A Life in the Theatre: Frank Verlizzo

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Frank Verlizzo
Meet artist Frank "Fraver" Verlizzo, creator of indelible show art for Sunday in the Park With George, The Lion King and more.
Frank "Fraver" Verlizzo Photo by Joan Marcus


Frank "Fraver" Verlizzo's creative life, combining theatre and art, has been, in a way, a matter of fate — or at least of Kismet.

"As a kid, I lived in the movies," Verlizzo says. "So I was always attracted to entertainment. From grade school on, I loved drawing — art and design." Then he began going to the theatre — "and from the moment I saw someone living and breathing in front of me acting on a stage, I was hooked." As a teenager, he saw Alfred Drake in the 1965 Lincoln Center revival of Kismet. "And it blew me away."

For more than 30 years, Verlizzo's hands, and his imagination, have glorified the New York theatre. He has created the poster art — the recurring images by which plays and musicals are identified in the public mind — for more than 300 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.

He is better known as "Fraver," the first three letters of his first and last names and the title with which he signs his work. And some of his designs are among the most distinctive and memorable in Broadway history. It's hard to think of The Lion King without visualizing Fraver's graphic design of a proud and boldly lined lion. Or Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George without remembering Fraver's unique combination of the top halves of a 19th century Seurat couple on the Grand Jatte, an irregularly torn line cutting through their midsections, and their very late-20th-century bottom halves — clad, respectively, in modern jeans with boots and short skirt with black heels.

Just to mention a few others, there are also the posters for the original Broadway productions of Sweeney Todd, Deathtrap, An Inspector Calls, My One and Only and Whose Life Is it Anyway? And, recently, the revivals of Twelve Angry Men, The Threepenny Opera and Journey's End.

A native New Yorker — born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx — Verlizzo says that his early knack for art had no genetic forebears. "No one in my family had any kind of art background. My dad was a motorman on the Third Avenue el and my mom was a hospital receptionist. But they were loving parents who supported me. They didn't have a clue where it would take me, but they were always behind me."

He went to the High School of Art and Design, on East 57th Street, and then to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where, by another accident of fate, the theatre he had been admiring became cemented to his career. "My illustration teacher at Pratt was David Edward Byrd, who designed the logos for the original Follies and Godspell. He taught the class in his studio, and he was working on Follies at the time. That was the impetus that really got me interested and involved in theatre and art."

Byrd saw that almost all of the work Verlizzo was doing involved movies, "and at the end of the year he just suggested that I visit Blaine Thompson, which at the time — it no longer exists — was the premier agency for Broadway. Its head art director, Morris Robbins, was an incredible designer. He had done the original Hello, Dolly! poster, with the cupid and the heart. He liked my work, and he got me a job in the art studio, putting ads together."

Robbins asked him to design the title logo for Seascape, "which thrilled me, because I was an Edward Albee fan. I had been there a year or so. And that same year [1975] he asked me to work on Tom Stoppard's Travesties. He gave me amazing projects to work on, and I was incredibly into it. I would stay late, because I was allowed to work on the artwork only after 6 PM, since it wasn't my real job — it wasn't what I was getting paid to do." The first poster art he designed in full was for David Mamet's American Buffalo, in 1976.

These days, Verlizzo is with the Eliran Murphy Group advertising agency. Over the years, he has been at Grey Entertainment; creative art director/vice president at J. Walter Thompson's Entertainment Group; and managing partner/co-creative director at Rave! Advertising. In 1987 he was given a special Drama Desk Award for his "inspired artwork for theatrical productions."

Does he have any favorite posters? "I've always been a huge Sondheim fan," he says. "And I had the pleasure of doing three of his original productions — Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd and Getting Away With Murder. I did the Off-Broadway Pacific Overtures. And it was so exciting in 2002, when the Kennedy Center asked me to design its entire Sondheim celebration."

How does he come up with his poster ideas? "It's different every time," he says. "You usually have to work way in advance, so you basically have the script, and you talk to the show's creative people to try to get a sense of what the show will feel like and look like. With Sunday in the Park, for instance, it was very, very early, and the second act hadn't even been written yet. I was just told, 'Here's the script of the first act. And the second act takes place 100 years later.'

"So I thought about it, and came up with the idea."

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