"Charlotte Sweet" 1982

Auditioning with Nina & a New Drawing

Excerpt from Michael Colby's THE ALGONQUIN KID

In the early 1970s, I was searching for a singer to perform auditions with me of the first full musical I wrote, WHERE THERE’S A WILL (co-written by my brother Douglas). A friend of mine, Leslie Sank, recommended her college classmate from Finch College—Nina Hirschfeld. I only vaguely remember the audition itself (it was for my grandparents’ friends in their 10th floor apartment at the Algonquin). Yet I’ll never forget rehearsing at Nina’s townhouse home on the Upper East Side. Her mother was Dolly Haas, a German actress who’d been in Hitchcock’s film I Confess and who’d succeeded Mary Martin in the Broadway musical Lute Song (Nina strongly resembled her mother with red hair and features reminiscent of a Renoir painting). Her father was the definitive caricaturist of Broadway, Al Hirschfeld. Inspired by him as a teenager, I’d created musical theatre caricatures that were framed in my bedroom. I followed his work religiously and, on several occasions, I’d seen him from afar at the Algonquin.

For a theatre fan, entering the Hirschfeld townhouse was like awaking in Wonderland. His caricatures, both life-size and in miniatures, were everywhere. Each tile around the fireplace featured a cameo appearance: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, the Marx Brothers. The wallpaper against the ascending staircase portrayed celebrities as if they were partying right in front of you: Tallulah Bankhead, Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Pablo Picasso, Benny Goodman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ed Sullivan, Monroe, Sinatra. It was breathtaking.

As I left the townhouse, I had no idea of the circumstances under which I’d return there a decade later. My second visit was in 1983, right when the Charlotte Sweet cast recording was being assembled. Al Hirschfeld had already done one caricature of the show, a profile of actress Polly Pen, after attending the same performance as critic Edith Oliver of the New Yorker, who wrote one of the show’s most negative reviews. Like an object lesson in how differently two people can react to the same performance, it turned out Hirschfeld had loved the show and was recommending it to his friends.

Using Nina’s home number, I dialed to see if he’d be interested in doing a caricature of the full cast for the album. His wife, Dolly answered the phone. I announced, “Hello, this is Michael Colby. I used to audition with your daughter Nina.” She replied, “Ya.” I added, “And you know my grandparents, the Bodnes of the Algonquin.” She replied, “Ya.” I added, “And I wrote Charlotte Sweet.” She responded, “You wrote Charlotte Sweet! You wrote Charlotte Sweet! Al, get on the phone!” The next week, I visited the Hirschfeld townhouse and picked up his illustration of the entire cast, which he joyfully handed over to me. It was one of the greatest thrills of my life, having my characters come to life on his easel and witnessing admiration from a paragon as Hirschfeld.

Colby's book THE ALGONQUIN KID is filled with wonderful stories. to puchase a copy, click here.