Hooray for Broadway Hooray for Mort

JUNE 8, 2010

Back in the 90’s when I was doing steady work for THE NEW YORKER, sometimes they would assign me to see a Broadway production and create an illustration for either a theater review or up front in the cultural listings section.  If I was lucky sometimes my wife, Terri, would be included on their tab.  And so it happened with a production of NOISES OFF, probably the most incredibly perfect performance of farce I’d ever seen on stage, a master class in comic timing.  To this day I still remember how difficult it was trying to do sketches in the theater that night because my laughing had reach utterly painful levels; it was difficult to catch my breath, and I was snotting and tearing all over my sketchpad.  Well the issue came out and we received a call soon after from the wife of one of the stars of the show, Peter Gallagher.  She apparently liked the illustration enough to want to buy the original for a birthday present.  A sale was made and it felt good to receive that kind of positive reaction.  A couple weeks later I received a call from a gentleman identifying himself as Mort Swinsky, one of the producers of the show, and he was looking to buy the original.  I had to explain that the sale was already made but a copy would happily be printed.  Mort requested several, to offer to cast and fellow producers.  We worked out a fee and the deal was sealed.


Actually the deal was better than sealed.  What happened next was the beginning of a dream come true working friendship that has continued to this day. 


Some background is needed here.  Mort comes from serious business credits as a Wall Street heavyweight and trader, running operations for Merrill Lynch and Fuji Securities to name a couple.  But he also was greatly interested in the performing arts.  He was one of the producers behind the film BOYS DON’T CRY, among others.  But I think his real love is theater and it seems you can name a hit on the Great White Way or Off-Broadway and odds are that he’s one of the names behind it.   His acumen to spot a winner is phenomenal and if he were a baseball player his batting average would justify a 100 million dollar contract- per season. With all these successes, and in Mort’s case there are plenty, a monstrous personality and narcissism would not be out of the question to expect.  But Mort seems utterly devoid of ego and hubris.  Calling attention to himself is probably bottom on his list of things to do.  Putting his backing behind a quality play or musical is what seems to bring him pleasure.  That and collecting art.  He loves and appreciates art and the creative process.  His apartment is a jaw dropping museum of paintings and sculpture of all genres and a marvel of space utilization.  There is not a square foot that doesn’t showcase a visual creation- on the walls, floors, staircases, and even ceilings. 


As an illustrator I would consider Mort a perfect art director if he were in the business.  He trusts what I plan to do and whatever approach I take.  He doesn’t nitpick or second guess.  His only specific commentary might be in making sure that I don’t let my satirical leanings portray an actor in an unflattering manner as, ultimately, the finishes are made into prints that he presents to the stars or co-producers.


Working for Mort allows me to work in disciplines not normally associated with my illustration style. In the beginning, I had started off in a more caricature oriented approach to his commissions, going to the performances and working off my sketches and whatever photo reference to be found.  I usually worked in pencils, pen and ink and watercolor or gouache, and pretty large.  However, as time went on, I found myself abandoning the pen and ink and working in colored pencils  and more and more with paints and canvases.  As a matter of fact, my commissions for Mort became opportunities to explore painting again.  As painting is not what I normally do, the projects become interesting, sometimes intimidating, challenges that often take far longer than an illustration assignment to complete to my satisfaction.  Restarting paintings from scratch has not been an unusual occurrence.  It’s been my good fortune that Mort has never pressured me to get commissions finished within a certain time span.  At times his unhurried attitude has been more of a stress than if he were breathing down my neck, such is the sense of responsibility I feel for not moving faster.  But an interesting thing happens for me when working on something that will be hanging on a wall for a long time as opposed to appearing in a publication that will quickly disappear in the normal flow of print cycles.  I feel a different sense of responsibility to make sure what I present can withstand continual reappraisal and scrutiny over the long term.  Consequently, it makes me gravitate towards being more thoughtful  and reflective about what I’m putting on the canvas.  Maybe it’s a little stage fright?


Anyway, every commission has been a learning experience and an opportunity to stretch my range of expressions.  I’m very grateful to Mort for allowing me the good fortune to play and explore my abilities.  Every new piece feels like I’m starting from square one, but it’s a great escape from what feels like second nature with in my illustration, and maybe even taken for granted at times.  It’s a good, humbling kick in the pants to look at a big empty canvas or mounted board and get out of the secure comfort zone that normal studio work can create. 

I remember the first time we went to a party at Mort’s and I found myself turning a corner and looking at all my work assembled on one wall, almost like a wing in a large gallery.  It was a rush.  It was an even better rush surveying what I had done and being pleasantly surprised by how well they held up on review.  I hope to continue adding to that wing for a long time.  Thank you, Mort.


It is one of those incredibly tragic ironies that this posting was done just weeks before Mort's death on June 19th.  It took me by complete surprise and has left me terribly saddened. I truly hope he got a chance to see it.  It has come to my attention that associates and family have since.  Mort's passing is a great loss to the dramatic arts.  It seems only right to include a list I found online of the productions that Mort was involved with.  It's truly impressive and attests to his broad range of tastes and keen ability to spot a winner.



Productions             Dates of Production

The Addams Family  [Original, Musical]

Produced by Pittsburgh CLO/Gutterman-Swinsky

            Apr 8, 2010 - ?

Come Fly Away  [Original, Musical, Dance]

Produced by Pittsburgh CLO/GSFD

            Mar 25, 2010 - ?

A View From the Bridge  [Revival, Play, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky/Joseph Deitch

            Jan 24, 2010 - Apr 4, 2010

Fela!  [Original, Musical]

Produced by Susan Dietz/Mort Swinsky

            Nov 23, 2009 - ?

Desire Under the Elms  [Revival, Play, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky/Michael Fuchs/Cindy & Jay Gutterman

            Apr 27, 2009 - May 24, 2009

The Seagull  [Revival, Play, Comedy, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Oct 2, 2008 - Dec 21, 2008

Talk Radio  [Original, Play, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Mar 11, 2007 - Jun 24, 2007

Spring Awakening  [Original, Musical, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Dec 10, 2006 - Jan 18, 2009

Grey Gardens  [Original, Musical, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Nov 2, 2006 - Jul 29, 2007

The Lieutenant of Inishmore  [Original, Play, Comedy, Satire]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            May 3, 2006 - Sep 3, 2006

The History Boys  [Original, Play]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Apr 23, 2006 - Oct 1, 2006

Glengarry Glen Ross  [Revival, Play, Drama]

Produced by CJM Productions

            May 1, 2005 - Aug 28, 2005

The Pillowman  [Original, Play, Drama]

Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Apr 10, 2005 - Sep 18, 2005

Spamalot  [Original, Musical, Comedy]

Produced by GRS Associates

            Mar 17, 2005 - Jan 11, 2009

Frozen  [Original, Play, Drama]

Produced by Mort Swinsky

            May 4, 2004 - Aug 22, 2004

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All  [Original, Play, Solo]

Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Nov 17, 2003 - Nov 17, 2003

Golda's Balcony  [Original, Play, Solo, Drama]

Associate Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Oct 15, 2003 - Jan 2, 2005

Little Shop of Horrors  [Original, Musical, Comedy, Puppets]

Associate Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Oct 2, 2003 - Aug 22, 2004

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom  [Revival, Play, Drama]

Produced in association with Morton Swinsky

            Feb 6, 2003 - Apr 6, 2003

Dance of the Vampires  [Original, Musical, Comedy]

Associate Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Dec 9, 2002 - Jan 25, 2003

La Bohème  [Revival, Musical, Opera, Drama, Tragedy]

Associate Produced by Mort Swinsky

            Dec 8, 2002 - Jun 29, 2003

Hairspray  [Original, Musical, Comedy]

Produced in association with Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            Aug 15, 2002 - Jan 4, 2009

The Crucible  [Revival, Play, Drama]

Produced in association with Morton Swinsky

            Mar 7, 2002 - Jun 9, 2002

Metamorphoses  [Original, Play, Drama, Comedy]

Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Mar 4, 2002 - Feb 16, 2003

Elaine Stritch At Liberty  [Original, Special, Solo, Play with music]

Produced in association with Morton Swinsky

            Feb 21, 2002 - May 27, 2002

Noises Off  [Revival, Play, Comedy, Farce]

Produced by Morton Swinsky

            Nov 1, 2001 - Sep 1, 2002

A Thousand Clowns  [Revival, Play, Comedy]

Produced by Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            Jul 11, 2001 - Sep 23, 2001

King Hedley II  [Original, Play, Drama]

Produced in association with Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            May 1, 2001 - Jul 1, 2001

Seussical  [Original, Musical, Comedy]

Produced in association with Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            Nov 30, 2000 - May 20, 2001

The Music Man  [Revival, Musical, Comedy]

Produced by Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            Apr 27, 2000 - Dec 30, 2001

Kat and the Kings  [Original, Musical, Comedy]

Produced in association with Kardana-Swinsky Productions

            Aug 19, 1999 - Jan 2, 2000

Annie Get Your Gun  [Revival, Musical, Comedy]

Produced in association with Kardana Productions

            Mar 4, 1999 - Sep 1, 2001

Chicago  [Revival, Musical, Comedy]

Produced in association with Kardana Productions

            Nov 14, 1996 - ?

Hamlet  [Revival, Play, Tragedy]

Produced by Kardana Productions

            May 2, 1995 - Jul 22, 1995

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying  [Revival, Musical, Comedy]

Produced by Kardana Productions

            Mar 23, 1995 - Jul 14, 1996

The Who's Tommy  [Original, Musical]

Produced by Kardana Productions

            Apr 22, 1993 - Jun 17, 1995

Guys and Dolls  [Revival, Musical, Comedy]

Produced by Kardana Productions

            Apr 14, 1992 - Jan 8, 1995


The illustration for THE NEW YORKER that started it all. The comedy- NOISES OFF.



THE CRUCIBLE with Liam Neeson.



HANK WILLIAMS LOST HIGHWAY. A decision to do the piece almost entirely in colored pencils with a little wash in spots. Whatever made me think that doing this in colored pencils would save me time? Wrong. Side observation: the actor portraying Williams was a dead ringer for the real Hank in both sight and sound. It was kind of spooky.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. What an ensemble! Lead by Alan Alda and Liev Schreiber.

THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE. A wild, crazy, violent, BLOODY, laugh-yourself-sick-in-spite-of-the-shocks, comedy.

SPRING AWAKENING. A game changer as musicals go.

GREY GARDENS. I did two versions because Mort liked both my sketches for different reasons.


SPAMALOT. A monster piece in watercolor.

TALK RADIO. Another Liev Schreiber tour de force. A truly startling presence on the stage. A distinct shift from my usual work.

THE SEAGULL. A magnificent realization of Chekhov. Kristin Scott Thomas and Peter Sarsgaard.

DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. A production that so did not deserve its aborted run. The stage design was jaw dropping. The acting ferocious and powerful. What an incredibly angry O'Neill play. Quite an experience to be so confronted and battered by the fury on the stage. I had planned on going back and seeing it on my own to absorb it some more only to read that it was closing.

In the later stages of a recently completed WEST SIDE STORY. My first attempt at acrylics since my student days at Parsons back in the mid 70's. The sponge trays made the whole painting process a pleasure. Plus I don't return to the house at night smelling like turpentine. I'm sticking with it. On the to do list for now: The recent A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, by Arthur Miller- another stunning performance by Liev Schreiber with Scarlett Johansson, and FELA! which we hope to catch soon.