the man behind the image

| 06 Jul 2015 | 05:11

“The Lion King” opened 18 years ago, surpassing the run record of most Broadway shows, and hundreds of millions of people have seen the iconic poster art that advertises the hit play. But few know Frank Verlizzo, the artist who designed the proud lion, as well as the art for more than 300 Broadway and Off-Broadway theater productions.

A tall, slim 64-year-old with wavy gray hair, the handsome Verlizzo appears a Hollywood type. Which befits a man who, as he put it, practically lived in movie theaters while growing up.

But when he saw his first live theater as a teenager, he found his true love. Now, when not creating theater art, he sees as many shows as he can.

Verlizzo started drawing at a young age, though he doesn't know where the urge came from, as neither parent had an art background. A native New Yorker, he graduated from the High School of Art and Design on East 56th Street and then attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He worked with several advertising agencies before settling into his own design studio in 2010, not far from his old high school.

Verlizzo's first fully designed poster was for the 1976 New York production of David Mamet's “American Buffalo.” His portfolio over the years includes 16 Stephen Sondheim productions, such as “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music.” Among other memorable posters are “Deathtrap,” “My One and Only,” “As Is,” and “Freud's Last Session.”

For the Sondheim musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” Verlizzo pictured a 19th-century couple with the famous Georges Seurat painting behind them. The bottom halves of the couple are dressed in modern clothing. Verlizzo said he hopes people see something new each time they look at it.

Verlizzo, who signs his work “Fraver,” a combination of his first and last names, still finds some assignments nerve-racking, despite his impressive résumé. The Upper East Side resident designed the poster for the 2011 revival of Sondheim's “Follies” starring Bernadette Peters, a daunting task as his former teacher and mentor, David Byrd, created the art for the original Broadway production.

“It's one of the most famous theater posters of all time,” he said over a recent sushi lunch.

But Verlizzo found his own way to approach the project.

“If you look closely,” he said, “what you see is a face made up of torn posters that look like they could have been from the Ziegfeld Follies, and the face seems haunted.”

For Verlizzo, who is married to his partner of 38 years, Joe Ligammari, the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality reminded him of his work for 2013's “Hit the Wall,” a short-lived Off-Broadway show about the 1969 Stonewall riots, when patrons at gay club the Stonewall Inn fought back during a police raid.

For that artwork, as usual, he met with the producers and the creative team. He then read the script about the pivotal moment in the fight for gay rights.

“You can't expect people to understand graphics unless you show them something,” he said. “You can't say what you intend to do. You have to do something and then they either like it or they don't.”

For the show's poster, he created an abstract map of a section of Greenwich Village with a pink star marking the location of the Stonewall Inn, an image that, against a black background, also resembles shattered glass.

Verlizzo's next assignment is for “Prince of Broadway,” a new musical celebrating director and producer Harold (Hal) Prince, winner of 21 Tony Awards. The show is set to open in Japan in October with potential for a future run in New York.

He is most looking forward to his work for “Misery,” based on the Stephen King novel and starring Laurie Metcalf and Bruce Willis. It is set to open on Broadway this fall.

While attention is lavished on theater performers, Verlizzo hasn't gone without praise for his work. Critics' organization the Drama Desk recognized the unique value of theater art, giving Verlizzo a special award in 1987. (This reporter was then the president of the Drama Desk.) And in 2010, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center presented an exhibit of his best-known work.

As a graphic artist and visual person, Verlizzo can't easily explain his creative process, he said, though he is proud that he can reach people through his designs. He remains sanguine about his role in the theater world.

“Shows open and shows close,” he said. “But the artwork remains. It's part of the historical record.”

And, he added, his heart lifts every time he sees one of his posters in a store window or on top of a passing cab.

“I know I created that,” he said.