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A CurtainUp Book Review

The Theater Posters of James McMullan

By Elyse Sommer

Publication and Ordering Information

The theater poster. What is it but a rectangular piece of cardboard with stars' names on it? Right? When I was a kid, another of the prime reasons to be a playwright was you would have a poster with your name and the title of your play on it that you could then hang in the living room of your inevitable penthouse. The poster as souvenir -- John Guare

Playwright John Guare has a number of the souvenirs he dreamed about as a kid bitten by the theater bug. Five are by that extraordinarily gifted practitioner of poster art, James McMullan. If his name doesn't ring a bell, think Lincoln Center and the graphic images for Carousel, The Heiress, Arcadia, Pride's Crossing, Ah, Wilderness!. While most of us aren't lucky enough to have our names on a McMullan poster, the publication of this stunning retrospective of his work allows us to enjoy every single one he's done through the 1998 season.

Given the quality of the paper and color reproductions, this is one of those books that's likely to sell three copies to a customer: one for the coffee table or book shelf, one to give to a friend and one from which to take and frame the final version of each poster in the book or a handsome wall display. The artist's text for the illustrations (including the preparatory sketches and the ones that didn't make the final cut) is a revelation of the mental as well as physical process that goes into creating a theater poster which, to again quote John Guare, "must be perceived in one gulp."

That's not to say that this is a technical tract While the reader gains much easily comprehended information about McMullan's research and artistic techniques, the end product is a captivating lavishly illustrated memoir full of details and anecdotes about each production, from meetings with those who sign off on or veto a posters (producer, marketing director and advertising agency head) to interaction with the creative people (playwrights, directors and actors).

The author recalls for us how for the Abe Lincoln In Illinois poster he enlisted the star, Sam Waterston, to model for a variety of poses as seen in a book of Lincoln photographs. Waterston got right into the spirit by adding a few poses of his own, some of which are reproduced along with the finished work . Credit is also given to Hello Again director and choreographer Graciela Daniele for providing the key to the poster's aura . She told him "I want the poster to make it clear that no children should come to the production -- it's very sexy." (Editor's note: Like the forthcoming The Blue Room (not a musical), this is based on La Ronde . Since the presence of Nicole Kidman has made this an advance sellout, it would be oh so nice to have a revival of Hello Again to give theater goers a proven artistic hit, contrary to what the word-of-mouth from London indicates might be a much hyped movie star vehicle).

Not afraid to share a few bumps in his career, McMullan also talks about the poster for Waiting For Godot which was scuttled by Mike Nichols who it seemed had another artist up his sleeve. McMullan had the last laugh, however. While not used for the Lincoln Center production, the rejected poster became one of this best-selling images at the Triton Gallery and has "become a kind of underground image for that production." It has also found its way into many Lincoln Center peoples' homes.

Since, like a show's set designer, the poster artist starts out with only a script, one of the most frequently asked questions concerns how his own opinion of a play affects what he does with a poster. McMullan winds up his thoughts on this admittedly complicated question as follows: "The most honest answer I can give is that if a play provides me with material for a dramatic image, it's irrelevant whether I like the play or not." Yet he admits that when he finished reading Six Degrees of Separation he experienced "the thrill of foresight" that "this is good, and it's going to be a big play."

To sum up this is book, it's one of those pleasurable tomes you'll want to revisit frequently. As for James McMullan's gift for transcending the commercial demands of his craft, I'll leave you with a quote from the wonderful Cherry Jones, whose star as an actress rose after her leading role in The Heiress, and a final comment from playwright John Guare.
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. -- a note from Ms. Jones to the artist, and treasured by him as one of the most personal compliments ever received for his work.

[McMullan's posters] share a sense of uneasiness that makes them not the stuff of commercial art. . .All his work has that sense of a challenge being flung out, a promise of 'I dare you' -- John Guare, from the book's introduction.

Publication and Ordering Information The Theater Posters of James McMullan by James McMullan, with a foreword by Bernard Gersten and introduction by JohnGuare. 144pp. with 225 color illustrations, published by Penguin Studio. .

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© Elyse Sommer, October 1998