When Angela Lansbury saw Frank Verlizzo’s sketches for the poster for the 1979 Broadway premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, she queried why his drawing of her character, Mrs. Lovett, was so big.
“I think you’re going to be padded,” Verlizzo recalled telling her, now nearly 40 years later.
“Let’s use the thinnest drawing,” Lansbury advised him. “I’ll just play it fat.”
“And she did,” Verlizzo recalled. “She lumbered down those stairs.”
Mary Tyler Moore asked to meet Verlizzo when he designed the poster for Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and signed a poster she gave to him with the inscription: “Thank you for my face.”
When the playwright Tom Stoppard met Verlizzo in his modest office surroundings, Stoppard was shocked that this was the same person who had designed the poster for Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park With George.
“And this is your office?” Stoppard said, aghast. “Why haven’t they given you a palace?”
Students and high school teachers in the Bronx couldn’t pronounce Frank Verlizzo’s name.
“They saw ‘Vertigo,’ the z-z confused them. I got ‘Vizarro, ‘Velarizzo.’ I would think, ‘Just look at it, it’s not that hard,’” he recalled, laughing.
Still, to ward off confusion, he started calling himself “Fraver.”
And so an iconic Broadway artist was born. In a career spanning more than 40 years, “Fraver” has designed more than 350 posters for shows on the Great White Way, including the famed and still-ubiquitous yellow and black poster for The Lion King.
Because he frequently designs multiple posters for producers to choose from, Fraver puts the number of total designs he has drawn since 1974 at close to 2,000.
The name “Fraver” brought further mystique: one client saw his poster for Sweeney Todd, and was incredulous to be standing next to the famous “Fraver” who designed it.
He is now 67. “I have 93-year-old aunt,” Verlizzo said, laughing. “‘Wow you’re old!’ she said to me the other day.”
His posters, and the stories behind them, have been collected in a lushly illustrated book that is a visual treat for all theatre fans, Fraver By Design: 5 Decades of Theatre Poster Art From Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Beyond (Schiffer Publishing, $34.99).
On a recent weekday afternoon, the handsome and charming Verlizzo wandered around a display of some of the posters he has designed for the Tony Awards and Tony-nominated shows (this year’s ceremony is on June 10), currently on display in the lobby of the Awards’ official hotel, the Sofitel on 44th Street.
For extremely well-off Tony-nerds, there is even a special suite at the Sofitel, where awards ceremonies of the past show on rotation on TV, and where you can fall asleep mid-piles of old Playbills and award-winning scripts.
In theatre, the only time a celebrity gets involved in the process is if the image on the poster is of them or their character—and if they have approval, Verlizzo said.
“I once did this show where the lead actress did not like how her hair looked in the poster,” Verlizzo said, declining to name her. “It was right before the first preview, and the Playbills were about to printed. She saw the design, and summoned us to her hotel room. She was very movie-star glamorous. She was in her dressing gown. Her male co-star came in wearing his.
“As we were standing there, she began having this mental breakdown; this program picture could not be printed, she said. She did this whole performance—it was fabulous. I thought, ‘People would pay to see this right now.’ She said the image looked like she was trying to be young, and she doesn’t want her friends to think she was. It was amazing. I was there with two producers, one of whom got equally dramatic and called his office, and shouted, ‘Stop printing the Playbills!’”
The actress calmed down, Verlizzo recalled, and it made him consider that while he usually had to put up with producers’ tantrums, they had to put up with tantrums like these.
When he left the hotel room he called his husband “and everyone I knew.”
For a shoot for a poster featuring Mia Farrow, he spent the day at her Connecticut home and was so excited he called his brother from her bathroom to tell him he was “calling him from Mia Farrow’s bathroom, because he knows how much I love her.”
Looking at his work, Verlizzo said that how each presentation “is a bit like a beauty contest,” with one producer or ten trying to oversee consensus. “If it’s ten, it can be harder,” he said, smiling. “I would never show anything that I didn't like enough for them to use. But yeah, I usually have a favorite or two, but I learned early on not to steer them, or browbeat them.”
The poster, which Verlizzo begins working on nine months before the curtain goes up, is very important: it’s the first thing people see, many times before they buy a ticket. It needs to convey something tempting or dramatic, but not give the game away. It’s commercial art.
“I like to know everything there is to know before I design anything. I read the script, I talk to producers.”
For The Lion King, a poster that is now 20 years old and still imprinted on our minds, he was inspired by a cave painting of Simba, and designed 50 different lion manes. It is the only piece of art he has designed to which doesn’t own the rights. Disney does—and they made this perfectly clear before he designed the poster.
“If you’re in this business for the money, you’ve picked the wrong business,” said Verlizzo. “You never make a bazillion dollars. This is art for theatre. Maybe it would be different for movies. Theatre is a different scale, but you’re here, in New York, in the thick of it. And I love it.”
Verlizzo designed posters for movies once, but didn’t like the process. Instead of the immediate feedback and comparative speed of theatre, his movie posters would disappear within the faceless studios for months on end, and come back to him with scrawled annotations and instructions on them.
Verlizzo is, he insists, very shy, and while a great raconteur is also a modest, generous storyteller—as you might expect of someone fortunate enough to do what they genuinely love.
Bernadette Peters was “just lovely.” Sondheim was “perfectly great, and tempered any criticism with saying, ‘I don't really understand graphics,’ and so made it clear that he didn’t feel confident or equipped enough to get into the nitty-gritty.”
Some actors, on meeting him, would tell them they’d had his posters on their walls in college. “I’d want to slap them. I’m not that old!” he said, laughing.
He recalled that J. Walter Thompson, the ad agency he worked for at the time, wanted less designed blood splattered across his Sweeney Todd poster; how in the old days, actors, actresses, producers would be hanging around the art department. Now it’s more “corporate.”
Verlizzo’s father died when he was 12. It was a shock, the result of a sudden onset of pneumonia. “He went to sleep, then suddenly he was in a coma,” Verlizzo said. Growing up in the Bronx, there was “a huge support system” around his older brother Nick. His mother was a receptionist.
Verlizzo likes to make clear he was actually born in a Manhattan hospital because he wanted “out of the Bronx. I came to Manhattan every minute I had.” He was “very into school,” particularly the High School of Art and Design and the Pratt Institute where he was surrounded by artists—”all the teachers were working artists”and he was able to learn life drawing, design, and photography.
“I thought I was destined to design movie posters. I loved movie posters. I collected them and still do. Dad died in 1963, and I am obsessed with the artwork of two movies released the same year: Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra.
“The Birds is an illustration of a woman being attacked by birds. It isn’t Tippi Hedren. It’s kind of a blend of her and Jessica Tandy. I have a poster of it in front of my desk at home. Hitchcock had been an art director, and so I have to believe he had an awful lot of input into his own advertising. You do notice a very graphic-, type-focused design with them.”
The Cleopatra poster originally featured a little box with Rex Harrison’s face in it, Verlizzo said, until Harrison was painted in in full after he sued the studio for minimizing his presence.
“That was an advance warning to me: how many times a piece of art can change,” Verlizzo said.
As a child he went to the movies so much his friends stopped going with him. He saw “everything” as it opened. “For a while I toyed with the idea of making movies. That fell by the wayside. I loved the glitz, glamor, glitter all that stuff. I would force my brother to buy Photoplay magazines when he was going out.”
His mother started taking him to the theatre, and—while a fan of movie soundtracks—when he heard his first live orchestra accompanying Kismet at Lincoln Center, another passion, for stage and live music, was born. Verlizzo also remembers seeing, “and being mesmerized” by his first Broadway billboard, for Lauren Bacall in Applause at the Palace Theatre, a brush drawing by the famous poster designer Tom Morrow.
Verlizzo’s first billboard was not for a Broadway show, but for Stevie Wonder's album, Songs In The Key of Life, on a block-long hoarding that typically advertised movies. He recalled that his “Fraver” signature was two feet tall in the corner—not intentional, he added, he had no idea the poster would be so big. “I think everyone I knew I dragged there,” he said, smiling, of this commanding public debut.
His mother got a big kick out of his work, and of seeing any of his images on Playbills. So does he, and he still does today. If a poster doesn't make it he prefers to say it was “unpublished” rather than “rejected””it makes it less terrifying.”
Sunday In The Park With George, with its period clothes on top of the characters, and contemporary ones on their bottom halves, is a favorite. He loves Deathtrap too, featuring his face, and his brown eyes turned blue to make a more arresting artwork. “No one wants to look at brown eyes,” he said sadly (to a fellow brown-eyed human).
Verlizzo tries to balance good art with effective selling of the product. Typically the posters will give the names of producers, stars, playwright, director and designer, and sometimes more. But his image for Burn This (which starred John Malkovich and Joan Allen), with just the title of the play is stark type was an attempt to tantalize and shock.
We wander past the pensive, maybe heartbroken showgirl on Verlizzo’s Follies poster. “I was panic-stricken doing this. My teacher at Pratt, David Byrd, had done the original, and you can’t do anything better than David Byrd did.” (Another influence was the Broadway poster designer James McMullan.)
The smiling couple on the poster of Children of a Lesser God made Verlizzo reflect that sometimes producers would ask for something on a poster that would not necessarily seem to be what the piece is about.
Verlizzo’s abstract graphic for Little Women was meant to breathe some contemporary air into a classic, while referencing the ribbons of the women's hats. His graphic lettering for Twelve Angry Men implies a set of discussions and eventual judgment that could go either way.
The vintage telephone used as the main element for An Inspector Calls makes him laugh. “The play means ‘calls’ as in ‘calls around to a house,’ physically in person, not a phone call. I felt a bit bad about that.”
His Lion King poster is on the wall behind the Sofitel’s reception desk, and he grins of its “pretty terrific” continued life as he stands below it.
Verlizzo is most often asked by the public: Do you get to opening night? “The answer is, ‘Of course!’ In the past, I’d go to opening night, then swing by the opening night party to say hi, then go back to the office to put ads together after the reviews come out. That part I loved more than anything.”
To draw, Verlizzo uses Sharpies and acrylic paint, which dries quickly. His “favorite things in the world” are No. 2 pencils, which give “great texture and line.” New technology means he can change the shade of a line with a quick click. “It speeds everything up,” he says, “but it still takes time to come up with the idea. It usually takes two weeks.”
Verlizzo smiled. “I’ve been doing it long enough to know I shouldn’t panic, but I always have a sense of panic. Over the years people have criticized me because I don’t have a particular style, but I think I have survived this long because everything looks different.”
He is “finally” doing posters for productions he has long desired to, for Equus and Cabaret. He would love to do a poster for a production of Evita if it ever comes around; he declines to discuss other upcoming projects.
“I love it. I want to carry on doing it until people stop calling,” he said.
Verlizzo met his husband Joe Ligammari 41 years ago. They met, beneath a theater poster (truly), at popular Midtown East gay bar Uncle Charlie’s. At the time, Verlizzo was living down the street from the legendary El Morocco nightspot (“I couldn’t afford to go in”).
That night, Ligammari was with his two best friends, Verlizzo was with his two best friends. “He always tells people my grand pick-up line,” laughed Verlizzo.
“It’s time for me to go home now. You wanna come?”
“Real charm, right?” said Verlizzo, sighing and laughing. “But hey, I had enough information, I knew he was lovely. And it worked.”
The men married when marriage equality was legalized in New York. “I didn't think anything of it ’til it happened, and then it really felt different.”
Of his long relationship, he smiled. “We get along so well it’s kind of frightening. My brother and sister-in-law cannot understand why we never argue. But why argue? What is the point? We know we’re mad at each other if we’re not speaking, and that’ll last like a couple of hours.”
Verlizzo does do the ultimate ‘theatre-queen’ job, this reporter noted. “The agencies were never that ‘gay.’ The clients, though!” He laughed, recalling a day spent in a radio studio with Elaine Stritch. “Every now and then doing my job I have thought, ‘I can't believe I’m here.’”
What especially moves him is knowing that theatergoers keep their Playbills, and consequently his work, sometimes long after they have seen the play. He designs with that in mind too, alongside all the producers’ desires. “I want every poster to look as good as it can look. The Playbills are the memory. Years after the show has gone, the artwork is still there.”
Verlizzo and Ligammari moved from New York to Connecticut around three years ago. From a one-bedroom apartment with a desk in the entryway he now has a whole floor of a townhouse in which to design, “surrounded by everything I love: my movie posters, a huge book collection of art books, thrillers, and murder mysteries.”
Verlizzo has been freelance since 2010. “I like not being interrupted every five seconds. I’m not a creative director any more. I don’t have to worry about feeding anyone else’s ego. Just my own. And Joe helps with that too.” He laughed.
As we were saying farewell, I saw that Verlizzo’s cellphone screen image was Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra.
“We also have a poster in our bedroom, whether Joe likes it or not,” Verlizzo said. “She goes wherever I go.”