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When Stephen Sondheim died on Nov. 26, at age 91, my first impulse wasn’t to listen to his songs or watch snippets of his Broadway musicals. Something in me instead wanted to see the wonderful Al Hirschfeld drawings of Sondheim’s shows and characters over the decades — how Hirschfeld captured the beating hearts of “West Side Story” and “Company” and “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods” and more.
As a boy growing up in the Boston suburbs in the 1970s, Hirschfeld’s images were my first ticket to Broadway, transported by their publication in the Times’s Arts & Leisure section. And they were also how I formed an early bond with my parents, one that endured over time and even into their years with Alzheimer’s.
My parents weren’t really Sondheim fans; they loved “Send In the Clowns” because of Judy Collins, not his “A Little Night Music.” But they grew up going to Broadway shows and revered Sondheim’s mentor Oscar Hammerstein II and Hammerstein’s shows with Richard Rodgers; “Oklahoma!” was the first musical they took me to, in Boston, when I was 6. Around that time, I asked my parents why we got The Times when we didn’t live in New York. They said they still considered themselves New Yorkers and they loved Arts & Leisure and the stories and drawings about theater.
The drawings? Those were Hirschfeld’s. You can see some of them in a new guest essay this morning — nine Hirschfeld drawings of Sondheim shows on Broadway, with an accompanying essay by Ben Brantley, a former chief theater critic of The Times.
I wanted to showcase the drawings in Opinion to make the case for why they are more evocative and kinetic than even the best photos and videos of Sondheim’s shows, an argument that Ben builds beautifully. But I also wanted — hoped — that others might enjoy seeing these drawings once again in The Times (or for the first time) and thinking about how they fell in love with theater. His drawings were like a lifeline for my parents to New York City over the decades, and they helped open the door for me to Sondheim.
This is how:
I made my way to New York in 1989, as a freshman at N.Y.U., where I met a dorm mate who looked like Hirschfeld’s drawing of Little Red Ridinghood from Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Her name was Danielle Ferland, and it turned out she was Little Red in the original 1987 Broadway production of that musical. To be classmates with someone who had been on Broadway in Sondheim’s shows was one thing; for her to have also been immortalized by Hirschfeld was a whole different level of fame. (I told my parents about this Hirschfeld-in-the-flesh excitedly by phone.)
Danielle and other friends introduced me to Sondheim’s music and lyrics, well beyond “Send In the Clowns,” and some of the songs I heard evoked the Hirschfeld drawings I remembered: “America,” from “West Side Story,” and Hirschfeld’s portrait of Chita Rivera, who played Anita, and “Move On,” from “Sunday in the Park With George,” and Hirschfeld’s drawings of Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin from that production. Look at the images in our guest essay and see how Hirschfeld’s black lines almost vibrate with life — the “whorls and swirls and loops,” as Ben writes.
As my parents grew older, it was harder to take them to see shows with me. But in my years as the theater reporter at The Times, they would ask what I was seeing in New York and were delighted to hear about Angela Lansbury performing in a 2009 revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” They remembered her bulging eyes from Hirschfeld’s drawings; they remembered seeing her on Broadway long ago. They couldn’t remember the name of that show, but it was a thrill all the same.
About a decade later, I took my mother to see Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” at Lincoln Center Theater. In spite of Alzheimer’s, she whispered the lyrics to “The Rain in Spain” by heart. She still remembered Broadway. It would be the last show she saw. She is in assisted living now, and my father has passed. In a way, this guest essay is for them. Images, like songs, can stir such specific and happy memories; Mom recalling the lyrics to “The Rain in Spain” is one of my happiest. When I see her this Christmas, I will take my book of Hirschfeld drawings to show her and see if she remembers them.
Patrick Healy is the deputy Opinion editor. He joined the Times in 2005 from The Boston Globe, and has served as the Politics editor, a deputy editor in Culture, and a reporter covering two presidential campaigns, theater and New York politics.