“Maybe someday your name will be in lights,” Chuck Berry sang in one of his early rock’n’roll hits. Though Berry would never have imagined Johnny B Goode’s name illuminated on the moving screens that now line the Great White Way.
Whether surrounded by a perimeter of bulbs, or more recently lit from behind, someone’s name up in lights is a designation that they have arrived, that they are a draw. Only now those signs are literally made of lights, or more accurately LEDs, which allow once-static images to change, spin, and animate – and can be altered without need of multiple workmen and a bucket truck.
These screens mark the latest step in the evolving nature of exterior displays outside Broadway’s theatres. The houseboards that recreate the title pages of programmes have, at some theatres, been replaced by video monitors, as have the once-slotted lobby signs that indicate who’s in the company and who is performing on the night.
Changing pixels has proven more efficient than making name placards for every company member and cast replacement. And fixing the rare typo in a playbill can be immediately remedied with a keystroke.
That brings us to marquees, where video has begun to supplant fixed signage on Broadway theatres. While not every theatre has succumbed to the digital screen – and a walk down 44th or 45th Street is hardly akin to the barrage of bright, moving images that now make up Times Square itself – the evolution is certainly underway.
If you stand in front of the Imperial Theatre right now and look at the marquee for Carousel, you can spend almost two minutes watching the signage change, as it cycles from the top-billed stars to the honours the show has received. Depending upon your vantage point, you may catch the same thing happening just down the block at the Music Box Theatre for Dear Evan Hansen.
The traditionalist in me initially bridled at this modernisation – the presence of this material signage struck me as a part of the physicality of live theatre – but with video now increasingly seen inside theatres as part of the stage design, it was hard to put up resistance to it on the outside.
The marketer and promoter in me understood the new possibilities offered by digital signage, allowing for a multiplicity of messaging and rapid response. Indeed, the new signs also support the Broadway tradition of dimming marquees to honour the loss of a member of the theatrical community by putting an image of the recently departed on multiple theatres at once – an elegant enhancement to an already moving gesture.
But back to Carousel and the Imperial. You may wonder exactly what takes almost two minutes per rotation. The answer is that producer Scott Rudin has pioneered the practice of putting the name of every single cast member up in lights. That’s right: the screen above the doors to the Imperial cycles through the entire acting company.
The stars of the show – Jessie Mueller, Joshua Henry and Renee Fleming – may appear first and largest, but every actor has their moment, in groups of three or four, and has it every couple of minutes, a display of great generosity. The same thing was true at Rudin’s just-shuttered Hello, Dolly!, where the cast members’ names ran horizontally and sequentially along Shubert Alley; the main signage at the Shubert Theatre is actually of older vintage, with lit letters mounted on a lattice-work metal frame.
Far from every Broadway house has succumbed to a bevy of screens. The historic designation of many exteriors will likely prevent a profusion of garish displays. In fact, just as video has made inroads, so the lower-tech wrapping of theatre exit doors with ads and images has increased, as producers seek to optimise every square foot of available space, beyond the marquee. I certainly hope we’ve not passed the days when we see something like the inflatable leg of the fairytale giant dangling off the roof of the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld), as we did during the run of Into The Woods.
Even though I don’t personally know many of the actors whose names have flashed by me on 45th Street or in Shubert Alley, I can imagine their parents, their children and their friends being thrilled when they first see the name of someone they love up in lights. For those few seconds, which come around again and again, everyone is a star. It may not sell a ticket, but it’s a public affirmation of both appreciation and value. It’s a use of modern technology in service of our most ancient form of entertainment – live theatre – and the people who practise it eight times a week.