microphone) "We'll Be Together Again."

Hal Prince recalled an occasion when he and his wife were on vacation and met Mr. and Mrs. Hirschfeld. They had dinner together from 7pm to 10pm, at which time Prince said that he was tired; the Hirschfelds seemed relieved, he said, because they were attending a show with a 10:30 curtain. There followed a montage of drawings of Broadway shows.

Brian Stokes Mitchell sang "Look at That Face" as a montage of Hirschfeld drawings of unforgettable personalities was shown. Jules Feiffer expressed his admiration for Hirschfeld and concluded, "He is to caricature what Fred Astaire is to dance." Jujamcyn president Rocco Landesman recalled his reaction to Hirschfeld's caricature of him: "Either I don't look like that or I've done remarkably well for someone who looks like that." Landesman went on to compliment his Jujamcyn colleagues for not bowing to commercialism, saying, "You'll notice that this is not the Taco Bell Theatre." He also introduced Martin Beck's granddaughter, seated in the audience, whom he said was very supportive of the theater's name change.

Victor Garber and Nina West
Audra McDonald sang "They Can't Take That Away from Me," and the introduction to "Give My Regards to Broadway." For the remainder of the song, she was joined by performers including Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, Adam Pascal, Marissa Jaret Winokur, Liz Callaway, Cady Huffman, LaChanze, Mark Linn-Baker, Sutton Foster, Brent Barrett, Kevin Chamberlin, Malcolm Gets, Stephen Bogardus, and Mark Jacoby. They, in turn, were joined by the stars who had performed earlier.

Throughout the evening, there were clips of Hirschfeld from the 1996 documentary, The Line King. His first theatrical drawing -- Sacha Guitry in Mozart -- was used in the Herald-Tribune in December 1926; a week later, the Times requested that he sketch the Scottish star Sir Harry Lauder. Hirschfeld always freelanced for the Times. His last drawing -- of Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails -- appeared in December 2002.

Among the notables in attendance for the ceremony and performance were Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Lauren Bacall, Phyllis Newman, James Lipton, Charlotte Rae, Arlene Dahl, and Swoosie Kurtz. At show's end, everyone was asked to exit and watch as the new marquee was unveiled by the artist's widow, Louise, and Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of the New York Times. All in all, it was an evening of style, intelligence, and wit, befitting the gifted honoree.