THEATRE / Eyes on walls, bums on seats: Anthony Pye-Jeary sends you home humming the poster. Georgina Brown reports

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The Independent Culture
For an ad man, Anthony Pye-Jeary is curiously shy of the press. He certainly doesn't hold with the notion that all publicity is good publicity. A week or two ago, he explains, he thought he was having lunch at the Observer, when he and fellow guests - among them a composer, a producer, a writer and a critic - were instead served up with the brief to mount a West End musical. Worse, their conversation was recorded and selected comments published with a description of Pye-Jeary as 'the acknowledged genius behind the marketing of Cats and practically every big musical'.

The accompanying picture made him look four foot tall and the image-maker has been blushing ever since, appalled by his representation as a dwarf genius. His own frank and humble summing up is that he is 'five foot 11 with one absolutely useless talent for knowing the names of entire casts of plays I saw 25 years ago.'

The repercussions of this episode are that the mere sight of a tape makes Pye-Jeary wince and certain words - hype, for example - make him flinch. 'Marketing' triggers an anguished recoil. 'That awful word - a ludicrous generic that covers sidelines in all their connotations. It doesn't actually mean anything. It's embarrassing - it has a reputation for being done by spivs.' Pye-Jeary prefers to say he 'works in the theatre'.

Yet marketing, particularly if it 'covers sidelines in all their connotations', neatly describes what Dewynters, his agency, gets up to. They are responsible for every visible aspect of a production, except for the show itself - that includes the design of the ads, the merchandising, the promotion, the publishing. It absorbs between ten and 20 per cent of the budget for a musical; nice business if you can get it; a pounds20 million turnover business if, like Dewynters, you 'market' a good half of all the productions in the West End, the Almeida and Donmar theatres, plus the ENO and the Royal Opera House.

And in doing so, they've changed the face of London. - You may not have seen Cats, but you've probably been followed by a pair of yellow eyes, the pupils dancing figures, glinting out of a black void from the side of a London bus; and you can't have avoided the tourist's favourite status symbol, a black sweat-shirt with an eyeless white Phantom half-mask. The images are arguably more famous than the musicals themselves and these days they appear, with unabashed arrogance, without so much as the show title. 'That gives me a real thrill,' says Pye-Jeary.

You wouldn't guess it from his office. There's a lone cats' eyes mat on which to sit your drink. Otherwise it's quiet abstract prints and an air-conditioned atmosphere of self-deprecation.' You can't sell a crap musical,' says Pye-Jeary. 'If a show's any good, it sells itself. I try to make the general public think they are buying something they 'should' see with an announcement that runs: 'the new musical XX opens on XX, tickets go on sale on XX'. But you can't do it unless you've got the product.'

That's not to say that any good musical will sell itself. City of Angels is a recent case in point. Its wit and verve won rapturous reviews which should have been followed by an enormous box office surge. After that, word of mouth should have taken over. It didn't happen. And when it didn't, several people blamed the poster of a girl in a diaphanous outfit lying back with a gun in her hand against a palm-tree background. Diaphanous outfits don't exactly scream fun family show.

Pye-Jeary doesn't agree. 'It was always going to be a difficult show to sell. The music is unknown and not particularly hummable. But the poster got across the humour, Hollywood, a bit of the story and looked fun.' He believes the true problem emerged when they vox-popped the audience. 'People couldn't describe the show even if they liked it. It sounds too complex. It's a difficult title. Compare it to Crazy For You which opened at the same time and was so easy to describe - Gershwin songs, love story.' Ironically, the publicity about the publicity for City of Angels has saved the show for another two months.

A couple of decades ago London's theatreland was a grey place where the size of a billing on a monochrome poster was all that ever tried to catch the eye of a passer-by. Cats broke the mould with a black background, which had always been considered taboo for musicals. More outrageous, the billing was tiny. Everyone from Andrew Lloyd Webber down were the same small size. What's clever about it is that it works in colour, black and white, in neon, big, small, with or without billing, on the back of a bus, longways, horizontal, on a badge, on a T-shirt, on a mug. (No wonder, then, that Cats was the first musical to have a shop in the theatre foyer.)

Subsequent Dewynter images have demonstrated a similar imagination and lack of clutter, and occasionally an intriguing bit of double-play. Take the helicopter for Miss Saigon, for example. The first time you look you see an Oriental graphic; look a second time and see a helicopter; look again and see a girl's face.

'Producers often know what they want - they just don't know what it's going to look like until we show them. Some producers get it all wrong by wanting to keep an actor happy by putting his name above the title. That's fine if it's Maggie Smith - she's a star, she sells tickets. But some people agree to billing all over the shop for actors no one's ever heard of. Other producers - American producers - come in and say'we wanna Phantom, or we wanna Cats'. I feel like saying 'Well go and write one then'.'

Pye-Jeary has been in the business a long time. To his parents' horror he left Dulwich College (where he had a scholarship) half-way through A levels in order to return to the post-room at Rediffusion Television where he'd had a summer job. After a few weeks the promotions department took him on. 'We used to do the bits which said 'And at six o'clock - It's Ready, Steady, Go with the Who and the Dave Clark Five'. I loved it.' When Rediffusion merged to become Thames, Pye-Jeary was out of a job and, aged 19, he set up as a 'press rep' (PR was not a phrase that had yet been coined). 'If you hadn't any talent, it was the easiest thing to do. I loved the theatre and doing this meant I could go three times a week, to every opening. It was sensational - I went to the Open Space when they used to switch the lights off and slap you with a wet flannel. I loved it. I just loved sitting in the audience. I still do. I'm always hopeful that's it's going to be good. And when it's good it beats everything - when it's bad it's pretty miserable.'

In those days he and his partner used to 'bang on producers' doors and say give us pounds50 and we'll put up your posters all over town'. Having proved themselves competent at that, they were asked to to be press reps for the launch of Greenwich Theatre when Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols and John Mortimer were writing their first plays. The big break came with Robert Stigwood's invitation to be press reps for Jesus Christ Superstar. 'It was the biggest thing that had happened since Hair; we were introduced to these two boys Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and were suddenly in charge of the biggest show in the country. Journalists were phoning me and not the other way round.'

A few years later Pye-Jeary joined forces with Robert Dewynter and creative partner, Russ Eglin, to set up a proper agency. The rest can be seen on the posters. Pye-Jeary has continued to look after Tim and Andrew and all their shows, severally and singly, though not these days as press rep ('PR's a thankless task - you can't please everyone any of the time'). He remains adamant that his passion for the theatre makes all the difference. ''I have so much in common with everyone I'm working for - I genuinely get excited about every project I get involved with - it doesn't matter whether it's Andrew's latest show or the Almeida, it makes me want to get up in the morning.' He was happy to have that bit on tape.

(Photographs omitted)