In the world of the theater, the one-person show is perhaps the closest thing to having it all, a supreme test of assurance and ability; of magnetism and charisma. The format is both seductive and frightening; there’s no one to play against, to lean on, to share the criticism. But for an actor, if there is no one else to take the blame, there is also no one to share the credit with as well. The applause at the end is for only one performer.
Many solo shows are either biographical or autobiographical. Yet if they are alone on stage, oftentimes the individual performer must create a cast of characters to bring their monodrama to life. We might forget that in the Belle of Amherst, Julie Harris was called on to create 15 characters. In Patrick Stewart’s Christmas Carol he performed even more. Whoopi Goldberg seemed to create a city full of personalities.
In many ways they are all caricatures in the sense they have exaggerated elements of their subject to bring a whole life or simply a story to life. So in essence, Al Hirschfeld, the ultimate solo artist, is the ideal portraitist for this unique form of theater. As these times currently require us to all to be solo acts, we invite you into the world of the solo performance as seen through the eyes and pen of Hirschfeld.
Emlyn Williams’ solo performance of selections from the works as Charles Dickens, had the actor/playwright on stage with simply a replica of Dickens’ reading desk and a pile of his books. Hirschfeld’s drawing was a unique collage that was credited by the Times as “Drawing by Al Hirschfeld, with an assist from another century by Frederick Bernard,” which may have very well been taken from Hirschfeld’s own handwritten caption. Producer Sol Hurok adapted just Hirschfeld’s image of Williams and used it on the program and advertisements on tour. Williams would later be drawn in two other solo shows on the writers Saki and Dylan Thomas.
“Henry Fonda Is Embodiment of Darrow,” was the headline of the rave in The New York Times the morning after the opening. Three days earlier, Hirschfeld’s portrait of Fonda had already revealed that. John Houseman directed this one-man show, based on Irving Stone’s biography of Darrow, and with lighting and a few prop pieces to allow Fonda to suggest Darrow’s home, office and courtroom. This drawing was later syndicated in September 1974, when NBC aired a taped performance.
James Whitmore was known for his one-man shows. In the same year of this drawing, Whitmore played Harry S. Truman in Give ‘Em Hell Harry (he was received an Oscar nomination for the 1975 film adaptation), and Bully! about Teddy Roosevelt. Will Rogers, U.S.A. was his first one-man show in 1970, and many considered his best. He played it off and on for thirty years touring alone across the county. He said he simply needed a bare stage. He would enter as himself and set the scene and then without leaving he transformed himself into the Oklahoma born comedian and rodeo performer simply by taking of his jacket, slouching his shoulders, donning a hat and lariat.
The Belle of Amherst was a one-woman show based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson, drawing on her poems, diaries, and letters. After one preview, Julie Harris opened on Broadway in April 1976, where she won the Tony for Best Actress, bringing to life 15 characters on stage during the performance. She even won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording when she recorded the text of the William Luce play. You can see her bring Dickinson to life in a video recording that was first broadcast on PBS. For close to 25 years, Harris toured in the show across over the country. Hirschfeld would latr draw in her in a one-woman show, Lucifer’s Child about the writer Isak Dikerson
By the time Lily Tomlin debuted on Broadway in her one-woman show, Appearing Nitely, she had won a Grammy, nominated for an Oscar, and had become a household name since her first appearance on Laugh-In in 1968. She co-wrote and co-directed this show with her longtime partner and collaborator (and now wife), Jane Wagner. They put Tomlin alone on stage with virtually no props but with a string of characters that delighted audiences with her incisive wit an caricatured personalities. She earned a special Tony for this production. She later released a comedy album of the show simply titled Lily Tomlin On Stage, which was also nominated for a Grammy. He would later draw her twice in another of her solo shows The Search For Intelligent Life in the Universe.
Geraldine Fitzgerald was such a magnetic presence on stage that she has supposedly sophisticated New York audiences both on and off Broadway singing along with her on the 60-year old chestnut “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” in her one–woman cabaret, Streetsongs. She had been performing in five years in clubs (including a week on Broadway in 1976), before she presented her latest version at the Roundabout Theater for a month in 1979. This drawing, which appeared in the New York Times Friday theater column, was later used on the album cover for a recording of the show. It is set to be re-released by Harbinger Records this year.
Newman was a Tony-winning actress and a regular on television for over 50 years. In 1979, she and playwright Arthur Laurents collaborated on this one-woman show, a semi-autobiographical musical about an older actress who tries to balance her career with the demands of her family life. It featured songs by Bernstein, Harnick & Bock, Kander & Ebb, Comden & Green (her husband), and Sondheim, among others. In the Friday column that accompanied this drawing, Newman said “I’d rather someone else were up there with me. If the mic goes out, if some disaster happens, I’m all alone.”
Although perhaps known best today as the voice of Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Carroll has had an extensive career on stage, film and television. In the late 1970s she starred in this one-woman show about the legendary novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector, written by Marty Martin. The play takes place in the living room of an apartment that Stein is about to be evicted from in 1938. Carroll brought Stein to life as she recalled people like James Joyce, Picasso, and Cezanne, as well as her own story. “Using a word like ‘intimate’ in speaking of a relationship with another woman, her crisp tones become hushed,” wrote a Times review, “she glances at us with birdlike curiosity to see if we’ve taken her meaning.”
When Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. decided to finally present a play about Abraham Lincoln who had been famously shot at the theater, they read through 36 different scripts before deciding that Herbert Mitgang’s Mister Lincoln was the right one. This monodrama starred British actor Roy Dotrice, who had already made a name from himself in a solo show in Brief Lives about John Aubrey, the 17th-century British writer and his accounts of the lives of illustrious men of his era. Mister Lincoln presented the 16th president alone on stage with few props as he tells the story of his life as it passes by before him after being shot.
“I prefer to do this more than anything,” said Alec McCowen in the Friday theater column that accompanied this drawing. “’Mark’ was my idea. I always wanted do one original thing in my life as an actor.” McCowen was well known for close to a half century of stage and film roles. For this solo show, he memorized the Gospel of St. Mark, appeared on stage in street clothes, and over two acts gave audiences the feeling they were hearing from Mark himself telling the story of Jesus. “I feel like I’m gossiping and chatting as opposed to the religious intoning you get in church. Mark is a gossiper.” You can see excerpts of his performance here.
Ruth Draper was a celebrated actress and playwright who dominated the field of professional solo performance during the second quarter of the twentieth century in both the United States and Europe. Close to three decades after her death, actress Patricia Norcia revived a selection of Draper monologues that she performed in New York and around the country. Although Norcia appeared on stage with only a few props she didn’t feel alone. “I never feel lonesome. There are all those invisible characters up there with me.”
Avner the Eccentric does it the hard way (watch him here). Not only is he alone on stage, but he does not speak. His one-man show is similar to a silent film, where the comedy is physical rather than literary. Hirschfeld had extensive experience drawing silent comedians like Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase and many others, so drawing a bearded clown alone in the spotlight was easy for the artist. And probably a lot of fun. As one reviewer put it, “If you are feeling low, take two hours of Avner for comic relief.”
When Whoopi debuted in a solo show on Broadway, she was described as “one part Elaine May, one part Groucho, one part Ruth Draper, one part Richard Pryor and five parts never seen before.” Hirschfeld captured five of her characters in his drawing (one of which you can see here), and included 40 NINAs. When Whoopi told him at a rehearsal he visited to make sketches, that as a child she couldn’t always find all of the hidden NINAs, and that made her feel “slow and it hurt,” Hirschfeld decided to include a record number so she could find them all, beginning a friendship that lasted until his death in 2003.
In 1986, Mason made a big hit on Broadway in essentially an evening of stand up (you can see it here or on Prime). It surprised the former rabbi turned comedian who had been working for decades before the success. “The truth of the matter is that I can’t quite understand it. How the same comedian who isn’t performing in a new way or didn’t change his personality is suddenly a success like this. The producers who said before that I was too Jewish—now suddenly I’m an art form.” He was also fortunate that his producers commissioned Hirschfeld to create an iconic image that was used on programs, posters, and newspaper advertisements. Hirschfeld also drew a poster for Mason’s 1994 Broadway show Politically Incorrect.
Bogosian’s Drinking in America was the first show to bring him “uptown” after ten years as a downtown phenomena. He won an Obie for writing a show that featured him as “grasping show-biz hustler; a latter day Willy Loman on the road; a ghetto junkie, and a gyrating heavy-metal rock star,” wrote Frank Rich in his Times review. “While many of the characters are indeed intoxicated…The men we meet are gluttons for power, money, and sex as well as for chemical stimulants; they have pigged out on the American way.” Hirschfeld would draw Bogosian in another of his solo successes, Sex, Drug, Rock-and-Roll (which you can watch here).
In Willy Russel’s play, Educating Rita, he had only two actors help dramatize a woman’s journey to self-empowerment. With Shirley Valentine, he distilled it down to one actress, Pauline Collins, as the English housewife we first meet in her kitchen as she prepares dinner for her ungrateful husband. By Act II she has accepted an invitation from her friend to travel to Greece, where she rediscovers who she is. After a successful run in the West End, Collins won a Tony on Broadway, and it was later adapted to a film, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Hirschfeld also drew Collins’ Broadway replacement, Ellen Burstyn who took over the role six months into the run.
Patinkin helped to create a new type of sensitive leading man. His performance in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George cemented his reputation as a singer of “fierce, neurotic intelligence,” according to one critic. For this solo show, which first began at Joe Papp’s Public Theater before transferring to Broadway, he sang nearly three dozen songs, most of them standards, “in an evening that programmatically blurs the line between dramatic singing and psychodrama,” according to the Times. A perfectionist, Patinkin told audiences at the beginning of the show that if he felt a song was not going as intended, he would stop and start it again for as many times as it took to get it right, which happened frequently.
Before appearing in Jay Presson Allen’s monodrama, Tru in 1990, Robert Morse had not been on Broadway for close to 15 years. The seemingly ageless young man from How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was virtually unrecognizable as the late writer Truman Capote, which he played in a “skin colored tub of Jello,” courtesy of the makeup artist from the film, Altered States. Set in Capote’s penthouse suite on Christmas Eve 1975, Morse played a Capote who had been ostracized by the high society that he had cocooned himself in for the last two decades. The production was filmed and you can watch here.
“I don’t ever want a one-woman show; the terror to go out alone, and also simply learning it,” thought Eileen Atkins before she agreed to a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 lectures at Girton College, Cambridge. A decade earlier she had turned down a role as Woolf in Edna O’Brien’s play, Virginia. “What’s interesting is what Virginia wrote herself, and I didn’t see the point of doing a play without someone whose own work is so brilliant. Why have anybody’s opinion of somebody who’s already a genius?” But with Partrick Garland’s adaptation of the lectures she played it in a small theater in England, before moving it to the West End, and then having it filmed. She was brought to New York to play it at the Lamb’s Theater.
Hirschfeld presented monologist Spaulding Gray as simply as Gray did himself. In Gray’s Anatomy, Gray sat behind a simple wood table for his whole performance and told a series of interlocking stories about his search for a cure for an illness affecting his eyes that took him from Elvis-like healer in the Philippines to a sweat lodge in Minnesota. As an opening night review read, “[Gray’s] performance in which the studied comic presentation is never eclipsed by an ineffable far-reaching emotional pull finds true theatrical magic amid a barrage of skillfully arranged tricks.” The production was filmed by Steven Soderbergh.
Stewart presented this Dickens classic as a solo show with no costumes and few props. He played so many different characters that one review claimed the Cratchit Christmas dinner at the end of the story, “in which the actor portrays the entire family, Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and is also on the verge of impersonating the goose on the table and the Christmas pudding with holly stuck into the top, is a tour de force. It reminds us not only of what an inventive actor he is, but also of Dickens’s own great theatricality.” Stewart commissioned this drawing, and it was later published in the Times in 2001, when Stewart revived his production.
William Luce’s monodrama of John Barrymore provided “Christopher Plummer with the chance to create a portrait of riveting complexity and paradox that defies easy psychology,” wrote Ben Brantley in his opening night review. “Finding the illuminating spark of divinity in the junk heap of the aging Barrymore, Mr. Plummer spectacularly confirms his reputation as the finest classical actor in North America.”
Bernhard, the doyenne of downtown culture, is in a league of her own. “The evening is a sort of deconstructed standup act crossed with a poetry slam and a rock concert,” wrote Variety in their review when it moved from the Westbeth Theater to Broadway in November 1998. “[It is] performed on a moody set that looks to have been assembled by mixing leftovers from Lincoln Center’s Twelfth Night and some higher-end items from Pier 1 Imports.” Hirschfeld had drawn her ten years earlier in one of her breakout solo performances in Without You I’m Nothing, With You I’m Not Much Better.
“I love the challenge. The adrenaline rush of live theater is unmatched,” John Leguizamo wrote right before he opened this one-man show. “I also love the freebies a solo show gives me. No being upstaged, or fighting with other movie actors for camera time, or finding out your hard work has been edited by Jack the Ripper. There is so much power in a one-man show. I love the power. I’d rather be a mack daddy in the ghetto than a mogul in Hollywood.” The show dealt with relationships throughout his life leading up to being the father of two children. You can watch selections of the production here.
Stritch dressed only in a oversize white shirt, black tights, high heels, and pearls, with a lone chair as her only prop, brought to life her extraordinary show biz career in a one-woman show “constructed” by theater critic John Lahr (and “reconstructed” by Stritch), and directed by George Wolfe. “Stritch is not the kind of woman who goes in for the sappy self-indulgence that pollutes most one-person shows,” wrote Newsweek in its review. “In fact, At Liberty is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch's career and life.”