by Steven Suskin
Review by Jonathan Frank
Also see Alan's reviews of Jerry Herman: Poet of the Showtune and Through the Screen Door ...
Broadway historian (as well as theatrical manager and producer) Steven Suskin's latest book, A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork lives up to its name on many levels. The book archives roughly 175 pieces of artwork culled from fifty years of dramatic and musical productions, many of which have not been seen since their show's demise. In doing so, he provides a fascinating glimpse into theater's history and its promotional evolution. To be honest, most of the posters included are more utilitarian than artistic in nature. Thanks to the advent of Photoshop and advances in printing techniques, today's posters are arguably more eye-catching and artistically satisfying than the majority of the ones on display in A Must See, most of which simply consist of the show's title and a photograph of its star, or are made up of geometric color panels and simple graphics. Little in the book matches the splendor of, say, a James McMullan poster (for the most recent Lincoln Center production ofCarousel, for example) or the artwork for any Sondheim show since Company. But that really is not the point of the book, which is more concerned with reacquainting readers with well-loved classics and forgotten shows (the good, bad and the ugly) and showing us what they say through promotion versus production.
While there are some incredible posters on display (most notably a poster Lew Parish designed for The Emperor Jones) and it is fun to see posters by artists not usually associated with the theater (such as Alberto Vargas, Norman Rockwell, Charles Addams and William Steig), the true magic of A Must See! is in the text. Steven Suskin has done a marvelous job of matching the posters with anecdotes, both gossipy and historical, that help translate the 'thousand words' the artwork is imparting. In tracing the advertising evolution of Fiddler On The Roof, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and On The Town, for instance, Suskin gives a wealth of knowledge on how marketing strategies, artistic temperaments, and billing issues affect a show's advertising. The book is loosely broken down by categories, such as musicals, high drama/low comedy, star vehicles, ones with notable artwork, and my personal favorite, flops.
For more information, see our interview with Steven Suskin.
A Must See!
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