Change for Broadway’s favorite magazine: Will Playbill receive a makeover along with its new publisher?

By Jessie Kuenzel
Staff Writer

 

Anyone who has attended a play on New York City’s Broadway or off-Broadway will have received, or at least knows of, the small, yellow-topped booklet that is handed out to all play-goers.

Their slogan—printed on the cover of every magazine—reads “serving theater since 1884,” a statement which they have very much lived up to. Nearly every major show opening in New York uses the services of Playbill Inc., and over the years their circulation has spread to theatres across the country—from Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco to our very own Boston.

It is common for theatergoers to save their copies of “Playbill,” many of whom have  amassed collections numbering in the hundreds. UMass Amherst student Luke Flood has been amassing “Playbills” for as long as he can remember.

“I have a binder that I keep them all in,” Flood said of his sizeable collection. “Well actually it’s more like 10 binders now, I have to keep getting more. ‘Playbills’ are such an important part of the theatre experience for me; it’s a way to take a little bit of the show home. And when you’ve seen as many plays as I have, it’s easy to lose track and forget about some. All I have to do is flip through my binders and I can almost see the actors and hear the orchestra again. ”

“Playbill,” which has established itself as an icon in the theater world, is as important to some theatergoers as the play itself. As Playbill Inc. transitions to a new publisher, many are wondering how their beloved magazine will be affected by this major change.

Bruce Hallett will be filling the position of publisher in the wake of Philip S. Birsh, who still remains president and chief executive of Playbill Inc. Although Birsh will continue to oversee many aspects of the Playbill line—such as playbill.com and Playbill Travel—the company was growing at such a fast pace that he felt it was time to bring in an “All-Star in the majors,” as he said of Hallett in an interview with the New York Times.

Playbill was acquired in 1974 by Birsh’s father, Arthur T. Birsh, and has remained solely under the family’s control up to this point. When Birsh realized that Playbill Inc. had grown far past what he could handle on his own, he decided to step down in one of his three positions and allow the role of publisher to be filled by his good friend Bruce Hallett, who was particularly qualified for the job.

“The CEO and the president got together and fired the publisher,” joked Birsh. “Sometimes you have to look at yourself and say, ‘Are you doing the best job you can?’”

Bruce Hallett, who returns to magazine publishing after a nine-year break where he worked as president of MyPublisher and chief executive of Murdoch Books, seems to have a penchant for easily recognizable magazines.

During his 25-year career at Time Inc., Hallett served as president of “Time” and “Sports Illustrated”—both of which have well-known and instantly identifiable covers—and he is now adding the iconic yellow and black of “Playbill” to his resume.

While “Playbill” collectors and fans are understandably worried about the future of their beloved magazine, it doesn’t appear as if they have too much to worry about.

In a phone interview with a “New York Times” reporter, Hallet said “[Playbill] has a fabulous brand story, there are people sitting in seats, and standing on stages who care about it. It’s hard to see into the future how much growth is left in the print piece, and yet we do have a unique distribution model, handing out programs to people who are excited.”

Hallett appreciates the “souvenir” and “memento” aspect of the magazine, and with his background in working with highly collectable magazines in the past, it seems safe to say that Hallett knows the importance of maintaining a brand image.

So at least for the time being, it seems that “Playbill” will be staying the same stage-side magazine that generations of theatergoers have come to know and love.

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