Fraver by Design
Five Decades of Theatre Poster Art from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Beyond
By Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo
Schiffer. 208 pp. $34.99
By Toby Zinman
You can recognize them from a block away. Literally. Say, “Lion King” and you see Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo’s unmistakable gold theater poster, still in use 20 years after its debut; say, “Deathtrap” and you see those malevolent blue eyes staring out at you.
Fraver’s posters have been beckoning theatergoers for more than 40 years, and now they can beckon theatergoers from your coffee table. This handsome book, Fraver by Design, collects reproductions of his most famous and not-so-famous posters, called “window cards” in the business.
Fraver reminds us that long ago, before direct mail, email, and all the ad-creating talents of technology, new plays and musicals relied on the illustrations that made up the ads in the New York Times. The ads had a coupon (top price, $17.50) that could be mailed in with a check or money order while producers held their breath. So theater posters have a long and useful history.
Fraver by Design is fleshed out with admiring commentaries by various theater folk, including Jacqueline Z. Davis, executive director of the Public Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, where there was a major 2011 retrospective of Fraver’s work. Also chiming in between the pictures are Susan Schulman, Bernadette Peters, and Gerard Alessandrini, among many other Fraver fans. In a foreword, David Edward Byrd calls him “The Poster King of the Great Rialto.”
The appeal of this book is, of course, the pictures, though there seems to be no chronological order of the pieces, and Fraver’s prose is sometimes marred by too many exclamation points. There is the occasional frustration of seeing a poster design with inadequate setup or explanation. Burn This, for example, was a Lanford Wilson play that starred John Malkovich (a sensational performance still vivid in my mind). Yet the poster appears with no explanation as to why neither name is on it, just the title. (By the way, there are plans for a Broadway revival early next year starring Adam Driver; I wonder whether Fraver’s poster will return.)
It is fun to read Fraver’s commentaries about how he arrived at this or that design: he tells us of using a mirror to sketch his own eyes for the Deathtrap poster, and he remembers the now-demolished gigantic billboard at 46th Street and Broadway, where his signature was two feet high. More of these anecdotes would have been welcome. A recent Daily Beast profile provides lots of the entertaining stories the book lacks.
We learn a bit about the business. One of the decisions that goes into creating a poster is “title treatment,” the graphic design style in which the all-important name of the show will appear. For example, for Electra starring Zoë Wanamaker, a classical treatment would have been an obvious choice, but Fraver chose a “corporate” logo that could be read on the Barrymore Theatre marquee from many blocks away.
What emerges from the book is that Fraver has been a devoted theatergoer and theater-lover his whole life, and is especially to Stephen Sondheim’s work. The witty poster for Sunday in the Park with George captures both the 19th-century first act, with its instantly recognizable Seurat painting, and the contemporary second act, with the Seurat figures’ legs extending below the painting frame and wearing high heels and jeans.
A whole chapter is devoted to Fraver’s Sondheim posters: four for Follies, five for Frogs, as well as for that unimaginable occasion, the Sondheim flop: Getting Away with Murder ran just 17 performances on Broadway in 1996; for its last 12 performances, Fraver redesigned the poster so that the gargoyle, a central image in the original poster that held a smoking gun, was now holding the gun to its own head. He created images for A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along, Company, Passion, Pacific Overtures, and a sensational selection of Sweeney Todds.
Fraver worked for Off-Broadway shows, as well — lots and lots of posters in which you instantly recognize the cleverness of the design concept (especially good are the images for regional productions of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), and a slew of others for shows you never heard of, as well as a selection of unused and heretofore unpublished Carrie designs.
The point of a poster, as Fraver reminds us, is to be an “effective selling tool,” but it should also provide the pleasures of a work of art, as many of these do.
Toby Zinman, a professor of English at the University of the Arts, frequently reviews theater for The Inquirer.