Given the breadth of his career, it’s no surprise that Al Hirschfeld had occasion to draw actors from productions of Our Town, in light of the enduring popularity of Thornton Wilder’s play. In only 10 drawings, Hirschfeld managed to commemorate all four productions that have played on Broadway to date, ranging from the original in 1938 to the most recent revival in 2002. He also captured all of the men who played the Stage Manager on Broadway, an estimable quartet made up of Frank Craven, Henry Fonda, Spalding Gray, and Paul Newman, as well as various other members of the companies. The Hirschfeld Foundation has gathered these spotlight images to mark the publication of Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century by Howard Sherman.
During Our Town’s original run, Hirschfeld didn’t draw any of the major players, but quite literally the minor ones: Raymond Roe and Marilyn Erskine. Roe played Joe Crowell, the newspaper boy in Act I, while Marilyn Erskine played Rebecca Gibbs, who capped Act I with her speech about the letter whose address concluded with “the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God.” The accompanying article was about rules and regulations for children appearing on Broadway.
While the term “borscht belt” is better known for Catskills resorts in the 1940s through the 1960s, a similar term was applied to summer stock in upstate New York in this standalone image for The New York Times by Hirschfeld. The caption read, “Here we have the Green Manion Players of Warrensburg, who dislike pretty heartily being referred to as part of the ‘Borscht Circuit,’ Giving a performance of ‘Our Town.’ John Donahue is the minister, Robert Busch the groom and Priscilla Newton the bride.” It’s no surprise that Our Town was at the core of the drawing: the play was done by theatres around the US in some 650 productions in 1939 and 1940.
From l to r: Helen Hayes in The Good Fairy; Howard Lindsay in Life with Father; George M. Cohan in Ah, Wilderness; Martha Scott and John Craven in Our Town; and Dorothy Stickney in Life with Father.
Two seasons after Our Town closed on Broadway, romantic leads Martha Scott and John Craven were seated by Hirschfeld at an imagined dining table headed by the “First Lady of the American Theatre,” Helen Hayes. The image drew together cast members from various recent Broadway shows who had to eat on stage, for an article that revealed what some stage food was actually made of. The expose concluded by noting that Scott and Craven consumed “the strangest food ever eaten behind the footlights,” citing the imaginary strawberry phosphates from Act I. Mr. Webb’s breakfast of invisible French toast didn’t rate a mention.
The fourth television version of Our Town – which used ads drawn by Hirschfeld – wasn’t exactly Thornton Wilder’s original play, because it came complete with songs by the new writing team of Sammy Cahn and James van Heusen. The Emily and George were not played by musical theatre stars, but rather by hot young actors Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman, while the Stage Manager was Frank Sinatra riding his second wave of fame. Seen only once, the program did yield one standard, “Love and Marriage,” which as the Stage Manager explains, is the title of the play’s Act II.
From l to r: Frank Sinatra, Frank Craven, Tallulah Bankhead, and Mary Martin
When the musical Our Town aired in 1955, it did so just one week apart from a TV version of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Just as today, the original stage stars didn’t always get to reprise their roles on screen, so Hirschfeld marked these shifts for both broadcasts, pairing original Stage Manager Frank Craven with his successor Frank Sinatra, and Teeth’s original Sabina, Tallulah Bankhead, with her TV interpreter, Mary Martin.
It was probably inevitable that Henry Fonda would play the Stage Manager, such was his stature and persona as America’s Everyman. His Broadway stint was his second stab at the role, having played it the previous summer at the Plumstead Playhouse on Long Island, a new company founded by Our Town’s original Emily, Martha Scott. Almost the entire company had changed from the Plumstead, as did the director; on Broadway, Fonda stepped into the role of the minister to marry George and Emily, played by Elizabeth Hartman and Harvey Evans.
Hirschfeld’s second drawing of Frank Craven as the Stage Manager came in 1973, when he created a new drawing of Craven for Brooks Atkinson’s book The Lively Years, a collection of his writings between 1920 and 1973. Atkinson was an early champion of Our Town, even traveling to Boston for its tryout there, after which he reassured producer Jed Harris that he had a hit on his hands.
From l to r: James Rebhorn, Frances Conroy, Eric Stoltz, Peter Maloney, Roberta Maxwell, Ann Miller, & Spalding Gray
Spalding Gray was already an acclaimed monologist and actor by the time he made his Broadway debut as the Stage Manager in Gregory Mosher’s 1988 production of Our Town. Gray’s natural Rhode Island accent was located just a bit to the south of New Hampshire, but he was expertly suited to the play’s long monologues, which echoed his acclaimed solo work. Rising film stars Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller played George and Emily.
In the long-running weekly “On Stage” column in the New York Times, a range of theatre news always included a short feature on an actor whose current work was particularly notable, and that actor was for many years showcased via a Hirschfeld drawing. On December 23, 1988, just before Christmas, Frances Conroy, who played Mrs. Gibbs in the new production, received the honor.
This original ink on board drawing is available for sale. Please request a price list.
While Hirschfeld had the opportunity to create two drawings of Frank Craven as the Stage Manager, he drew Paul Newman in the play twice as well, but in two different roles. Look back at the 1955 Our Town ad with Sinatra in the foreground and then look beyond him to see Newman as George Gibbs climbing the ladder towards his Emily, Eva Marie Saint. When Newman traveled with the Westport Country Playhouse production of Our Town to Broadway, it marked his first time there since he appeared with his wife Joanne Woodward in Baby Want a Kiss in 1964; Our Town would be his final Broadway appearance. Newman’s cast members from the production recall the production and the experience of working with Newman in one of the oral histories that comprise Another Day’s Begun: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the 21st Century.