Fraver's Iconic Broadway Posters
Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo, the legendary designer behind many of Broadway’s most iconic posters, has put together a book looking back at his remarkable career: Fraver by Design: 5 Decades of Theatre Poster Art from Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Beyond. For EW, Verlizzo has provided exclusive commentary on 10 of the posters featured in the book.
“My first Broadway poster was for Tom Stoppardʼs Travesties, which went on to win the Best Play Tony Award that year—not a bad start,” says Frank “Fraver” Verlizzo. “Since I was very new to the business, I wasn’t invited to the ad meetings, and almost 10 years passed before I finally met the producer, Broadway legend David Merrick. The only directive given in designing the logo was that it had to be done using Merrick Red, which was a particular shade of red that was his favorite. King Displays always had at the ready their special paint mixture to be used on the marquees for any Merrick show.”
“I was determined to design the poster for this new Broadway play,” Verlizzo says. “Writer Ira Levin had catapulted to fame with his novel, Rosemary’s Baby. Now the ad agency had a script circulating around the office for his new play, a thriller, entitled Deathtrap. The play was a real page-turner and generated lots of excitement amongst our group. I have no recollection of any other artist working on it or any poster submissions, although clearly there must’ve been several. I grabbed a small office mirror, propped it up on my desk, and drew a sinister-looking graphic version of my eyes. At the last minute, I chose to make them bright blue to garner instant attention.”
Sweeney Todd (1979)
“My Sweeney art was based on an old woodcut, and I added Mrs. Lovett drawn in the same style,” Verlizzo says. “I had met with Harold Prince, who showed me costume sketches in which the Mrs. Lovett character appeared very fat. He explained he was going to talk to his star, Angela Lansbury, about wearing padding but hadn’t yet. I was asked to go to her apartment to show her the artwork so she could approve it. I fortunately thought to render other Mrs. Lovetts in various weights ranging from obese to svelte. Ms. Lansbury couldn’t have been nicer, but was taken aback by the girth of some of my renderings. I told her I’d heard mentioned the possibility of her wearing a ‘fat suit.’ Without missing a beat, her response was, ‘I’ll just play it fat. Let’s go with the thinnest drawing.’ The final suggestion Stephen Sondheim made: ‘Add more blood.'”
Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1980)
“I had already designed the poster for the original Broadway production a year earlier starring Tom Conti,” Verlizzo says. “Now, producer Emanuel Azenberg created a media stir by casting Mary Tyler Moore in the role. I followed my format using a graphic portrait of the star and got to meet MTM backstage one day between matinee and evening performances. Her hair stylist, who also cut my hair, told me she wanted to meet the artist. She signed a poster for me with the inscription: ‘To Frank: Thank you for my face.'”
Sunday in the Park With George (1984)
“When I was handed the script, it contained only Act One. I asked the producers, ‘What happens in the second Act?’ The response was, ‘It’s not written yet, but it takes place 100 years later.’ Since it was a musical, I decided to give the legs in the lower half of the graphic some movement. It was suggested by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine that I think of the word ‘gavotte.’ I discovered much later that I was the only artist asked to design for this Broadway show. When all involved saw the poster early on, they knew it was ‘the one.'”
The Lion King (1997)
“Among the most famous theater posters worldwide is the image for Disney’s groundbreaking musical, The Lion King. I led the design of it for Disney Theatrical Productions in 1997 when I was at Grey Entertainment,” Verlizzo says. “Unlike many shows for which I had previously developed artwork, The Lion King was already a successful animated film, so this project introduced a challenging opportunity to create something new and fresh for a title that came with existing perceptions.
“For inspiration, I recalled the cave painting image of Simba from having seen the film in the early 1990s. Julie Taymor’s costume sketches and Richard Hudson’s scenic designs served as references for the look of the Broadway show, which was heavily stylized with African influences. The graphic nature of the board patterns on Ms. Taymor’s costumes specifically had a huge influence on my approach to the show art.
“The lion’s mane presented a challenge. There were so many ways to treat and interpret it. I eventually drew by hand at least 50 other Simba head sketches until I was seeing them in my sleep. My original version of the head was somewhat rounded in shape, but then producer Thomas Schumacher enlisted legendary Disney animator Hans Bacher to distill my initial design into what became the woodcut-like icon still used to advertise the show over 20 years later.
“Its simplicity and use of solid black, red, and yellow made The Lion King poster distinctive. Mr. Schumacher, his co-producer Peter Schneider, and Ms. Taymor were immediately drawn to it. As a result, the bold-type design (based on a Neuland font) never changed, and the bright taxi cab-yellow background remained as I’d first presented it.”
Twelve Angry Men (2004)
“Strangely enough, I was serving on jury duty when I was handed the script for Twelve Angry Men. I had at my disposal the perfect setting for research,” Verlizzo says. “After designing a few comps, everything looked very generic to me. Gavels, courtrooms, jury boxes, marble facades and the like just didn’t look interesting. The characters in the play aren’t given names, they are identified by their assigned jury numbers: Juror One, Juror Two, etc. Ultimately, I decided to stay away from courtroom imagery and take my favorite route: graphic type design.”
“I was hired by Ted Chapin and Dana Siegel of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to design posters for their iconic musicals that could be used for licensing,” Verlizzo says. “This was the second in the series. For Oklahoma! the directive was: Make it easily identifiable without even seeing the title while possessing the feel of a travel poster. Using a field of wheat, a windmill, a hat, a flower, and lots of blue sky, this art pretty much created itself! I do find the results strikingly handsome and musical theater-worthy.”
“This artwork was designed for the Off-Broadway production’s Original Cast Recording CD. It was then subsequently used as the licensing key art for the Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore/Larry Cohen hit revival. As lyricist Dean Pitchford writes in his commentary, ‘Frank has depicted Carrie in silhouette, a mysterious, faceless figure onto whom an onlooker can project their own impression. The eeriness of this image is heightened by the long shadow she casts, lit from behind by flames that almost appear to be dancing. But this sinister tableau is balanced by the vibrant color scheme — the eye-popping yellows and oranges and reds, which are seen not only below the title treatment (the word CARRIE as if graffiti-ed onto a gym-locker), but are also reflected, winking and whirling, in the giddy mirror ball high atop the frame. This single image promises not only drama, intrigue and energy. But also fun. Precisely what we hope our show delivers.’”
“My design for the 2012 Broadway revival was challenging because, as a Pratt Institute student in the 1970s, David Edward Byrd was my illustration teacher,” Verlizzo says. “David designed the iconic art for the original Broadway production starring Alexis Smith, Dorothy Collins, and Yvonne DeCarlo. The image that was chosen is my favorite: a theater alley wall covered with torn, worn, and faded images of follies posters past with the negative space creating a showgirl’s face. As Bernadette Peters writes in her commentary, ‘From the first viewing of Frank’s Follies poster, one can tell instantly that it is a story about heartache, and the ghosts these people carry around with them.'”