Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Get with the (Souvenir) Program

I never leave for a show without the money to buy a souvenir program. To me, the CD and the program are essential elements of the experience. You pay $80+ for the show, and not only do you want to remember every minute of that awesome/expensive experience, you want pictures to help you remember and the music to relive it again and again.

When I come home from New York on the plane, the care of my souvenir programs is of utmost concern. I don’t want smashed corners or bent pages. That means they never go in my suitcases or in overhead compartments. I make sure one of my carry-ons is a nice plastic shopping bag that is small enough to keep my programs close together, and I slide it carefully under the seat before me. I then don’t move my legs (which are quite long, since I am 6’ 5”) for the entire flight unless I can do so without stepping on my programs.

Thankfully, they all still look as good as new.

Lately I’ve seen a few programs popping up at used bookstores in my area, which is how I got my Ragtime program (a souvenir of my Lincoln Center Theatre archive viewing). I often pick them up and am surprised at how vapid a number of them have been, more filler and fluff than actual substance. Now, I know not every theatre-goer out there is as obsessive as I, but on some of these, I can see why they’d have no problem selling them for a quarter to a used bookstore.

If you’re paying $10 (or $20 at Tarzan with a cheap bag), you want something to help you preserve the memory. No wonder people were selling of these Rent tour and various other programs. They gave no real clue about what they had seen on stage. Obviously at one point they wanted to preserve the memory, so the show must have been dear them enough to pay for the program in the first place.

I love my programs. When I want to remember how great Jane Eyre was, I just page through the beautiful photographs. When I want to remember how much I laughed during Kiss Me, Kate, I’ll pick up the Broadway or the tour cast program. If I want to remember how great Jayne Patterson was as Fantine, I pull out one of my Les Miserables programs.

And I know I’m not the only one.

Sometimes, though, I do think the producers’ perspective of what we want to remember and what the audience really wants to get are two different things.

So, dear producers, here are some guidelines to help you as you assemble the program you want to sell to aid your bottom line and to aid us in remembering a (hopefully) magical experience.

1. We want pictures. Lots of them that we can easily see.

On this front, The Color Purple program had to be about the most disappointing program I’ve ever gotten. Many of the pages consisted only of one large picture spread out across two pages. There’s one beautiful picture of LaChanze when Celie finds Nettie’s letters, where the crease comes in at her shoulder, which damages the effect. And since the picture is basically LaChanze (lit beautifully) surrounded by pitch black stage, I’m not sure show two pages were needed for that picture, particularly considering the program as a whole.

In addition to the overall shortage of pictures, there are a good number of pictures printed in the program which are so small, they might as well not be included. Seriously. God forbid you should want to remember any of the supporting characters. For such a beautiful show, you’d think they could include something to better help you remember it.

There is, however, a nice picture of Oprah, as if we don’t get a chance to see her often. She looks great, of course, but she wasn’t in the show.

2. Fewer words. There can be one page dedicated to words about the show, but that’s really about it.

In The Color Purple, we get one page dedicated to Oprah telling about how the book changed her life (she already gets a whole monthly magazine and a daily television show to tell us about herself and her experiences). There’s also a page dedicated to Alice Walker and the various incarnations of The Color Purple (with two very small shots from the show at the bottom, relegating Krisha Marcano’s beloved Squeak to a size smaller than my thumb). There’s also two pages about the creation of the show, and another page dedicated to the composer/lyricists and choreographer. There’s also one page (two bottom halfs) detailing the history of juke joints, and one page and a quarter (roughly ¾ of two pages) dedicated to a timeline of African-American history. Then writer Marsha Norman—oddly enough, almost the least-winded of them all—get her say in less than a page of writing (spread out into two pages). I’m surprised the stage hands don’t have a page to share their thoughts, though perhaps that’s one thing that’ll be negotiated for soon.

So, did I buy this program to remember the $120 I spent on The Color Purple or to get a textbook on African-American history?

My Wicked program is an example of an exceptional program in this regards. There is one page dedicated to Gregory Maguire (spread out over two half-pages), and the rest is pretty much pictures that don’t require a magnifying glass to identify.

And even though the cast pictured is the Broadway cast and not the original tour cast that I saw, the pictures are of significant scenes and costumes so that I can vividly recall the images I experienced that wonderful night.

3. Don’t get too cutesy. Stylish design is good, but you don’t want it to overpower the content. A board game in the Urinetown program, for example, is great fun . . . until you realize how much space it’s taking from other content.

Similarly, my program for The Drowsy Chaperone has ten pages of fun fluff. The pictures in the rest of the program are spectacular, but when I find myself looking I through it again, the two pages dedicated to Gable and Stein’s stable aren’t very interesting. The ten pages of Man in Chair’s scrapbook don’t help me remember the show.

4. Remember your audience. Why do people buy souvenir programs? To help them remember the wonderful experience they just had. As flattering as it surely is, an entire page dedicated to snapshots of the producers at the end of my Hairspray program is not why I bought the program. Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful for all nineteen people and organizations shown there, but . . . They weren’t in the show, so why are they in the program?

Similarly, the Hairspray souvenir program—which has lots of beautiful pictures of the Original Broadway Cast—sprinkles throughout pictures and bios of the entire creative team. The bios come in the insert in the program (which, by the way, was cleverly printed on a fold-out poster). Not only is it redundant to take up space with them in the program, it’s a repeat of information.

When I see the programs that wind up sold to used bookstores, often, there’s so much information not related to the specific experience that I look at the programs myself and can’t get a feel for what they experienced.

5. Use updated pictures as much as possible. I think, as happens so many times, Cameron Mackintosh leads the way on this one. Towards the end of its tour, Les Miserables would hit my city almost yearly. And with every pass through, the souvenir program would be updated with the cast changes. It was a smart move on Mackintosh’s part because I bet I’m not the only one who didn’t mind double-dipping, particularly when it came to getting photos of favorite performances (for me, it was the amazing Jayne Patterson as Fantine).

It seems to be happening less now, but on tour, it often seems like we just get the New York cast in our photos. That’s still nice, but since it is supposed to be a souvenir of what we just saw, updated photos would be ideal.

And I know late in runs, the New York programs tend to be an amalgam of photos from various casts. I bet most theatre-goers would prefer to see photos of their cast rather than a mix of great casts of the past.

6. Make sure that there is a souvenir program!

Probably the strangest purchase I ever made was a program I got at the Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat tour with Patrick Cassidy and Deborah Gibson, which not only didn’t feature the cast I saw, but it wasn’t even the production. I think it was a program of photos from perhaps the original Broadway production. Strange.

I figure if the non-Equity tour of Godspell can come to town with not only a program of the cast but a CD as well, a Broadway tour could at least manage a souvenir program.

I’ve been fortunate that for several tours, I was able to get missing programs on a trip to New York, but it is annoying to see a show and to discover that the program isn’t available. Sometimes it’s a matter of printing times, such as when The Music Man was so new in New York, the programs just weren’t made yet. However, on a tour like Annie Get Your Gun or The King and I, which had been playing in New York for some time, some form of souvenir program should have been possible until new ones were printed.

Two exemplary souvenir programs that I remember are the programs for Bells are Ringing and Tarzan. For Bells are Ringing, there were a ton of pictures throughout (literally from cover to cover), of varying sizes but all large enough to easily see what was going on. The design includes lines on each page, I think to represent telephone lines, but they don’t obscure any pictures. There is writing (a piece from Betty Comden on the inspiration for the show, two historical sections on prices in 1956 and the history of communication, and a few paragraphs from the producer, and about a page from the director), but the best part is that these writings seem secondary to the photographs. They are beside the pictures, in corners of the actual photograph, and above them. A little less writing would have been nice (who cares about a history of communication—what’s the audience for this program?), but the great and many pictures make up for it. This program, by the way, was designed by Dewynters.

It’s almost unfair to use the Tarzan program as a model because it was for a Disney show and is about twice as long as other souvenir programs, no doubt because of the history of Disney’s success on Broadway (and the additional $10 I paid). The program, however, was filled with so many beautiful photos that the amount of writing doesn’t matter. There are many photos from the show itself, plus many others from photo shoots. There is an essay on Edgar Rice Burroughs, three paragraphs from producer Thomas Schumacher, and a few snippets here and there on the creative team for the show. But it is essentially a luscious book loaded with pictures printed on very high quality paper (even the insert of the actors’ bios is printed on thicker paper).

My love for Broadway and the excitement for seeing a show runs incredibly deep. There are times that I pick up a brochure or catalogue and I am immediately taken back to great memories when the printing smell is that of a Broadway program. That smell—no, aroma— takes me back to so many great experiences in the theatre that it makes me wish I could go run and see Show Boat again or Urinetown.

Souvenir programs not only help the bottom line for the producers, they are an essential part in recalling the experience for many people in the audience. When well-created, it becomes a permanent memory when the shows are long-gone and the casts have moved on. When not well-created, you can buy them for $3 at your local used bookstore.

the Broadway Mouth
September 18, 2007

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