In definition, a “playbill” is any written or printed poster that advertises a public performance; historically, playbills were long, narrow, single-sided posters that informed the viewer of the production’s title, location, and schedule. On Broadway, however, a Playbill is much more: it lists helpful information about the story with the audience, including the structure of scenes, songs, and intermissions, and the setting; it contains the full production “credits”, cataloging the large and varied community of people that come together to create a show; it includes features and interviews, offering readers the opportunity to learn more about Broadway and the theatre community. Even for the rare theatregoer who fails to open their Playbill, receiving one is important and exciting — because it’s a signal that they’re about to see a Broadway show.
Before Playbill, every theater was tasked with compiling an accurate program for each new production — a costly, time-consuming process. Frank Vincent Strauss offered a solution in 1884 by founding The New York Theater Program Corporation: the company created and provided monthly magazines, customized for each production. By 1918, the publication provided the programs for all Broadway productions, and in 1957, it adopted the iconic Playbill masthead. In the modern era, Playbill has expanded its services to theatres outside of New York and developed its popular Playbill.com website, allowing readers to peruse archives, job postings, theatre news, and engage with a community of fellow theatre-lovers.
For many, the enriching and thrilling “magic” of a theatrical experience is it’s ephemerality: it is intangible, live, and it vanishes as quickly as it was made before your eyes. No one can see the same show twice. At the end of the every Broadway show, the audience is left with only two things: their experience and their Playbill.