NEW YORK — “And the Tony Award for best theater poster goes to … “
No, that’s not happening. Not this year. Probably not ever if the Tony people want to keep their award show to just three hours.
But ask any marketing guru: Who gets blamed first when a show fails to sell tickets? Suddenly, it makes perfect sense to start honoring the poster and ad campaign.
“I remember the year Lily Tomlin won her Tony,” says Nancy Coyne, of legit ad agency Serino Coyne. “She thanked us on national TV. It was a banner moment. My mother phoned me.” The best judges of the art of the show poster are those partners in Gotham’s four firms that have a virtual lock on Broadway advertising. In addition to Coyne, there is Jim Russek at Rave! Advertising, Ann Murphy at the Eliran Murphy Group and Drew Hodges at SpotCo.
“Advertising works when it stands out in the environment,” says Murphy. “The more standardized everything becomes, the less effect it has. Frankly, we had a better mix in the past than at the present.”
Most agree that right now there is an unhealthy plethora of photo-driven posters and ads. “But when you’ve got Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl in “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?,” Liam Neeson and Laura Linney in “The Crucible,” and Alan Bates and Frank Langella in “Fortune’s Fool,” the casting dog has a way of wagging the poster tail.
“If you’re going to book stars and pay them a lot of money,” says Russek, “that’s what you have to sell before anything else.” To prove his point, Rave! sandwiched the entire cast of nine, from Estelle Parsons to Buck Henry, into its poster for “Morning’s at Seven.”
Over at Eliran Murphy, their poster for “The Women” went the icon route, using the image of a black cat, its claws stretched out, to personify Clare Boothe Luce’s classic bitchfest of 22 actresses. “To establish the identify of the show, we wanted something that was graphically strong and a metaphor,” Ann Murphy explains.
Notable exceptions to the photo rule are Paula Scher’s mirror-image illustration for “Topdog/Underdog” and Howard Shatz’s underwater photo of a nude couple for “Metamorphoses.” Serino-Coyne, which had worked with Shatz for its “Fosse” ads, bought his photo to illustrate Mary Zimmerman’s pool play based on the myths of Ovid. And the same agency picked up the edgy Scher art that illustrated the world premiere of Suzan-Lori Park’s drama of two brothers at the Public Theater.
The posters for “Topdog/Underdog” and “Metamorphoses” get the season’s highest marks from various producers and ad directors, as one of them puts it, “for standing out in the context of the New York Times.” In the case of the Shatz photo, one producer not associated with the show explains its unique appeal: “The guy from Jersey might want to see ‘Metamorphoses’ whereas the cat poster for ‘The Women’ does not expand on its potential audience.” Many others find the feline a clean, simple image that communicates the play’s message with minimum fuss.
Elsewhere, SpotCo’s black-and-white photo-collage poster for “Sweet Smell of Success” receives kudos for replicating the film-noir quality of the 1957 movie — much more effectively than the stage musical itself. Low marks, however, go to the show’s subsequent ad campaign featuring star John Lithgow surrounded by a bunch of “Chicago”-like chorines”The show reflects a lot on the artwork,” says Hodges. “All hit shows have great art and all flops have bad art.”