What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Steven Suskin
By Alan Gomberg
Anyone who loves looking at Broadway posters should be interested in Steven Suskin's recently published book, A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork (Chronicle Books; $22.95, paper). Suskin, a longtime theatrical manager and producer, is also a theatre historian. His previous books include Show Tunes, Opening Nights on Broadway, More Opening Nights on Broadway, and the Broadway Yearbook series. His CD reviews on Playbill online are also widely read.
Talkin' Broadway's Alan Gomberg recently discussed the new book, as well as his earlier ones, with Suskin.
Alan Gomberg: Congratulations. A Must See is a terrific book, with interesting stuff on every page. Was this a project that you'd had in mind for a long time?
Steven Suskin: About fifteen years ago, right after my first book, I tried to find a publisher to do this one. Everyone said it sounded interesting until I told them that it required hundreds of illustrations in color. In those days you still had the color plates, so it was out of the question. Then a few years ago some people called and said, "How about a book with theatre art in it?" I said, "Well, that would be great except that you really need to use color." And they said, "We want to do it." So I said, "OK, I know just the sort of thing to do." Anyway, it's much easier to print this stuff now than it was then.
AG: You didn't use many of the more famous posters. You do have Fiddler and My Fair Lady, but for the most part you have - I wouldn't say lesser-known shows but not the most famous posters.
SS: In general, the ones that are really familiar are the ones that were on the cast albums we all have. I've used a few of those, such as My Fair Lady and Fiddler, because in both cases there are alternate ads, and the same thing with Dolly.
AG: How did you find all this material? Were there specific posters that you were hoping to include?
SS: When you're dealing with this sort of material, the bottom line is that you search for what you can find. If you say, "I want to use the poster for Born Yesterday before Judy Holliday was in it," you'll never find it. As it happened, that turned up, but not because I asked someone for it.
Fortunately, I have a few friends who have good collections, and I also have a decent amount of material, so between those collections I pieced together this book. I think that a lot more of this material existed twenty years ago.
We used a lot of the artwork heralds - the program inserts. Those are not as exciting as the window cards, but window cards are big and tend to be destroyed, and the ones that do exist are often not in such great condition. The heralds were inside playbills. If you open an old playbill, a herald may be inside. And it will be in perfect condition because it's been pressed properly. I've moved about eight times, and moving the posters is a big thing every time, whereas one carton will contain hundreds of playbills and some of them will have heralds.
AG: Was there trouble getting the rights to use any of them?
SS: It has become more complicated as time has gone on. I think starting with Cats everybody said, "Oh, we're going to make these trademarks." In the earlier days the designs were not copyrighted. How to Succeed is one of the early ones that actually had a copyright because Frank Loesser was a businessman, but most of these don't.
AG: It's interesting to see the work of artists who I didn't know had designed Broadway posters - for example, Norman Rockwell.
SS: And there are those New Yorker cartoonists: Thurber, Peter Arno, Charles Addams - his is one of my favorites - and there's Marcel Vertès, the pinup artist, and Alberto Vargas and Ludwig Bemelmans. All these guys were in New York, and it was extra money. They earned a few hundred dollars. And Rockwell, of course, was an illustrator for hire. Hirschfeld and a few others made a living at theatre-related art, but most of these guys were itinerant artists who were glad to do a commission.
AG: Very often the artwork in the book is from pre-Broadway tryouts or post-Broadway tours. Is that because those provided a different perspective or were they sometimes just what was in the best shape?
SS: Different reasons in different cases. With pre-Broadway artwork, usually the producers commissioned art and were happy with it and continued to use it, but sometimes they changed the art for something that was more help in selling the show.
In those days a show might try out in two or three towns, and it would go on sale in those towns before it had entered rehearsal. If they had a star, they would do an image using the star. My Fair Lady is a good example. They didn't have the famous Hirschfeld drawing before the show went into rehearsal because at that time he hadn't sat there and seen the people. In this case, the image they used appears to be a photograph of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, but we think it's Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller from the film Pygmalion with the faces of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews airblown onto Howard and Hiller's bodies and costumes. I asked Biff Liff, who was the stage manager on the show, and he told me that's what they basically did. We're not positive it's from the film, but whatever it's from, it's not Harrison and Andrews. That hat was never on Rex Harrison's head.
The poster was for the Shubert in New Haven. The first performance was February fourth, and they probably printed this up in December. Biff said that Rex and Julie hadn't met when they put it together. There had been many productions of Pygmalion so they could get a Pygmalion photo and put the faces on it. Today someone would probably sue them for doing that.
In many cases the pre-Broadway ad is more generic. Death of a Salesman is an example. The pre-Broadway ad just has the credits. Once the designer saw it out of town, he could come up with an image.
On the Town is an especially good example. They must have gone to the artist and said, "It's about sailors in New York; they go to nightclubs and meet some society people." So the first poster has a man in a top hat, a girl, and a sailor walking by buildings in New York - it's very generic. As they got a little closer, they realized, "Well, it's really a ballet sort of show." One of the things that was startling about the show was the design. Oliver Smith came out of the ballet world; he used colorful, vibrant drops. It was a whole new look for shows, almost like poster art. So the artist for the final poster probably saw the show in Boston, and this poster has sailors dancing, it has panels of flats - it clearly says musical, it clearly says ballet, it clearly says color, and it has the Brooklyn Bridge, which is an image from the show. When they sat in the advertising agency a month before they went into rehearsal and, in fact, before the show was totally written, that specific ad couldn't have been drawn.
It's also interesting to see the billing changes that were made. Robbins is much more prominent on the first poster than on the Broadway one. Also, Bernstein is listed as one of the lyricists on the first one, while on the Broadway poster only Comden and Green are credited with the lyrics.
AG: Getting back to My Fair Lady. We see in the book that Hirschfeld had previously used the idea of Shaw manipulating his characters as if they were marionettes, on this poster for a 1947 production Man and Superman that starred Maurice Evans. Shaw was still alive then so he wasn't portrayed as an angel, as he would be on the Fair Lady poster.
SS: In many cases, Hirschfeld did his art for the Times, and the producers liked it and then bought the art. In the case of My Fair Lady, I think they commissioned him. Another Hirschfeld that was probably commissioned is the Jacobowsky and the Colonel poster, which I used because it was a full-color Hirschfeld, something you don't see often.
AG: Something I thought was interesting about the Fair Lady tour poster is that they gave these little-known actors huge billing, as if they were Harrison and Andrews and Stanley Holloway.
SS: This was the first national company. I used it because it was the best image that I found. What sometimes happened was that if a show came to New York and was a big hit, they didn't spend much money on advertising while the original cast was in the show. In a lot of cases, by the time they started printing stuff, the leads had been replaced.
AG: Also, on this Fair Lady tour ad, it not only says "America's Greatest Musical," it also has a music staff and musical notes to make sure you know it's a musical - as if anybody would not have known by this time that My Fair Lady was a musical.
SS: Many of them do things like that. The Lady in the Dark tour poster and even The King and I Broadway poster, they both have musical notes on them, just to let you know it's a musical. By that time Rodgers and Hammerstein were their own industry, and you're thinking, "They needed to tell them it's a musical?"
AG: One last thing that I thought was interesting about this Fair Lady tour poster is that the faces on the marionette figures are a bit different from what's on the Broadway and London cast recordings. They don't look like Harrison and Andrews. I don't know if they look anything like Diane Todd and Michael Evans from this tour ...
SS: I'm pretty sure that these were intended to match any Higgins and Eliza after Harrison and Andrews.
With Fiddler on the Roof, it's interesting because they started with the girl on the roof, and Zero no doubt said, "I'm the star. I'm not the fiddler, but ...," so he was on the roof. And then when Luther Adler came in while Zero was on vacation, they had Adler on the roof, then they went back to Zero on the roof. As soon as they replaced Zero permanently, they decided "We're not going to go to the expense anymore. We're just going to put the girl back on the roof."
With the poster for the Kismet tour, the image is the one that looks like Alfred Drake, though he wasn't in the tour. Same thing with La Mancha; they always used the Hirschfeld, where the people are very clearly identifiable.
AG: The figures in that poster so clearly resemble Kiley, Diener, and Jacobson. It's funny that they continued to use it for the entire Broadway run and the tour. As we see in the book, even when someone famous like José Ferrer was starring, they didn't alter the poster to make it look like him.
SS: Well, that was the image for the show, and when you're dealing with a Hirschfeld ... well, My Fair Lady was a Hirschfeld, too, and they changed it a little, but what they want is a look for the show. As you said, in some of these out-of-town places just giving someone large billing was meant to convey "She's a Broadway star!" You had those second national tours out there, the bus-and-trucks, and who knows what they got? But it looked like the Broadway show, at least in the artwork.
AG: That Charles Addams ad for Anniversary Waltz, was that image used just for the post-Broadway tour or was it also used for the Broadway run? Because what we see in the book is post-Broadway, and the text in the ad refers to the show's Broadway success.
SS: In most cases, they used the Broadway art for post-Broadway. The only reason why I specified post-Broadway in the caption is because the cast is not the Broadway cast and I wouldn't want anyone to think they were. I used this version because it was in the best condition.
AG: Another artist whose work I found fascinating was Vertès. His portrait of Katherine Cornell in The Doctor's Dilemma, was it a poster? Because there are no credits on it.
SS: It was an insert that I think was four-sided; this was the cover, and the credits were inside. It's striking enough, though, to include.
AG: I agree. It's stunning.
SS: And his Allah, Be Praised! one is another of the best ones.
AG: With Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow, what's in the book are the post-Broadway tour posters. Do these posters use the same art that was used on Broadway? I've never seen these designs before.
SS: In both cases the artwork was the same as on Broadway. Finian's was done by Don Freeman. He was a well-known artist; he illustrated some famous children's books. He did three Pulitzer winners in here: The Time of Your Life, Streetcar, and The Skin of Our Teeth, and also High Button Shoes.
AG: The Skin of Our Teeth was one of my favorites. I love that play, and the poster really captures the feel of it. Looking at the Freeman posters in here, he seems to have been great at getting across the feel of the play.
SS: Yes, that's why his stuff is so good. And Brigadoon is David Klein, who also did Music Man, which I didn't include because I couldn't find one that had really good color. I never found New York heralds for these shows. If you had the poster of a hit show and you had it on your wall, it would be all beaten up after a while. If you had a poster of some flop show, it was probably stored away somewhere. So the posters of the hit shows are decrepit, at least the ones I found.
One thing I regret is that Hilary Knight, who's one of the best, is barely represented. But just about every piece of his that I found was poorly printed. I think that the only poster of his that's in the book is Collette. And even that, though it came out fairly well, doesn't really capture what the original was like; it glowed like gold. But for Nanette and Sixpence and most of the other great ones he did, all I could find were touring ones, cheap versions, just red on white, for example. Because his stuff is so rich, a two-color version of a Hilary Knight doesn't do justice to his work. Every Nanette I found was either printed a little bit offline or they cut down on the colors so that you couldn't quite see it.
AG: That's too bad, I agree. His posters are wonderful.
One of the things that interested me was when there was some minor change between a pre-Broadway poster and a Broadway poster. For example, I found this pre-Broadway poster for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum fascinating because it's slightly different from the Broadway one.
SS: Of course, the color scheme is different. In the pre-Broadway art, the background is black, but in the Broadway version it's red.
AG: Also, in the pre-Broadway art the girl is on his left shoulder, but in the final version she's on his right shoulder; she's closer to us and we see just a bit more of her.
SS: Well, you have a nearly naked girl, so let's see her legs. Putting her in front allows us to see them.
AG: There are a lot of naked or semi-naked women in these posters.
SS: Well, that's not accidental.
AG: Another striking poster with a semi-naked woman is What Makes Sammy Run? which looks great in here. If only the show had been as good as the poster. I'm sure that this poster helped sell tickets, making people think it was a sexy show.
SS: And also it has the short man with the big cigar. It really speaks to what the show is about. When it opened in 1964, the entire audience knew What Makes Sammy Run? because it had been a great success as a novel. So when they gave you this image, they were reminding you of something you already knew, trying to make people think "Oh, yeah, I love that!"
In relation to which, there's Equus. Unfortunately, the best image I could find had the Times quote and all that awards stuff and credits. But before the show opened, you walked into the subway and you saw this totally black poster with this big, wide, kind of cockeyed chess piece of a horse - though you didn't know that it was a horse - and the name Equus. It didn't say Plymouth Theatre, it didn't say A New Play, it didn't say By Anthony Shaffer. I don't think it said anything but Equus. It went up overnight in the subway stations and all over. And you saw it and you would not forget it, but you didn't know what it was. Later you found out it was a play.
AG: This one for The Boys in the Band was also interesting because it's from a national tour. Historically, you don't think of Off-Broadway plays as having had major national tours, especially tours that played in big theatres like the National in D.C.
SS: But you know The Fantasticks toured - it must have looked like a postage stamp in the bigger theatres, but it toured. And Godspell and Charlie Brown toured. And later Driving Miss Daisy toured and played in many large theatres.
AG: Another play that I was surprised to see had toured was The Emperor Jones, back in the twenties, and this poster for the tour is another terrific design.
SS: Yes, it is, and the image is taken right out of the end of the play, you can hear almost hear the drums. That came from a tiny herald, it was very small, but it reproduced extremely well. It's a striking piece of art that really relates the play. It was by Lew Parrish, who was a famous illustrator. And, of course, it's an important play.
AG: Another thing that comes up a few times in here, which I guess is something that you would see on tour posters but not in New York, is when it says "In Person" for movie stars who were appearing in plays, like Henry Fonda on the Mister Roberts poster, Catherine Was Great with Mae West, and a few others.
SS: You would sometimes get that on posters in New York as well. After all, they weren't trying to get only regular New Yorker theatregoers to these shows. When Bette Davis, for example, did a couple of shows on Broadway, it did say "In Person" because you saw Bette Davis in the movies all the time. Otherwise, an occasional theatregoer might see the ad and think it was a Bette Davis movie.
AG: One crazy thing that's in here is the series of Golden Boy posters, ending with the desperation poster that has a photo of Sammy Davis with some sexy chorus girls.
SS: What I like best is the pre-Broadway one because you have all these different names: different librettist, different director. On a lot of the pre-Broadway posters in here, you have different lineups of people from the Broadway version.
AG: Yes, it's interesting on some of the posters to see people who were in famous shows out of town but not in those same shows on Broadway.
SS: This first Golden Boy image references a big production number with stop lights that was in the show. That image - it's just a stop-light, street-light city - and Sammy Davis's name on the one-way sign. Now is that gonna sell any tickets? Or is a naked girl gonna sell tickets? This first one is art, this second one with the portrait of Davis is a bit of desperation, and the third is real desperation.
AG: And then all through this flops section ...
SS: We have some strange people in there: Steve Allen, Soupy Sales ...
AG: You found posters for some shows that I've never even heard of, like Pleasure Dome that closed in rehearsals.
SS: And that's where it got interesting in researching this. Pleasure Dome was one that I had and could never find out anything about. And there's also that Nat King Cole musical.
AG: Yes, who knew? Did this Nat King Cole show have a book or was it a revue?
SS: It had a story of sorts, but I could find nothing about either show in any reference book. I had to dig and dig. You can find all sorts of things on the Internet, but still I had enormous trouble finding out: Pleasure Dome - what was it? And what I finally dug up is that they ran out of money during rehearsals so they never even got onstage.
AG: And this Girl From Nantucket poster: "A Whale of a Show." "A Modern Musical Comedy."
SS: Not only was it "A Whale of a Show," but it had "A Breezy Cast of 80." I wanted to make this poster really small, but the publisher loved this design. He said, "It needs a full page because I love it, it's my favorite."
AG: I think it's great.
SS: Well, there you are.
AG: For one thing, where else are you going to get a full-page poster of The Girl From Nantucket in color? This is obviously something everyone needs. It evokes a whole era of flop musicals, 1940s style.
SS: And then there's Conquering Hero.
AG: Yes, another terrific design.
SS: Done by William Steig of the New Yorker. Shrek is a Steig creation.
AG: Do you have any particular favorites?
SS: My favorite might be Allah, Be Praised! Also, a very famous anecdote: Alfred Bloomingdale produced it, and a famous book doctor named Cy Howard came in. This line has been attributed to everyone, including George S. Kaufman. Bloomingdale asked him, "What should I do?" And he said, "My advice is close the show and keep the store open Sundays."
AG: Great story. A few final questions, departing from the new book. Your book Show Tunes, how did that come about?
SS: It started around the time I became interested in the songs of people like Rodgers and Hart, Arthur Schwartz, and Vernon Duke. There had been no really comprehensive catalogue of sheet music of their songs, only a couple of books that had abbreviated catalogues of some of what had been published. I would go into a library trying to find material, and often I didn't know what to ask for. If you don't know the title of the song, you can't find it. So as I accumulated more of their work, I started making lists of it, and I got the idea of turning it into a book.
Originally, it was just going to be just twelve composers - the old greats who were, by that point, all gone. When I got a publisher, they wanted it to include Bock and Sondheim and so on, so we could keep updating the book. So far it's had three editions. It's evolved a lot. The first time it was basically catalogues of each composer's work with a brief description. Over the years I've become a better writer. So some of the stuff in the older editions stayed, but as I re-read some of it, I'd think to myself, "Huh? What does that sentence mean?"
AG: I know that feeling well.
SS: One fortunate thing is that more of these songs have come into circulation than were available in 1985, when I first did the book. You wouldn't think that with a show that was written in, say, 1920, they would be publishing songs from it for the first time seventy years later. But between recordings and concerts, some older songs have been published for the first time in recent years, so it keeps growing.
AG: Is there likely to be a fourth edition?
SS: There probably will be. The third edition was in 1999, so it's almost time. And part of what happened was that I started doing the Broadway Yearbook series, so when it was time for a new edition, I was busy with that.
AG: The last yearbook was 2001-2002. Is there going to be another?
SS: No, there were three, and that was it. It was an immense amount of work. To do it for one year was fine, but to do it every year leaves you without much time for anything else. And with so many shows opening in April ... I would be fine, but then suddenly eight shows would open, and my deadline was July. The publishers and I had agreed to do it for three years and then we would decide whether to keep going. It was a good series of books, but it didn't really sell well enough to keep doing it.
AG: Two other books of yours that have a lot of fans are the Opening Nights on Broadway books. Was a third book ever considered?
SS: There would have been a third one, but each of the books uses, I don't know, maybe five hundred excerpts from reviews. With the first book, everybody gave us permission to use the reviews, there were no problems. With the second book, some of them said fine, but one of the papers said, "No, we changed our mind. You can't use them at all." And another one took the previous price and multiplied it by five. What's happened basically is that these newspapers have been bought by multinational corporations. When I started to do the third one, it was impossible. They're looking at everything they have as gold.
AG: What period was the third one going to cover?
SS: It would have been 1981 through the end of the century.
AG: Did you ever consider doing one that covered plays?
SS: My first version of Opening Nights on Broadway had the great plays also, but I could not get it published. All I could get published was a book on Broadway musicals. So I said, "Well, if that's how I can get it published, that's what I'll do." There's a book-buying market for Broadway musicals, but not much of one for Broadway plays.
AG: I imagine that doing a collection of play reviews would have been problematic just because in the old days so many more plays than musicals would open during a Broadway season. So a collection covering the same time frame as one of the Opening Nights on Broadway books would have been huge.
SS: And there would have been a lot of plays you'd never have heard of, and for many of them you wouldn't even have heard of any of the people involved. But, you know, I didn't include everything in the Opening Nights books. There had to be something interesting about a show. If I couldn't find anything interesting, if I couldn't find an interesting review, it wasn't included.
Over the years, oddly enough, I've had about twenty people ask me, "Why isn't Bajour in Opening Nights on Broadway?" And the answer is that I went through the reviews about ten times, and nobody said anything that was at all interesting. The best thing I could find was a quote about the set coming out and unfolding like a postcard. That was the most interesting description of the show I could find. And I was over length. So I didn't include that show. And I didn't include some others, most of which you would never have heard of.
AG: I also wanted to discuss your Playbill online column. You frequently discuss orchestrations, a subject that fascinates me but which isn't written about much, at least not the subject of musical-theatre orchestration.
SS: Well, very few people know much about Broadway orchestrations. It's kind of a hidden art, so I've been working at discovering as much about it as I can, and this has shown up in the column.
AG: Judging from your columns, you seem pretty musically knowledgeable.
SS: Well, I do the CD review thing, and it's about musicals because you don't have many CDs of plays. My background isn't necessarily in musicals but that's what I've written about a lot.
And you can often find more to write about a musical because it's an enormous undertaking, whereas with a play, ideally, some guy writes it and gets a few actors and a good director. With the Broadway Yearbook series, I found that I usually wrote more about the musicals than the plays, just because there are so many pieces in a musical.
AG: Well, thank you so much. This has been a lot of fun. And once again, congratulations on the new book. I'm sure people are going to love it.
SS: Thank you.
BarnesandNoble.com. Steven Suskin is a longtime theatrical manager and producer. He has written extensively about theatre and music and lives in New York City.
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