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Artists as Critics

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 Jon BiermanFrank "Fraver" Verlizzo. Photo: Jon BiermanAs a Manhattan-born teenager at the High School of Art & Design on East 57th Street, I was star-struck. I would go to a Broadway show whenever I could afford it. I practically lived at the movies. I once raced through an end-term French exam so that I could catch the 2:30 p.m. showing of Boom!, playing down the street at the now-gone Trans Lux East. My big dream didn’t involve acting in productions or directing them, but in designing the poster art for them. I have vivid memories of watching the billboard artwork for the Elizabeth Taylor show Cleopatra being painted at the palatial Rivoli Theatre on Broadway. As an art student, I had no frame of reference as to how or where the existing poster art plastered around the city was created and produced. But I knew I wanted to find out and become a part of it.

Fast forward about 30 years or so — I’m standing once again on Broadway watching a huge billboard facade being installed, not for the Queen of Egypt, but for The Lion King. Along with the artwork I’ve created for other great Broadway classics, including Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George, I am now watching my own designs contribute to the graphic grandeur of Times Square. I have met some of the most renowned, talented, and fascinating people the entertainment world has to offer. But it is also a harsh reality that I was introduced to them under unusual circumstances. Whether in a conference room or backstage at one of our many glorious New York City theaters, for me the aforementioned glitterati are transformed into critics — critics of my work. I am a graphic artist specializing in theater posters. My job is to create a two-dimensional representation of a show, be it play or musical. I must distill a two-and-a-half-hour stage production into an image that is memorable and eye-catching, above all serving as an effective selling tool. All of that while hopefully possessing the attributes of a frame-worthy piece of artwork that will hang in homes, schools, and regional theaters across America, and in some cases, the world.

The process of going from art presentation to approved poster involves many stages. The first hurdle is getting 10 different people — ranging from producers to press agents to advertising and marketing experts to social networking entities — to agree on an image. How it turns out all depends on whether the particular group is harmonious or has personal squabbles. It would all be much more fascinating a spectacle for me to witness if it wasn’t my artwork that was being discussed, analyzed, and critiqued like a Miss America contestant.

That being said, most of the parties involved in the art selection always tell me afterwards that it is the “fun” part of producing a show. For me, the fun part is creating the art, not necessarily in presenting it.

 Frank VerlizzoThe Lion King © Disney. Design: Frank VerlizzoIf the production is attached to a box-office name: a major playwright or composer or director or actor, any or all of these folks might have what is called “contractual approval.” This means that the poster art having successfully survived stage one now moves on to stage two: star approval. Having been a movie-obsessed teenager, my only exposure to this next process was watching Susan Hayward as Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson make mincemeat out of newbie Barbara Parkins in the big screen potboiler, Valley of the Dolls. It all ends in screaming, cursing, crying, and torn paper being flung around the dressing room. As entertaining as that may be to witness, nobody looks forward to being put in that position.

But I have actually found that most artists of the theater make the best critics. I think their sensitivity about being exposed to comments from everyone with eyes renders them a bit more understanding. My goal, after all, is to make them look good, sell lots of tickets, and have the show run a long time.

Working at a theatrical ad agency early on, I witnessed terrible star-exploding instances in group meetings. As a beginner, I quickly learned that presenting to a star in a crowded atmosphere was not a good idea. I suspect I’ve been lucky, but I’ve also used a bit of tact. I always present “star art” for approval on a one-on-one basis.

I also always provide choices and variations, which makes the discussion easier. Pointing to an existing graphic or photo is simpler than trying to describe it. And I typically travel to the star — wherever they ask — to put them at ease.

Fortunately, I can cite many pleasant instances of encounters with the famous in my endeavor to attain final poster approval — the charm and incandescent kindness of Tommy Tune and Twiggy for My One and Only, the glorious Helen Mirren and Sir Ian McKellen (in his dressing area, wearing only his jockeys!) for Dance of Death. I’ve presented art to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine on a Broadway stage during a rehearsal break for Sunday in the Park with George, unveiled art for approval to Jessica Lange for The Glass Menagerie at a coffee shop on 5th Avenue, visited Angela Lansbury in her apartment to display various Mrs. Lovett sketches for Sweeney Todd, nervously approached legendary producer David Merrick — who was seated on an actual throne set up on the aisle of the theater during load-in — for Loot. There was Valerie Harper during a casting session for Looped, Mia Farrow in her Connecticut home for Fran’s Bed, director Harold Prince backstage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles for A Doll’s Life, Lily Tomlin (who actually chose to visit my office on numerous occasions) for The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. The list even includes the notoriously candid Arthur Laurents at his lovely home who, under awkward business circumstances, couldn’t have been more welcoming or complimentary for Nick & Nora.

Across the board, these bold-faced names treated the role of art critic very seriously — polite, yet not coy about letting their feelings known. I’ve always found the celebrity-as-critic to be analytical, intelligent, and helpful.

 Frank VerlizzoDesign: Frank VerlizzoOf course, things are never perfectly rosy. There was the male stage legend who insisted that my hand-rendered lettering of his name on a marquee was not 100 percent of the title (which contractually, it had to be) and demanded that we meet at the theater. We actually watched while mystified Wayne Sapper from renowned King Displays climbed a ladder, tape-measure in hand, to prove I had indeed done it accurately.

And there was the great British actress who once threw a hissy-fit over the supposedly already approved photo I had chosen to use of her on a show poster. I was always in awe of her stage acting — but I was taken by surprise by the performance she gave me in her hotel suite. In order to hit home the effrontery of my poster image, there she was — screaming, cursing, and crying with torn paper being flung around the room (shades of Helen Lawson!) This, in order that I might revise the image — which I did — and it turned out for the better.

Today, the approval process is much easier in terms of photography. The actors can see the results of the session on a computer screen in the studio during the shoot. It’s instant gratification for all involved. But for the drama queen in me, it’s not nearly as glamorous or as entertaining as presenting poster art in a plush hotel suite and becoming an audience of one for a Tony Award-caliber tantrum at the Ritz Carlton.

DESIGN: FRAVER Four Decades of Theatre Poster Art is on display until April 23, 2011 in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts’ Plaza Corridor Gallery.

This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post. View more >>

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