Pittsburgh native wins a special Tony for her iconic images of Broadway shows

Joan Marcus doesn’t sing or dance. Nor does she write plays, music or lyrics. She has no lighting or costume design credits to her name.

Still, if you’re a fan of Broadway shows, you have seen her work. From the Emerald City in “Wicked” to the clueless missionaries in Africa in “The Book of Mormon,” images shot by Ms. Marcus are iconic and enduring.

She recently was presented with an honorary Tony Award and, unlike those walking the red carpet tonight at Radio City Music Hall, Ms. Marcus can sit back and relax from a prime seat at the ceremony.

“I truly like what I do,” said Ms. Marcus, who grew up in Highland Park and Stanton Heights, graduating from Peabody High School and later, George Washington University. “I love going to a play, I love the backstage stuff of it. Now I love seeing people I’ve worked with for years, and I love getting the work recognition.”

“It’s so great,” said her husband, Adrian Bryan-Brown, a top New York theatrical press agent. “She works so hard, and to be recognized like this, it’s just the bee’s knees.”

The Broadway scene has long had its share of photographers who created classic images. Leo Friedman and Joseph Abeles were the go-to men for press photos in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Friedman was responsible for the great 1957 image of Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert dashing up a city sidewalk for the original production of “West Side Story.”

Martha Swope, now retired, is another well-known name for her decades of capturing the beauty and drama of the New York dance and theater scene. Ms. Marcus’ catalog spans more than two decades, including two Idina Menzel musicals ("Wicked" and the current "If/Then"), Carnegie Mellon University graduate Patina Miller in "Pippin" and the current revival of "Cabaret.”

“She has this great aesthetic, clearly, but I just think it was a case of finding something she loves as opposed to knowing what she loved, ”Mr. Bryan-Brown said.

She’s not alone in the field.

"There are way more names out there now because it's much easier to do," said Ms. Marcus, whose career began in an era of film and dark rooms. "Now you need a camera and a computer."

Ms. Marcus’s was an unlikely path to Broadway. She'd studied both photography and sociology at GW but had no intention of making either a vocation. At one point, she was headed to the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a graduate degree in landscape architecture but deferred acceptance — permanently, as it so happened.

“I had a million jobs, [but] no direction at all, none,” Ms. Marcus said, laughing. “A friend and I started this weird blue jean skirt business, before they made them at The Gap. We would sell them at AU [American University]; we were too embarrassed to sell them at GW."

After the sewing machine broke, she was off to another job, any job, including print work for a doctor who was writing a book on plastic surgery at the GW medical School. There was work doing computer graphics at a local TV news station.

She began working in the box office at the American Film Institute at Kennedy Center. "I noticed they had a photographer and I wondered, 'Did he have a printer? -- someone to help him.

"Turns out, he was swamped. He said 'Can you help me print?' And that was it."

A major performing arts center is a small city unto itself, as Ms. Marcus quickly discovered.

"Our dark room was right underneath the stage. You could just bop out there and watch part of a ballet, see some plays... you could just walk up a set of steps and then you were in the opera house, or walk down to the canteen and see the dancers and actors."

"The [head] photographer there kind of took pictures for all of them, too. I could go to rehearsals, and that's where the [theater] bug bit me."

She eventually became principal photographer for many of the productions coming through the Kennedy Center, but she also worked on myriad outside projects, including political fundraisers and the decidedly not-glamorous American Bus Association convention. Her list of clients was growing in the theater.

She was content in Washington: "Happy as a clam, actually. That was a really great place to work."

It's not unusual for out-of-town productions to transfer to Broadway, which is how Ms. Marcus happened to be in New York City to help document "Lillian," a play with Zoe Caldwell as Lillian Hellman in 1986.

At the opening, she met Mr. Bryan-Brown. They began dating in 1989 and were married two years later. Although Ms. Marcus wasn't looking to move to New York, her husband's new partnership with Chris Boneau was about to take off. She began securing work in New York and that became the tipping point in a decision to move there in 1992.

They occasionally find themselves working for the same client on Broadway. More rare are times she brings their pug, Buttercup, to a shoot.

"Joanie was established before we even met. So it’s never been awkward, from a client point of view,” her husband said. “Because she is so in demand and talented in her own right, there’s never been a question about her getting work because we’re married.”

Most of the production photography is shot during rehearsals, sometimes over the course of a few days but sometimes over a few hours. Some productions — the Disney shows, for example — will shoot during run-throughs, rehearsals, they will provide set-ups, "the whole nine yards," she said.

Others give her a window that provides one shot, such as the recently closed musical "The Bridges of Madison County" with Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale.

"Does it matter? Sometimes, it does," she said. "It's weird, but with something like 'Bridges of Madison County' I did it once, and it was beautiful."

Among her current projects is “The Last Ship,” with music by Sting. It’s playing in Chicago but sails for Broadway this fall.

There is a certain level of intimacy that must be breached when she arrives to take photos, she said.

"When the photographer comes in, what was a closed shop isn't anymore. And all that they've worked for is now open to the public, and it will be open to opinion,“ she said. "Prior to that, they're working to make the show the best they can. But there will be times when there are mixed results."

Sometimes, the lighting is poor. Or perhaps the costumes or props have not been finished, necessitating reshoots. Mr. Bryan-Brown said his wife has an ideal temperament for dealing with the unknown.

"She’s very passionate and very stubborn about what she needs, but she also totally recognizes the variables,“ he said.

Putting the pieces together, she said, is just part of the creative process: "This is going to sound hokey, but each show is different, and I like figuring out how you're going to make it work."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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