Broadway art wasn’t just in the stars – it lives on through production design | Smart News
Between 1930 and 1960, Broadway’s megawatt stars dazzled audiences on the Great White Way and on the big screen. Carol Burnett, Julie Andrews, Ethel Merman and others have come to symbolize Broadway’s golden age.
But they were only part of the attraction; the era was also known for its stunning production design. Elaborately crafted costumes were de rigueur, and backdrops and even curtains could look like true works of art.
This art is celebrated in You’ll be Swell, you’ll be awesomea new exhibition to see until August 31. Presented by Helicline Fine Art, it can be viewed in person at the gallery by appointment and online at the Helicline website, artsy and 1stDibs.
The exhibition takes its name from a lyric written by Stephen Sondheim in “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”, a landmark song first performed by Ethel Merman in among the gypsies original Broadway run.
The artworks on display are equally iconic and run the gamut from design drawings to paintings and photographs. There’s a photo of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland at work in matching gingham outfits, a watercolor for the curtain of the third act of On the cityand a drawing of the costume that Carol Channing wore during the eponymous number in Hello Dolly!
Other shows featured include Cat on a Hot Roof, My Fair Lady, Cabaret, and goodbye birdie.
“You are looking at Freddy Wittop’s costume design for Carol Channing [in] Hello Dolly! and remember it as a time when great original musicals were made for great stars,” theater historian Laurence Maslon told NPR’s Jeff Lunden. “You look at those exhibits and drawings through what you know today. And you simply marvel at the personal skill in the art of pen, ink, watercolor and pencil that these mid-twentieth century titans possessed.”
The works come from the private collection of gallerist Keith Sherman, which he has maintained over the years with her husband, Roy Goldberg. Although most of the pieces on display are from the Golden Age of Broadway, the collection spans from the 1920s to the 1970s, for Broadway worldis Stephi Wild.
Sherman’s primary job is as a theater publicist whose business represents Broadway shows, and his many years in the industry have given him a keen eye for theater and film-related artwork. “I only buy things that I like,” he told NPR.
Some of the pieces included are by iconic cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, whose drawings of Broadway’s finest have appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker and are still on display at Sardi’s, a restaurant in the theater district where actors know they’ve “made it” once their caricature hangs on the walls.
Writing about his death in 2003, the Los Angeles TimesMyrna Oliver reported that Hirschfeld despised the typical caricatural practice of exaggerating “anatomical flaws” and instead “seeked to deepen” his drawings.
“Looking at a Hirschfeld drawing of yourself is the best thing for weary blood,” playwright Arthur Miller told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “He makes us all look like a bunch of determined, even cheerful wanderers whose worst traits he has redeemed.”
The collection also includes the original drawing of an iconic cubist poster of Josephine Baker by artist Jean Chassaing. Baker, a black woman, found the success in France that was denied her in the 1920s in the United States. Best known for her Folies-Bergère dance in a banana-adorned thong, Baker later became a spy for France by passing on secrets she overheard while performing for the Nazis. After returning to the United States, she was one of the few women to speak at the March on Washington to protest racial injustice.
Another artifact, a black and white clapperboard used on the set of the film adaptation of Cabaret, highlights the close ties between Broadway and Hollywood. The original production of the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical ran for over 1,100 performances beginning in 1966. The 1972 film retained choreographer Bob Fosse, who also directed the film. But he added Liza Minnelli in the lead as Sally Bowles instead of Jill Haworth, who originated the role.
“Since day one of my professional life, I have worked in entertainment, primarily theater, selling two hours of dark room magic,” Sherman said in a statement. “Some of these artists were friends, even clients. Their work means a lot to me, and I believe it will resonate deeply with those who love entertainment and the arts. These works are fine arts.
“You’ll Be Swell, You’ll Be Great” is viewable through August 31 at Helicline Fine Art in New York City by appointment and online at Helicline’s website, artsy and 1stDibs.