Robin Williams

I have a multitude of connections with Robin Williams.  The great majority of these are similar to those shared by millions: A performance in a movie or TV show or concert, or an appearance on a talk show or charity benefit.  I had a knock-off pair of Mork suspenders.  My brother and I imitated Popeye’s fall into deep water during days at the pool.  I saw Dead Poets Society during that profound period of transition between high school and college, and it made me yearn to bring my own verse to the world.  After Todd Anderson had his breakthrough in class, John Keating said, “Don’t you forget this.”  I haven’t forgotten it either.

I’ve been entertained and enthralled by Robin Williams' work for nearly my entire life.  So, I was thrilled when we connected face to face a few years back:

I was assigned to draw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo as part of my regular assignments for Broadway.com.

Robin went to Juilliard and had a pretty deep connection to the theatre.  He joined Steve Martin, F. Murray Abraham, and Bill Irwin for a production of Waiting for Godot in the 1988 and he had brought his comedy to the Broadway stage.  But he made his Broadway acting debut in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo wherein he played the titular role.  Set in troubled Iraq, the story sought glimmers of friendship, redemption, and beauty amidst the tragedy and absurdity of war.  These days, producers often anchor a production's ticket sales with a star that’s known beyond the theatre.  Robin was the anchor of this production and it was such a thrill to see him work live.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo  , 2011.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, 2011.

Once my illustration posted on the website, Robin’s assistant contacted me about his desire to buy the original ink sketch as well as five prints.  What an honor!  I worked solely with his assistant who asked if I would ship directly to his home on the west coast.  I did so.  I was jazzed but still wished I would have had the chance to meet him.  But then many others in his cast also bought prints, and on the day I delivered them, I found myself alone in the stage management office at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, awaiting some payments.  A familiar face appeared.  “Are you the artist?”  John Keating and Mork and Popeye flashed through my brain as I said “Yes.”  “I think I bought the original.”  “Yes you did, and thank you.”  We shook hands and I stammered through some feeble attempt at summing up all the admiration I had for his work.  He was gracious, but he had to rush off to run the fight choreography before that day's performance.  After I finished my business, I had to cross the stage to exit the stage door.  I tried to be discreet, but as I passed, Robin briefly held fight call.  He gave me two thumbs up and said “Good job, boss.”

I should add that earlier that day, the producers of their play had announced that their play would be closing prematurely.  It was so lovely and incredibly classy of this fellow to think of others in the midst of a tough day.  I’m so grateful for that.  Thank you Robin.

Robin Williams.

Robin Williams.

Jane Monheit

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending the first night of Jane Monheit's residency at Birdland here in NYC.  I've loved and admired the work of this brilliant chanteuse for some years now, and I was so happy to witness her artistry and that of her band – Michael Kanan on piano, Neal Miner on bass, and Ricky Montalbano on drums – and special guests Angelo DiLoreto, Jim Caruso, Billy Stritch, and the singular Marilyn Maye.  What a show!

Jane Monheit and band.

Jane Monheit and band.

I chose a dusty black and white treatment on the illustration as a nod to the history of Birdland, both the present location and the original a bit uptown.  On this evening, Birdland owner Gianni Valenti unveiled a lovely Seth Walters photo on the wall as a tribute to Jane from her jazz home.  It joined the gorgeous black and white portraits of jazz greats from across the years.  My doodle is a variation on a theme.

Y'all, Jane will be in residency most Sundays at 6pm through September 2014 at Birdland.  Go!

Thank you, Arthur Gelb.

I was sad to learn of the recent passing of Mr. Arthur Gelb, whose influence shaped the NY Times for decades. And he along with his wife Barbara are considered foremost experts on Eugene O'Neill and his work. Read his amazing obituary tribute. What a life!

Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

I was honored to be asked to draw the Gelbs. My friend and former professor Jeff Kennedy commissioned the piece on behalf of the O'Neill Society for presentation at an event that also included Tony Kushner, Jeanine Tesori, and Louise Kerz Hirschfeld.  My head was spinning.  Truly a lovely honor.

In my brief encounter with the Gelbs, Arthur was incredibly gracious. I hope it's not tacky to post, but I was so honored to receive the following e-mail after the presentation. It's a lovely glimpse into his kindness. And as one who greatly admires Al Hirschfeld, you'll see why I happily freaked out:

Dear Justin,
Thanks a million for your witty drawing of Barbara and me. It will hang in a proper place beside our cherished Hirschfeld collection on the wall of my study. Al was my friend for decades; when I was a member of the theater department of The Times in the 1950s he'd deliver his drawing to me each week and I'd unwrap the brown paper covering the white slab of cardboard on which Al had inked his amazing caricature. The brown paper, incidentally, always carried Al's hand-printed warning: "Handle With Care and Don't Dip In Chicken Fat." Then my Times colleagues would gather around and we'd proceed to search for the "Ninas" hidden among what Al had just wrought. What a great weekly treat that was for all of us! (And Nina, of course, was his daughter's name.)
With appreciation and with Barbara's and my warmest wishes,
Arthur

My best wishes go out to Barbara and the family, and those who valued friendship with this fellow. Rest well, good sir. Thank you.

Me with Arthur and Barbara.

Me with Arthur and Barbara.

Squigs Limited Editions

I love drawing brand new shows and productions.  The fresh work and fresh takes on substantial pieces.  But.  I want to draw the shows of the past as well.  The ground-breaking and legendary.  The ones with cult followings.  Those that have inspired me, written by people who have inspired me, performed by people who have inspired me, designed by people who have inspired me.  There's so much to draw.  And I've got to start somewhere.

The original Broadway cast of   Into the Woods  .

The original Broadway cast of Into the Woods.

As I embark on this adventure (while still drawing the new stuff) I've put out feelers on my various social media feeds to see what folks want to see.  I put this through the filter of what I want to draw and have come up with these four pieces to start the original Broadway casts of Into the Woods, Rent, A Chorus Line, and an image from The Phantom of the Opera.

The original Broadway cast of   A Chorus Line  .

The original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.

The original Broadway cast of   Rent  .

The original Broadway cast of Rent.

The Phantom's Red Death costume from   The Phantom of the Opera  .

The Phantom's Red Death costume from The Phantom of the Opera.

Some of the shows I'll be drawing next will likely be more in the Sondheim canon (Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George), Titanic, and a couple shows that are both enjoying their latest revivals this spring (Les Misérables and Cabaret).

These pieces are being released as limited edition (series of 50 each) Giclee prints and are available here.

Quick Draw: Billy Stritch & Jim Caruso

"Do one thing every day that scares you." – Eleanor Roosevelt

Billy and Jim in their finale after my doodlin' deed was done.

Billy and Jim in their finale after my doodlin' deed was done.

Most days I'm quite content to sit at my cozy desk, doodling... or daydreaming about doodling.  It takes so much effort to tackle something that's outside the comfort zone, but then I try to remind myself of Mrs. Roosevelt's cattle prod of a quote as I have done for many years now.  I can honestly say that almost all of my most treasured experiences and accomplishments have come because I crossed the line of what was "easy."  Now, some scary decisions are big.  Like quitting a day job or moving to a new city.  Some aren't that dramatic but still can give a person a jolt.

I am such a big fan of Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch, brilliant entertainers both.  So when they asked on a whim if I'd sit in and draw them on their first live streaming web concert, I happily agreed!  What was I getting myself into??  It was not unlike my days as a quick sketch event caricaturist, right?  Sort of.  They introduced me near the beginning of the concert and explained what I would be doing.  Then I got started.  About ten minutes in, I realized that I wasn't working towards a quick sketch piece but rather a piece that was much more finished.  It would have to be a little rough around the edges, but I was attempting a studio illustration live on the interwebs.  I got a wee bit flop sweaty nervous.  Ha!  And as if I weren't shaky enough, I was using the piano as my desk and Billy was playing with vigor, so I found another flat surface.  For a while I was racking my brain for an excuse why I wouldn't be able to show the thing at the end.  Then, the sketch took a turn and I realized that I wouldn't have to hide it.  And the addition of a big pop of color made it better too.  I was done just a couple of minutes before the fellows called me back in front of the webcam.  What a ride!  Thanks, fellows, for the adventure!

The final piece.  Rough around the edges, but still pretty spiffy I think.

The final piece.  Rough around the edges, but still pretty spiffy I think.

Tip o' the Hat: Murder for Two

I saw this wonderful show when it was at 2ST's uptown space and thoroughly enjoyed myself.  AND I was ASTONISHED at the ability of the two fellows onstage – Brett Ryback and Jeff Blumenkrantz – not only taking us along on this hilarious whodunit ride of a story, but also accompanying themselves on the piano. 

Jeff was an advocate of my art in the years just before I moved to NYC.  The simple gesture of posting one of my sketches on his homepage brought me a few valuable connections, and for that I'm so grateful.  Now, as he departs Murder for Two at the end of this week, I wanted to tip the ol' hat to him and all involved as the run continues.  Murder for Two: They put the Laughter in Manslaughter.  (I love that tagline!)

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Tip o' the Hat: Harvey Evans

Harvey Evans

Harvey Evans

Here is my first Tip o' the Hat of 2014 which came to mind because it was this fantastic fellow's birthday the other day.

There are so many among us who have given so much over the years and just keep giving.  Harvey Evans has a grand and storied career highlighted by legendary Broadway shows and movies.  (If you're not familiar or you need a brush-up, just peek at his IBDB and IMDB pages.)  His support for the New York theatre community and beyond, with organizations such as Dancers Over 40 and BC/EFA, shows the kind of heart we can all aspire to.

Ya gotta have hard work, hilarity, and heart.  And he does.  Harvey Evans!

Tip o' the Hat: An introduction...

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I often find myself in theatre seats and cozy backstage spaces and cabaret clubs and watering holes and Theatre District thoroughfares, and I see many folks doing fantastic things in this crazy world of showbiz:  Onstage and behind the scenes; New kids on the block, working Joes and Josephines, legends in their own time, and remembrances of those who have never left us in spirit.  The theatre is an ephemeral artform, although with modern technology and the proliferation of video this is becoming less the case.  But still, there are those who exhibit genius and character that may never be pointed out on a large scale.  I hope to shine a bit of light.  As has been spoken on a few stages a few times over the years, "Attention must be paid."

The very core purpose of my illustration work is the celebration of these people, and I'll be using this blog as a platform to acknowledge folks that I just feel like acknowledging.  It's all incredibly subjective, I know.  And of course I'm grateful for my weekly Broadway Ink platform on Broadway.com, but there are many times I wish to put the spotlight on folks who may not find themselves center stage on the Broadway, well at the moment I've got in my sights anyway.  I've been doing it in various ways for a long time, but here in this shiny new year I've decided to streamline these efforts on this page, whether it be a simple drawing, a video, or whatever.  And then all the tendrils of social media can start from here.  Simple, celebrationgratitude: all happy key words of my adventures in 2014 and onward.  Here we go...

The Line King's Library: Al Hirschfeld at the New York Public Library

In the lobby of the New York Public Library for the Performning Arts (at Lincoln Center).

In the lobby of the New York Public Library for the Performning Arts (at Lincoln Center).

Those who know me – or at least know of my work – can easily surmise that I love and revere the work of Al Hirschfeld and his significant thumbprint on the consciousness of eight decades of the arts, politics, and pop culture.  I recently had the pleasure of touring this exhibit with David Leopold, exhibit curator and Hirschfeld archivist.  It was such a lovely two hour chat about my favorite artist with the fellow who worked directly with Mr. Hirschfeld during the last 13 years of his life.  At David's suggestion, I've chosen my ten favorite things about the exhibit:

Video of Whoopi Goldberg geeking out over Mr. Hirschfeld.  And a peek at her first Hirschfeld.

Video of Whoopi Goldberg geeking out over Mr. Hirschfeld.  And a peek at her first Hirschfeld.

1. Whoopi Goldberg video. A charming glimpse into what it meant for a Hirschfeld fan to get Hirschfelded... and the reason her first Hirschfeld has 40 Ninas.

2. "The First Nighters" mural sketch. This enormous multi-paneled piece shows the usual suspects of Broadway opening nights of the 1950s, as created to be installed as a mural at the Hotel Manhattan.  Such a fascinating original ink sketch with hand drawn legend.

3. New York Times first and last. David pointed out that if you stand in a certain spot in the exhibit, you can see the very first drawing Al drew that was published in the New York Times (Sir Harry Lauder, 1928) and his last (Tommy Tune, 2002).

The New York Times . Sir Harry Lauder, 1928. Tommy Tune, 2002.

The New York Times. Sir Harry Lauder, 1928. Tommy Tune, 2002.

4. Fifty years of Best Plays. The Best Plays series of annual volumes were the way many folks around the country immersed themselves in Hirschfeld's work.  This exhibit features a fantastic display case containing a significant number of these fine books.

5. Sweet Bye and Bye. Al Hirschfeld helped to write a Broadway musical.  Really? Yes. There's a significant amount of material here about Sweet Bye and Bye upon which Al collaborated with S.J. Perelman, Vernon Duke, and Ogden Nash in 1946.

6. Sketchbook for The Lively Years. At this library, Hirschfeld scribbled doodles and notes in this notebook as he researched his contribution to the collaboration with Brooks Atkinson, The Lively Years. It's so interesting to see this fellow's pencil sketches.

The Line King's Library, curated by David Leopold.

The Line King's Library, curated by David Leopold.

7. Fan letters.  There is a modest selection of some charming correspondence between Al and his fans, including dialog with a young lady who respectfully calls him out for numbering too few Ninas in a particular sketch.

8. The Rhythm series.  There are four lithos of pieces from Hirschfeld's Rhythm series, showing dancers in various dances such as the Cakewalk and Charleston.  Simple, colorful, and vibrant.  Color lithos.

9. The Pulitzer series.  You can see quite a number of pieces from Al's series featuring Pulitzer prize winning playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Eugene O' Neill, and Arthur Miller.  Each playwright is drawn superimposed over a page from the Playbill, and then a scene from their acclaimed play is also illustrated.  Fantastic original ink drawings!

Al Hirschfeld's desk and chair, on display in the library lobby.

Al Hirschfeld's desk and chair, on display in the library lobby.

10. A desk and a chair.  At number ten, I could name any number of items, but I may be cheating a bit when I name Mr. Hirschfeld's desk and barber chair.  You see, these items remain on display in the library lobby year 'round, but they take on even more gravity as an extension of this fantastic exhibit.

The Line King's Library: Al Hirschfeld at the New York Public Library continues only until January 4, 2014.  If you're in NYC between now and then, do yourself a favor and drop in. You'll be so glad you did.

47th & 7th

Those of you in NYC should take a peek at the building at 701 7th Avenue in the Times Square neck of the woods (across 47th from the Palace Theater and kitty corner from the TKTS booth). In its current state of restoration/construction, it's sitting there without billboard or megadigitron contraption.  A glimpse of a Times Square of bygone days, yet with the shadow of the years upon't.  Very interesting.

701 7th Avenue.

701 7th Avenue.

Squigs' Book Club

Alrighty... As we're nearing the end of the year, here are some books I've enjoyed in 2013:

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The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 1. Jennifer Ashley Tepper has interviewed a multitude of Broadway folks (onstage and backstage) about all the highs and lows of the show biz. If you're a Broadway fan, you'll eat this up with a spoon and come back for seconds. And I helped a little.  (I designed the Theatre District map therein.)

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. An artist's work schedule is unique to each person, but since it's a somewhat solitary vocation, I sometimes wonder if I'm doing it "right." Here, Mason Currey compiles testimonials on how authors, painters, illustrators, and more go about their daily work life. I found it fascinating.

Humans of New York. Talk about fascinating! Photographer Brandon Stanton posts at least one photo each day online featuring New Yorkers of diverse walks of life and asks them a little bit of their story.  In this enormous "City of Strangers" it's important to note that the people I ride the train with or pass on the sidewalk are indeed human like me.

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Performance of the Century: 100 Years of Actors Equity Association and the Rise of Professional American Theater.  Although this book technically came out last year, we did the launch and book signing in 2013, so here it is! As you likely know, I drew the cover (and a few doodles inside).  As a member of Actors Equity, this in an honor I'm very grateful for.

Happy reading!  And happy holidays to you all!

Hirschfeld at Henri Bendel

Henri Bendel's window on Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets.

Henri Bendel's window on Fifth Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets.

The holiday shopping season is upon us, and here in NYC the shop windows are bedecked and bedazzled with displays aimed at pulling shoppers in from the bustling sidewalks. At Henri Bendel, the windows feature a take on the work of legendary illustrator Al Hirschfeld. Display artists have made three dimensional versions of some Hirschfeld doodles. While it's wonderful that Mr. H's work is still such a part of public consciousness, it seems to be the prevailing opinion (amongst those who know his work very well) that the display doesn't trust the art.  I agree.  But even so, it's really nice to see art  and an artist that I admire get such a lovely tip o' the hat this holiday season.

Now, if you're in NYC and you really want to see a fantastic display of Hirschfeld's work, go visit the fantastic exhibition , The Line King's Library: Al Hirschfeld at The New York Public Library now through January 4, 2014! Happy Hirschfeldian Ho Ho Ho!

Bread & Puppet Theater

I had the privilege of seeing Bread & Puppet Theater in action last night. Ever the presence in grassroots arts and social activism, these sublime artists brought one of their pieces to light at a Presbyterian church on the Upper West Side in the 50th year of their existence, turning their attention to the atom bomb and Oppenheimer. A unique dreamy blend of larger-than-life puppetry and music and percussion and inexpensive art and sourdough made this fellow feel like he was a part of many a protest of yore.  It's so interesting to see that point where art and awareness and availability align.

Bread & Puppet Theater at West Park Presbyterian Church, 2013.

Bread & Puppet Theater at West Park Presbyterian Church, 2013.

The Last Leaf

On the first really blustery NYC day after the autumn color has turned to a bleaker brown, there are always piles and piles of fallen and tousled leaves around the city, and a few stalwarts are clinging to branches as if it were their job to defy the seasons.  And I always think of O. Henry's short story The Last Leaf.  Do yourself a favor and take a few minutes to read this little tale.  I always wonder if I relate more with Sudie or Johnsy.  Or Behrman.

Masterpiece.

Masterpiece.

Dear Mr. Watterson...

I found (and find) such unexpected inspiration in the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson. He drew his strip from 1985 until a somewhat abrupt retirement in 1995, leaving his fans with a wealth of poignant, well-drawn, astute observations on life from the point of view of a six year old boy and his tiger friend. I still think fondly of this comic strip when I remind myself that imagination is limitless and the boxes I may put my art in may be themselves merely my imagination.

Tonight I saw a lovely documentary exploring the impact of Calvin and Hobbes on fans and artists and publishers and more. Dear Mr. Watterson, while rather bittersweet in its assessment of the state of comics today, is a wonderful exploration of a brilliant phenomenon that has left folks wanting more. I'm so happy I saw this!

Poster with accolades.

Poster with accolades.