What was the first West End show to have a brand? Our copy head and resident actor Clive Weatherley looks at theatrical branding and reveals the surprising answer.
Long before any new blockbuster theatre show – yes, usually a musical – arrives in the West End or on Broadway, we’re used to being besieged by its brand long before we can book tickets, let alone take our seat in the stalls and actually watch the thing. Entire tube stations are often taken over by a mix of traditional paper hoardings, carriage cards and ingeniously animated escalator screens to burn that brand into our subconscious and ensure a box office frenzy months in advance of opening night.
Think of the Hamilton five-pointed star with its silhouette of Lin-Manuel Miranda on that antiqued gold ground, or the Dear Evan Hansen stripy polo-shirted torso with plaster cast; or, going back in time, the hauntingly sad, unkempt, pauper-like Cosette etching used for Les Mis, or the letters of Oliver! forming the unmistakable profile of Fagin’s face. All have become iconic, and are as essential a part of the show package as the book and score. But it hasn’t always been that way.
It seems that for decades theatre refused to recognise itself as a commercial concern that needed branding for its ‘products’ – akin to art grubbying its hands with finance. That stance changed, but probably far later than you’d think. What would you say was the first show to arm itself with an actual brand?
Amazingly it’s generally accepted to have been Cats in the early 80s. Given the problems Lloyd Webber had, trying to persuade backers to finance what they saw as a crazy idea for a show that was bound to bomb, perhaps it’s no surprise that he and Cameron Mackintosh felt the need to maximise its commercial potential. The iconic spotlight-like cat’s eyes, each containing a cat dancer, with or without the hand-scrawled white title, all on a striking black background, became one of the most recognisable images of the decade and helped Cats become one of the longest-running and most lucrative shows in the lord’s cannon. And the trailer for December’s movie version reveals that they’re using the same logotype, albeit without the cat eyes and with a 2019 Hamilton-esque gold respray.
A fascinating coffee-table book on this very subject was published a couple of years ago and lets us in to the rarely glimpsed world of theatre branding. On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution by Drew Hodges reveals the entire creative process of giving a show the tangible, visual, and emotional connection with its theatrical experience. Packed with concept art and anecdotes from every stage of the often eventful journey, from pitch to print, it shows just how original ideas can evolve or change completely – and what we might have ended up with for some of the show identities we know so well.
The ‘ones that got away’ section reminds us that the whispering witches image we know so well could have been just the title Wicked, rendered in wispy green smoke. Or One Man, Two Guvnors could have been branded with James Corden sitting on a giant burger, filled with unhealthy-looking typography. Of course, it does allow producers the get-out clause if a show bombs: if only we’d gone for that original scamp, and developed that into our brand, ticket sales would have soared through the roof...
On Broadway: From Rent to Revolution by Drew Hodges (2016) is published by Rizzoli International Publications.