What do David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Stephen Schwartz, and Stephen Sondheim have in common? Poster artist David Edward Byrd. If you're a musical theatre lover, we guarantee you've been looking at his work for most of your life. Byrd is the artist behind the original show art for Follies, Godspell, and many other seminal musicals of the 1970s.
But Broadway wasn't his initial goal.
After graduating with a BFA and an MFA in painting from Carnegie-Mellon University in the mid-1960s, artist Byrd moved to New York City to pursue a fine arts career. But making a living as any kind of artist isn't always easy. It wasn't long, though, before he was hired to create a poster for a rock concert at the Fillmore East. Originally a 2,600-seat Yiddish theatre on the Lower East Side, the Fillmore East was transformed into a rock venue in 1968 by Bill Graham, a concert promoter who also had the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, CA. Both venues were at the center of the psychedelic rock culture, and the Fillmore East earned the moniker, "The Church of Rock and Roll."
Byrd churned out posters for the venue and the artists who stopped by there—Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane. Those images bore the markers of the psychedelic art of the time, but with his own Art Nouveau flair (inspired by Alphonse Mucha) and, unlike the West Coast poster artists, a very legible typography.
In 1969, Byrd got his first Broadway job. "It's kind of a shaggy dog story," he tells Playbill. "If you hadn't done a Broadway poster, you couldn't do a Broadway poster." However, he was contacted by actress-turned-producer Haila Stoddard who hired him to create a poster for Lanford Wilson's The Gingham Dog. Byrd describes the play (about the dissolution of the marriage between a white Southern man and a Black Harlem woman) as "kind of grim," a far-cry in tone from the vivid colors of his psychedelic Fillmore pieces. But he took a stab at matching what he thought the poster of the play should convey.
Then the show's team surprised him when "they looked at one of the sketches I had done, and they said, 'Oh, no, we wanted it to look like a rock poster.' And I did this poster, which I never liked. But I try not to tell people that," he confesses. "But that was my first Broadway job."
In his new 176-page book Poster Child, The Psychedelic Art & Technicolor Life of David Edward Byrd, the artist shares the stories behind his music and Broadway poster art, along with never-before-seen sketches and stories of his meetings with some of the rock-and-roll legends that he drew. The hardcover showcase is written by Byrd and Robert von Goeben, and features a foreward by author Marc Myers. It's published by Cameron Books, an imprint of Abrams.
After that first poster for The Gingham Dog, Byrd started getting steady theatre illustration work. "I was the $100 guy," he says. "You could get a poster for $100 and it would be overnight, or within a few days. I would just crank them out and I was always waiting to get comps back, but they never came back. They just printed them!"
Some of Byrd's Broadway posters include the 1979 Jerry Herman musical The Grand Tour, starring Joel Grey; Stephen Schwartz's Doug Henning vehicle The Magic Show; the return engagement of The Robber Bridegroom; the original Off-Off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors at the WPA Theatre (which happens to be Byrd's favorite of his show posters); and a Jesus Christ Superstar national tour.
His most famous Broadway rendering, though, is perhaps his poster of the 1971 Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman musical Follies. The now-iconic print features the bust of a Follies chorine, hair flowing past her shoulders. The title of the show, adorned with stars, took the place of a signature showgirl headdress. The colors—oranges, yellows, blues, and purples—are deeply saturated and vibrant. But across her stone face there is a crack, hinting at the ruins of a bygone era.
Roger Puckett, founder of the legendary Triton Gallery, initially suggested to producer-director Hal Prince that Byrd be considered to design the poster. But the production had already hired several other artists to submit sample sketches and they didn't have the budget for another. Puckett offered that Byrd would do it for free. "Everyone loves free," laughs Byrd.
For the poster inspiration, Byrd used a famous Life Magazine photo of Gloria Swanson standing in the rubble of the demolished Roxy Theatre. He submitted a small sketch of a woman standing in the wreckage of the Roxy—she was "a very Deco glamour girl" dressed in a peacock gown and cloche hat. "And somehow, that's the one they chose. I was just totally shocked," Byrd says.
However, the producers wanted some changes. "They said, 'Let's have big, blonde hair coming down to the shoulders. And a red dress with heavy decolletage.' They wanted her to be much more flamboyant and feminine. And they said, 'You should pick as your model Dolly Parton,'" Byrd recalls. "And I thought, 'People are going to laugh me off the street. This is ridiculous.' I was just heartbroken."
But, now this was an official commission and Byrd was being paid, so he did the poster they asked for—the blonde in a red dress with a plunging neckline. "And I thought, 'No. It turns out to be that this idea is horrible,'" he says. He had to do something.
Again, he turned to the starlets of the 1920s for inspiration. Flipping through his new copy of the photo book Four Fabulous Faces featuring Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford, and Marlene Dietrich, he landed on a frontal shot of Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. "And so I thought, 'If I do a big headdress that says the title, and put a crack in her face to show the end of an era, this will be so much better,'" Byrd says. "So I just really whipped that thing out. And I delivered them both. I sent them via messenger. And I never heard about the Dolly Parton thing again!"
The Follies poster led directly to Byrd's next job, another equally iconic Broadway image: Godspell.
Producer Edgar Lansbury (brother of Angela) called Byrd to his office, which was near the Winter Garden Theatre where Follies was then in previews. "He said, 'I want you to go to the window, stick your head out, and turn to the left.' So I did that and there was my giant Follies on the marquee of the Winter Garden," recalls Byrd. "And he said, 'I want that poster. But I want it to be Jesus.'"
Byrd drew the poster and Lansbury loved it. However, he only had $100 budgeted to pay for it. "I was getting $100 for everything I touched, and not any more!" says Byrd. But he struck a deal—$50 a month for as long as the show runs. "It ran for eight years, so I ended up with a good bargain there," he says.
Byrd admits that there was a bit of a learning curve with his move to theatrical illustration. "It's very different from rock. When you did a rock poster, it didn't matter what the subject was, you know, it could be ducks eating a lizard. If it was cool and psychedelic, it didn't matter," he says. "But with Broadway, you had to read the script. And it was about what's the story of this show? Or what does it evoke in you? I was just very lucky."
Well, lucky...and talented.
Click through the gallery below to see more of Byrd's theatre posters and visit AbramsBooks.com to purchase Poster Child.