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Theater is, by its nature, evanescent; every performance is different, based on the chemistry of the cast and the audience. But there are ways theater fans can relive their memories: Playbills and souvenir programs, scripts, cast recordings – and production photos.
Only a handful of theater photographers work on Broadway and their challenge is to capture the essence of live performance for generations to come. Three of them spoke with NPR about their craft.
Marc J. Franklin: ‘Energy that only musical theater can give you’
Marc J. Franklin was Playbill‘s photo editor for years. Now, he’s a production photographer. Last season, he took pictures of the Tony Award-winning musical, A Strange Loop. This season, he photographed the Tony-nominated shows Some Like It Hot and Topdog/Underdog.
“Anybody can set up a tripod and click a button,” said Franklin. “There is this electric, ephemeral thing that happens in a room, depending on who is in that room, both onstage and off. And that affects your performance. That affects the energy that the audience feels. And so, when I take photos, I really try to capture that.”
For this Some Like It Hot picture, above, Franklin set up the shot at a photo-call. “This was a tough shot to get, because you have to make sure that everybody is all in unison,” he said. “You have to make sure that everybody is looking at you. For me [it] really captures the spirit of musical theater and this energy that only musical theater can give you in a still image, which is always the challenge!”
Franklin often chooses to take close-ups from an angle. “We rarely experience life in very centered, linear ways,” he said. “You know, we’ll be walking down the street and we’re not directly in the center of the sidewalk. And you look to your right and you see something, or you look to your left and see something. And having that angle gives us more of a sense of place than something directly head on. So, I always try to capture that, especially when it is a more contained, close-up image.”
Joan Marcus: ‘I like what I do’
Joan Marcus is the current dean of Broadway photographers. She started taking production shots while she was a graduate student in Washington, D.C., and eventually moved to New York to take photographs of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows full-time in the late 1980s. She says she’s worked on about a 1,000 shows and she’s received a special Tony honor for her body of work.
When Marcus started, production photos were shot on film and developed in a dark room. Most were black and white.
“I like what I do, essentially,” Marcus said. “It’s kind of fun to work on a big hit; you know, something that runs forever and ever and ever and ever.”
Like Wicked, above, which will have its 20th anniversary this October.
Marcus takes thousands of photos at dress rehearsals and photo-calls – like she did at The Thanksgiving Play, which opened this spring. She then culls them down to 300 to 400 images to give to producers and press agents “and then they whittle it down.”
Sometimes her favorite shots fall by the wayside because of the needs of the production. “They have to market a show,” she said. “You know, it’s not just reporting what the show is. It’s like what’s going to sell the show, too. So, it’s not a totally pure aesthetic.”
Jenny Anderson: ‘I pinch myself every day’
Jenny Anderson, a Mississippi native, has been working as a Broadway photographer for 15 years. Her specialty is backstage shots, which have become more popular now that there’s Instagram and theater websites.
For the musical New York, New York’s opening night, Anderson took editorial shots of the cast on the rooftop of the St. James Theatre, above.
“Eighty percent of my gigs are Broadway and theater, which is lovely, because I feel like I’m fully a part of the community,” Anderson said. “And so now as a freelancer, I get hired by producers and publicists of shows to do opening nights, backstage, behind the scenes, anything really. I shoot a lot of opening nights.”
Later, she took more candid black-and-white photos backstage in the dressing rooms, above.
“It’s kind of crazy and wild and a little frustrating sometimes to make sure you get the right photos of the right people and everyone’s happy and all that,” Anderson said. “But I love it so much. And I pinch myself every day that I am anywhere near Broadway, much less an active member.”
Audio and digital story edited by Jennifer Vanasco. Audio produced by Isabella Gomez Sarmiento. Digital story produced by Beth Novey.