Programmes vs Playbills

There has always been a long-standing argument that the audience should know exactly who they are seeing perform each night. In England, most shows sell programmes and a lot have up to date cast information on display somewhere within the theatre, normally in the front of house or sometimes on a printed slip inside the programme. In America, shows have playbills which show the cast for that night. These are given free to audience members therefore ensuring that the audience know who is performing. A substantial amount of people want to see playbills, like used in Broadway, introduced to English theatres – particularly the West End.


In England, theatre programmes date as far back as the 18thcentury. Despite the fact that at that time most of the theatre’s audiences were illiterate they still thought it was important to recognise who was on stage. So much so that actually the programmes were given out at the theatre and even outside on the streets. The programmes similar to what we have now started to be printed in the 19thcentury. During the Second World War, with paper rationing the programme became a single sheet of paper but in the 1970’s photo printed programmes became widely available and distributed at British theatres. This tradition has continued until now. Most programmes consist of photographs, cast and creative information, a synopsis of the show and often interviews with the producers/directors with a few adverts included to keep down the costs. They are often collected and stored in their dozens by admiring fans of shows and are kept as souvenirs.

In Broadway however, playbills are given out at each performance to show the cast and creative team. These are often black and white and simply list the cast and creative team involved. Playbills are provided free of charge and are funded by the advertisements inside which means there are a lot of adverts within the thin booklet. There are also interviews and news about Broadway generally. Normally they are given out one per ticket, which does result in everyone knowing the cast but also means that there are a lot of discarded booklets left in the theatre afterwards. Surely this is great for the cast as the audience know who is performing but is it so good for the environment? In an age where most things are going digital, do we really need more paper being wasted?

90The positive thing about Broadway’s playbills is that it gives the chance for all audience members to find out who is on stage. All performers and creatives have worked extremely hard to produce the final piece of theatre and deserve to be recognised for this. However with the internet becoming so easy to navigate and use, most people now are capable of looking it up in seconds on the show’s website and seeing colour photographs, press photographs and detailed information about the cast and creative. In fact, if you look around the auditorium before the show and during the interval you are likely to see more people on phones and not. So are playbills really necessary?

London theatres often sell cheaper programmes, which still have a lot of detail about the cast and creatives and some photographs, and more and more shows now also producing glossy souvenir programmes to keep. These are full of shiny press photographs and information about the show, often including interviews (these are also sold at most shows in Broadway for a fee). Audience members are not required to buy them which means that there is no obligation and far less paper wastage. For a lot of people these become a collectors hobby and most fans of productions enjoy purchasing programmes to treasure and even the possibility of getting it signed at stage door.

IMG_6812At the end of the day, whether you want to buy a glossy programme to keep or pick up a free playbill with your ticket, more and more people are referring to the internet to find out about the cast. After all, most people buy tickets online and often find out about the shows this way too so clearly there is not as much of a demand for programmes (other than as a souvenir) as before. There are also some fantastic websites and twitter accounts such as @westendunderstudies who inform the audience of any covers, standbys and understudies taking performing during each show. It is vital that theatres inform audiences of who is performing, whether this is via posters on the doors, a digital display in the foyer or an announcement being made at the start of the show. Audiences need to know who is performing for them and performers deserve to be recognised and appreciated for their hard work.

So, should the West End introduce free playbill style leaflets? Would this be feasible economically? Do theatre goers need/want a leaflet which may well end up in the bin when they could just look it up on their phone/smart device? What’s your opinion on this topic? I’d love to hear from you.

5 thoughts on “Programmes vs Playbills

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  1. Another American here lol I also love my Playbills, the cast and any understudies are actually posted next to the entrance of the theatre as well… In addition to cast and crew you also get the list of songs, order, who sings them, etc, and headshots and bios for everyone in cast and crew as well. The content changes often so there will be articles about different shows happening and interviews and things as well. I like that you get them for free, gives you something to read during intermission without having to pay for something, then if you really like the show you can buy the souvenir program. A few years ago they began doing rainbow titles on the playbill covers during June for pride month, it makes for a cool collectible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading the article. Our programmes have the same information but, like you say, they are not free. I’m glad you enjoy reading them. I think regardless of whether you pay or not it’s great to read about the cast and creatives and find out more about the show. Plus, as you mentioned, they are brilliant to collect.


  2. Growing up, I didn’t really keep the playbills: I always got rid of them. But now I collect them to keep track of the cast to see who played who and to know who was in the ensemble. Being from America, I had gotten used to being given playbills at the door.

    When I saw Les Mis in the West End 2015, I was shocked that I had to buy to the program. It wasn’t something I was used to.

    I own a number of playbills/programs now-combination of school, tour and West End shows: from Les Mis (three of them- community college, West End, and North American Tour 2017) to Annie to Newsies to Phantom of the Opera to Grease to Oklahoma to Music Man to Godspell to Pippin to Sound of Music all the way to Mamma Mia- that I saw in 2009.

    I am someone who does not look up a cast list on a phone. The actual program is essential for me. I like keeping track of when I actually saw a musical and who was in the cast. I do not just look it up at all. My programs are stored in the exact same order in which I saw them: the most recent being on top.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading the article. It’s interesting to hear what someone from the states thinks. I have never has a playbill but now often get my programme for free when I do press events and even if I don’t I always buy one. Like you, I keep mine and love looking through them. I have almost 200 now and love them.


      1. My entire musical map as far as I know:

        Elementary School:

        Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Seussical the Musical, and Cats (on tour)- well don’t remember them so don’t know where or years so I put them together. Don’t have those programs

        2006 (age 12)- Wicked on Broadway

        2007- Oliver at the Barter Theater in Virginia- don’t remember seeing

        2008 (tour, I think)- not sure, but I think this was the 2nd time I saw Wicked, but not sure

        2009 (tour)- Mamma Mia (tour)-this year was on my program

        2011 (tour: Charlotte)- Addams Family- well had to look up US tour to figure out this year

        2012- La Cage (tour:), Godspell (community college)

        2013- Wicked (tour), Les Mis (community college 3x-once with family and twice as an usher)

        2014- Phantom of the Opera (tour: Greenville), Porgy and Bess (tour: Charlotte), Annie (tour: St. Louis)

        2015- Music Man (university), Pippin (tour: Charlotte), Les Mis (West End), Sound of Music (tour: Charlotte)

        2016- Wicked (tour: Charlotte), Newsies (tour: Charlotte)

        2017- Little Shop of Horrors (university), Rent (tour: Charlotte), Les Mis (tour: Greenville)

        2018- Oklahoma (community college), Grease (community college)

        Have most of these playbills: just don’t have the pre- Mamma Mia ones or the one for Addams Family or Porgy and Bess or first two Wicked playbills or Oliver. Don’t have Little Shop of Horrors because my university ran out before I could own one. Those are the only missing ones.


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