Sunday, October 11, 1998

"Condensing The Essence Of a Show Into a Poster"

By David Leopold

In late-19th-century Paris, Alphonse Mucha created the lasting public image of Sarah Bernhardt in a series of iconic Art Nouveau posters that have come to symbolize the actress and her plays.

In much the same way in late-20th-century New York, James McMullan's posters for Lincoln Center Theater have defined the sensibility of the institution and the essence of the works it presents, whether the effervescent musical "Anything Goes" in 1987 or the Edward Albee drama "A Delicate Balance" in 1996.

While there have been numerous books on theater posters, rarely has there been a collection of work by a single artist. In "The Theater Posters of James McMullan," published this month by Penguin Studio, it becomes clear how the artist has created a public personality for the theater without the use of logos or star names -- simply by creating 35 posters for 33 plays in 13 years. Preliminary studies are included, along with final versions of the posters, as well as reminiscences by the artist about how he came to complete each work.

Establishing a strong visual identity for an institution was probably an easy task, considering that Mr. McMullan has helped to give a look to an era. His illustrations for a 1976 New York magazine article on Brooklyn discos served as the visual inspiration for the film "Saturday Night Fever."

His drawings have been seen in numerous publications, including Esquire, Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker and The New York Times; and his classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York are filled with professional illustrators and students alike, who are interested in the way he can plumb the depths of a subject and distill the images into a single design.

Perhaps Mr. McMullan's early years spent in two countries steeped in artistic traditions have contributed to this talent. He was born in Qingdao, China, 64 years ago, the grandson of Anglican missionaries, and spent the years of World War II in school in India. It was not until he was 17 that he reached the United States, where he went to the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

For more than the last 20 years, his theater posters -- executed mainly in watercolor, gouache and pastel -- have been a part of the visual heritage of New York, seen on buildings and billboards, in subway stations, newspapers and magazines.

"McMullan illustrates plays at the highest intention their authors imagined," said the playwright John Guare, who has written the introduction to the new book.

"That is his gift."

The posters have done their part to influence performers. The actress Cherry Jones wrote to the artist during rehearsals for her Tony Award-winning title role in "The Heiress": "You captured Catherine long before I knew her and if truth be told, I've returned to your work more than once while seeking her."

In one of the book's more telling passages, Mr. McMullan shows how the evolution of a poster involves a fair share of drama, comedy and a mercurial cast of characters.

Describing his 1994 poster for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel," Mr. McMullan writes that Bernard Gersten, the producer of Lincoln Center Theater, was not sure whether the British producer Cameron Mackintosh, with whom the theater was co-producing the show, "would insist on using the poster from the previously mounted London production, but he asked me nonetheless to come up with a sketch that might 'be a variation of the Mackintosh poster.'

"Bernie had never seemed so anxious to end a conversation before. When I got off the phone, I felt a little like Oliver North getting an untraceable call from the Oval Office: I was to do a sketch that might or might not liberate Lincoln Center from certain unspecified contractual obligations to a foreign power... .

"From the London production poster ... I gathered I was to do a poster for a happy 1940's-style musical."

Mr. McMullan, who worked on the sketches at his Manhattan studio, took them "to Lincoln Center, and the response was basically, 'No! No! No! This art is far too happy. We're doing a production that has a lot of edge, that goes back to the original dark side of the story that was suppressed in the 1940's.'

SOMEONE could have mentioned this to me, I countered... .

"One of the aspects of this 'Carousel' that became clear in my meeting at Lincoln Center was that the main character of Billy Bigelow has a good side and a bad side, and the struggle between these two selves would give the current production much of its tension. In thinking of this duality, I happened upon the idea of Billy straddling two carousel horses, one white and one black, representing his good and bad sides." The final version of the poster incorporates that idea.

The reward for his work in the theater, Mr. McMullan reflects, is that he, the actors, directors and producers "have learned to appreciate and know each other as family members might, and to risk a few disagreements along the way."


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