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kottke.org posts about Ben Brantley

Al Hirschfeld’s Drawings of Steven Sondheim’s Musicals

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Al Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment from Steven Sondheim's play Into the Woods

Writing for the New York Times, theater critic emeritus Ben Brantley praises caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s depictions of the late Steven Sondheim’s work:

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.

I particularly like the great energy swirling all around the lead characters in Hirschfeld’s take on “West Side Story”:

Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment in West Side Story