The artist James McMullan has been creating posters for Lincoln Center Theater shows since a 1986 revival of John Guare’s House of Blue Leaves. Among his many striking images have been a floppy hat on Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes and a Gauguin-reminiscent tropical scene for South Pacific. For The King and I he has devised another wonderfully iconic image: a petite Anna in swirling white skirt between two large guard-type figures. The other day, he explained his process for coming up with that idea.
“I used the movie as my entry point,” McMullan said, referring to the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. I pointed out that Kerr’s outfits – Irene Sharaff won an Oscar for costume-design – featured enormous skirts. “I also noticed that,” McMullan said. “But for the poster I wanted something less excessive.”
McMullan said it was “important for the image to have a white dress, whether or not Kelli O’Hara” – who will play Anna – “actually wears a white dress in the show.” That color, McMullan said, contrasts with the poster’s other hues, and helps point up the idea that “Anna is entering an exotic but somewhat threatening world.”
While working on the poster, McMullan saw sketches from Catherine Zuber, who is the costume designer of LCT’s production. He also had the benefit of O’Hara sitting for him. “Kelli was good enough to do that,” McMullan said. “She gave me nuances of gesture that were so wonderful. Even though the figure turned out to be small, Kelli made her so alive for me.”
As for the poster’s other major element, McMullan said, “One of the things that kept popping up in my research were the guards. They were figures who traditionally stood outside the palace. I imagined them inside the palace.” He added: “They were the one element in the final image that didn’t evolve from previous sketches.”
McMullan estimates that he did around 25 sketches for The King and I. “I’m not sure I’ve ever worked longer on any poster as I did on this one,” he said. “It needed to be as iconic as Anything Goes and South Pacific.” Though McMullan’s creative process can be extensive, the aim is basic. “I ask myself: what is the minimum I can put in an image that will best serve the purpose of the play?” He added: “All the great posters are simple. Simplicity is what gives them drama.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.