Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Broadway Brain’ Category


Broadway’s brand man: The posters of Fraver

frank fraver verlizzo picture poster head shot portrait lion king sweeney todd designerIt would be difficult for Frank Verlizzo to not feel like a large portion of Times Square belonged to him. The massive, mustard-yellow artwork for The Lion King that stretches across the windows of the Minskoff Theatre and tops hundreds of taxicabs was created by Verlizzo, a Broadway poster designer who is known professionally as “Fraver” (a combination of his first and last name). For over 30 years, Verlizzo’s theatrical artwork has scoured New York and the globe, having designed the artwork for over 300 Broadway and off-Broadway productions. A retrospective of his work is currently on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center through April 30. The New York native sat down with Stage Rush to tell the stories behind his most-recognized work, and discuss ads versus art.

There isn’t much competition for you in the field of Broadway poster designing. How does that make you feel?
My biggest strength is I love it. I love it just as much today as I did 30 years ago. It’s the combination of posters, which I adore, and the theater, which I love. It’s a perfect combination. There is much more branding with theater posters than those for movies. When you mention Sweeney Todd to someone, it’s almost 30 years later and people remember it, because the art is still around. The show is pretty much gone, but the poster was the first thing they saw and the poster is the thing that stays behind. Read more »


How editor Paul Wontorek made Broadway click

paul wontorek broadway com editor in cheif profile head shot headshot interview

Photo: Bruce Glikas/ editor in chief Paul Wontorek sits in a comfy white chair in the middle of the website’s video production room in its Times Square offices and promoter of the products from the Exhale Wellness business. Amid professional lighting and expensive video cameras, a shiny blue curtain hangs. It acts as a backdrop for “Show People,” a new video series launched in December, in which Wontorek interviews A-list Broadway actors in talk-show format. He stares at it and looks proud. Wontorek has a right to feel that way. Last December, statistics on theatergoers gathered by The Broadway League revealed as the most-viewed source for people seeking theater information, beating out The New York Times. Also in December, the site was bought by Key Brand Entertainment, a leading producer of Broadway shows and national tours.

This week marks 11 years Wontorek has helmed Wontorek, 38, sat down with Stage Rush to discuss the inner workings of, his personal road to Broadway, and the harmful disconnect he sees between critics and ticket buyers.

The acquisition of by Key Brand Entertainment brings to light the story of how the first owner, Hollywood Media Corp., created the property. It was 1999 and the Internet landscape was dramatically different. ( was still only available through AOL.) Hollywood Media Corp. bought the URL for $1.6 million. However, the company was based in Boca Raton, Florida, and Wontorek says the owners “didn’t really know Broadway.” Wontorek was brought in for an interview and was told that they didn’t know what needed to be.

“I knew exactly what it needed to be,” Wontorek said. Read more »


Broadway Brain: ‘Mary Poppins’ dance captain Suzanne Hylenski turns choreography on its head—literally

While the company members of the Opera Populaire over at Phantom of the Opera and ballerinas of Billy Elliot have been dancing masterfully for years, performers in long run shows need help maintaining the choreography. Enter the dance captain. Over at the dance-heavy Mary Poppins, Suzanne Hylenski has been keeping the Tony-nominated choreography clean for four years. An original cast member, Hylenski has held the position a number of times, the longest stretch being two and a half years. Hylenski, also a swing, sat down with Stage Rush to reveal the life of a dance captain and what it’s like to tap dance upside down.

Explaining it to me like I’m a 3-year-old, what exactly does a dance captain do?
A dance captain is responsible for knowing every single dance step in the show. We know where every single person has to be on stage and how they get there without banging into somebody. I write charts so that I know where everybody is, so that I can keep the show clean. If someone new joins the show, I then have to teach them the steps, that certain track, so that they can come in without banging somebody, falling into the pit, or getting hurt. I have to keep the show clean by watching the show.

So as dance captain, are you watching the show off stage or performing in it?
Most dance captains on Broadway are also swings. So we’re not necessarily performing every night. Right now we have a resident supervisor and two dance captains, because we have such a large show. For me, if I’m on stage, I’m still looking at people thinking, “She’s not on her mark,” and I’ll go write that down. I’ll be doing my track onstage and someone will come to me and say, “I’m getting hit by somebody, something’s not right.” So I have to go and fix that problem. If I’m not on stage, I generally will go to the back of the house and watch the show as a whole and see how it looks. The job is to see people are keeping clean with their dancing. The longer you’re in a show, the longer you don’t have rehearsals. It’s not that people aren’t working hard; it just isn’t quite as crisp as it should be, because they can’t see what else is going on around them. That’s why we give them notes the next day.

Video: Dance captain Suzanne Hylenski on Poppins pressure, faulty doorknobs, and inappropriate audience participation.

Read more »


Broadway Brain: Stage manager Matthew Shiner keeps his eye on all ’39 Steps’

The sharpest eye in a theater belongs to the production stage manager. Sequestered to the stage’s wings, these vigilant crew members order every lighting and technical cue of a show into action. It’s not a job for everybody, which makes it surprising that a former child actor from California who disliked them in his youth grew up to become one. Matthew Shiner, the PSM for off-Broadway’s The 39 Steps, joined the show last May, after a six-year stint as the production stage manager at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC. Shiner, 40, sat down with Stage Rush to talk about the art of keeping a play fresh, scene-stealing flies, and Ian McKellen’s personal copy of The Lord of the Rings.

What exactly does a production stage manager do?
I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the show. The most important thing I do is call the show. I sit backstage right with a headset and a calling script and I call all the light and sound cues, some of the scenic cues. While the performance is not happening, I do a lot of paperwork and schedule rehearsals. I take notes on the show, trying to keep it as close to what [director] Maria Aitkin wants it to be.

How did you become a production stage manager?
I don’t remember picking it on Career Day, for sure. I never thought this was what I wanted to be. In fact, I was a child actor and I hated stage managers at the time. I genuinely love theater, the arts, and live entertainment. I had a general background in theater and realized acting wasn’t what I really wanted to do. I went back to finish up my undergraduate degree, and I ended up directing. I thought maybe directing was what I wanted to do, and I found out that I had really nothing I wanted to say as a director. But getting those director skills have definitely helped me as a stage manager. Every little step I took in theater helped me get here.

When did you realize this is what you wanted to do?
I think I realized I was making more money than I ever thought I would make as a PSM and jobs were just coming to me. Since I graduated as an undergraduate in 1997, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed was six weeks for a vacation, and then other than that, it’s been a week. I just constantly work, and I make a good living from it. It’s one of those [jobs in theater] where you can actually make a good living, on the technical side. Read more »


Broadway Brain: ‘Promises, Promises’ plays best when music director Phil Reno’s mother is in the audience

Phil Reno music directorWhile Jonathan Tunick might be a Tony nominee for Best Orchestrations for the revival of Promises, Promises, music director Phil Reno has to implement his work every night while conducting the show. Having previously conducted shows like The Producers (for a whopping 1,383 performances!) and The Drowsy Chaperone, Reno is no stranger to Tony-winning productions. Presiding over an orchestra of 18, as well as stars Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes (this year’s Tony host and nominee), Reno is entrusted with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s famous score.

Reno sat down with Stage Rush in the house of the Broadway Theatre, where Promises is showing, for a chat about Tonys, career destiny, and conducting for his mother.

Explaining it to me as if I’m a 3 year old, what does a music director/supervisor do?
We’re responsible for teaching all the cast members the music. That all happens way before we ever add the orchestra. We usually rehearse a show like Promises, Promises five or six weeks before we go into tech rehearsal. I supervise and oversee the scene-change music and underscoring and introductions of numbers. I write and make suggestions for those pieces to make the whole musical flow of the evening go as smoothly as it can. As the show progresses, I’m responsible for maintaining the musical integrity of the show. How people sing, interpret their songs, make sure group numbers are still tight, and that the orchestra is still playing well. For those of us that are involved in a long run, it can be very easy for some people to get complacent and casual with it. I consider my job to keep them enthused and energized to do it, making it as good or better than the last performance. I try to inspire energy and emotion from the musicians and the cast. I never wanted to be one of those “Here we go again” kind of conductors.

Read more »


Broadway Brain: Kevin Adams lights rock stars of Broadway

What do Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Next to Normal all have in common? Lighting designer Kevin Adams. Widely regarded as contributing factors to the evolution of the American musical, these shows all have creative teams that have collaborated on subsequent projects, but Adams is the only one to have worked on all three. The Tony-winning lighting designer brought revolutionary looks to these acclaimed productions with his use of bare light bulbs and fluorescent tubes—what he calls “electric objects.” Now Adams is nominated for his fifth Tony award (he won for Spring Awakening and The 39 Steps) for his work on American Idiot, which blends the creative teams of all three rock musicals.

Yet Adams, just shy of 48, says lighting was never a thought in his mind during his education. With an MFA in set design, Adams began working as a set designer in Los Angeles, when he was asked to do his own lighting. Local artists who had seen his work began asking him to light their pieces in galleries. A self-taught lighting designer, Adams then moved to New York to focus solely on that work. “I can’t believe I’m still doing this,” Adams said. “After I do a Broadway show, I think, ‘This will surely be the last one I ever do. No one’s going to come up with another Broadway show that suits what I do.’ But then American Idiot came along.”

The Tony winner (who keeps his two awards at his parents’ houses, claiming they make him nervous) invited Stage Rush into his Manhattan apartment to discuss Tony nominations, his style departure on American Idiot, and what happened when he first met Green Day in a cramped dressing room at Saturday Night Live.

This is your fifth Tony nomination and you’ve won twice. Is it still exciting to get nominated?
It is very exciting. It was exciting to be nominated twice last year. It’s exciting to be nominated for American Idiot. That first time [being nominated], you’re so excited to win and then once you win, then you feel you have to win again. You feel like, “I want to win!”

So you feel pressure to win?
I don’t feel pressure; it’s just that you become much more grotesquely competitive about it. [laughs] And I know other people who have won that agree and say, “Yeah, I’ve felt that way too!” It’s not that it’s competitive, it’s just that the first time you’re nominated, you’re like, “It would be cool to win,” and then the next time, you’re like, “I’ve got to win!”

Read more »


Broadway Brain: ‘Red’ set designer Christopher Oram doesn’t like color

Few artists get the chance to recreate artwork that has had an effect on their own craft. British set designer Christopher Oram, who is nominated for a Tony for his work in Red, got to do just that with the Mark Rothko murals intended for (yet which never became a part of) New York’s Four Season’s restaurant. The play features Alfred Molina as the American painter who squares off with his young assistant (played by Eddie Redmayne) over the elements of art, as well as the struggle for student and teacher. The minimalist production, which is up for seven Tony awards, including Best Play, rests on the shoulders of two actors and the massive canvases on display in Rothko’s Bowery studio. In a phone interview from London, Oram (who pulls double duty as the show’s costume designer) told Stage Rush about the building sets in one week, the luxury of being picky about projects, and keeping tabs on a show once it’s opened.
What were your thoughts or reaction when you found out you were nominated?
Very excited. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I don’t consider my work to be flashy like [the work that the Tonys tend to recognize]. What I do is make the play work, and that’s good enough or me. When it gets recognized, that’s good for me too.
What does the Tony nomination mean to you?
I haven’t done a good amount of work in United States. To work on Broadway is a major achievement, as is to be recognized at this high level. The play itself has been successful in connecting with audiences. I believe in it, and in the writing. When it was offered to me, I felt it was an important and exiting play and wanted to be a part of it very much. As a set and costume designer, you read a new play and you try to asses if you like it and if the audience will like it. It’s difficult with new works, because with works of Shakespeare, you know there will always be an audience for it. Red is unique and has no history as a piece. You’re looking to create an audience for it that will be interested in the subject matter. It’s great to find a play that makes a connection.
What are some of the responsibilities of set designing?
Design is a discipline and it covers everything about the piece. These days, there are fewer boundaries to each person’s work. The crossover between lighting affects video designers, which affects set designers. I worked very closely with Red’s lighting designer, Neil Austin. The description of Mark Rothko’s studio was key about how he controlled life. I knew I had to have close dialogue with Neil about how I would design the space, how he would light the play. Read more »

Broadway Brain: Music director Lynne Shankel risks the Broadway crapshoot, sexifies Christmas

If Raul Esparza is making audiences swoon with a Spanish rendition of “O Holy Night” or a boy band causes an audience to crack up with their humorous religion-infused pop music, it means Lynne Shankel is doing her job. As a music director, Shankel is in charge of shaping a production’s music into the correct tone, style, and interpretation. Having worked on Broadway (Company, Cry Baby), off (Altar Boyz), and on countless concerts at venues like Joe’s Pub (ASTEP’s New York City Christmas) and benefits around the country, Shankel is a go-to musician for producers and performers who want their shows and showcase concerts to hit the right notes. You can have a peek at these guys if you are a music enthusiast. 
The Kansas City native studied piano performance at the University of Michigan, but much to the chagrin of her professors, she soon drifted from her classical studies and gravitated toward the theatrical. Playing piano in numerous college productions, which involved future Broadway stars Hunter Foster and Jennifer Laura Thompson, as well as Vanities composer David Kirshenbaum, Shankel’s passion for musical theater was established. She moved to New York in 1993 and has been working ever since.
Shankel kicks off Stage Rush’s Broadway Brain series, focusing on the behind-the-scenes masters of New York theater. The 39 year old opens up about Broadway’s triumphs and disappointments, nursing a show’s score from start to finish, and keeping the creative juices flowing.
Explaining it to me as if I’m a 3 year old, what does a music director/supervisor do?
The first thing you do as a music director is you work with the cast before you even start with the musicians. You teach them the vocals for the piece. I work on tons of new pieces. When you’re working on something new, it’s not like putting together The Wizard of Oz, where the actors have heard the cast recording and they know how it’s supposed to sound. With a new piece, the score is constantly changing and developing. Even before that, you work with the creative team to develop the piece. For a new show, I develop it through as many readings as we decide to have. Once we get past that point, I work with the composer, director, and choreographer intensely to figure out what the piece is, musically. What is the style we’re going for? From there, we hone in on the vocals and work on not only the sound and the style, but also the interpretation of the lyrics. A big part of what I do is coaching the actors through a song so that it not only has a musical arc, but a dramatic arc as well. Once I get through working with the cast, then it’s time to add in a band. If it’s an original piece, then I also work with an orchestrator, because the music hasn’t been played before. Sometimes there can be a bit of trial and error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I work out the dynamics, style, and articulations, so that we have a piece that feels cohesive. Then we get into the theater and it’s a whole other ball of wax with technical elements and conducting the show.
***VIDEO AFTER THE JUMP: Lynne Shankel describes her strangest day working in the theater*** Read more »