A playbill is a printed document containing information on a theatrical performance. It informs the audience of the show's settings and songs, and sometimes provides background facts regarding the production's cast, crew, composer and director.
Variety Stage notes that in the early 19th century, a playbill was a single sheet of paper that displayed the title of the show, the name of the theatre building, the performance dates and the cast of characters. By the end of the century, the playbill became a much lengthier publication. Created in 1884, Playbill Magazine continues to publish programs for Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Each issue includes the cast information for a particular play, along with articles about other theatrical productions and personalities that are published on a monthly basis.
The most prominent aspect of a playbill is the cast of characters, which is a list of the characters who appear in the production and the names of the actors who portray them. This section also includes a list of understudies who are prepared to perform in the event a regular cast member becomes unavailable. Actors Equity, the union representing stage actors, requires that any last-minute changes in the cast must be announced by inserting an information slip into the playbill.
The playbill tells the audience where the play is set (e.g., “New York City, the summer of 2009”). It also explains where each particular scene takes place (e.g., “John’s apartment"). Experimental productions may not have identifiable settings, so the playbill description may be indistinct (e.g., “an island,” “a kingdom”) or completely ambiguous (e.g., “a place in time”). This page also announces whether or not the production will include an intermission, and if so, how long it will last.
If the production is a musical, the playbill will include a list of songs and the names of the characters who sing them. If the show includes a musical piece that was not written by the person credited as the composer for the general production, the playbill cites the composer and lyricist of that particular piece in the song list section.
Modern playbills help theatregoers become more connected to productions by listing biographical information about the cast and crew. Playbill Magazine includes photographs of the major players and blurbs detailing their previous roles and theatre education. Some playbills provide cast and crew members the opportunity to include personal messages of thanks to their families, friends and mentors in their biographies.