Broadway’s Biggest Debut
He’s 20 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. He’s monstrous, but, his creators hope, also moving. And he’s coming to Broadway this fall.
King Kong arrives next month as the title character, and the one constant, in a $35 million musical which has been in development for nearly a decade, churning through scripts, songs and creative teams as the producers try to shape a show worthy of their title character.
He’s being brought to life by an animatronic ape unlike any puppet Broadway has seen before — a moving sculpture, with sad eyes and a fearsome roar, requiring 14 performers, as well as 16 microprocessors, to operate.
The massive marionette is in some ways as naturalistic as his co-stars — he does not burst into song or break into dance, but instead knuckle-walks and vocalizes like an actual silverback.
“He is a completely expressive character with an incredibly wide range of emotions, and I’ve had to step up my game to compete,” said Christiani Pitts, the actress playing Ann Darrow, whose relationship to Kong forms the heart of the musical. “When we first made eye contact, he roared and I started sobbing — he doesn’t look like he belongs in the space, and that’s the most heartbreaking thing about him.”
A gorilla descended from dinosaurs
“King Kong” is the first Broadway venture for Global Creatures, an Australian production company audaciously attempting to develop four stage musicals at the same time. Before turning to theater, Global Creatures made millions manufacturing animatronic animals for the touring arena show “Walking With Dinosaurs,” as well as an arena version of “How to Train Your Dragon.”
The stage Kong is in many ways a descendant of those dinosaurs — he shares their animatronic innards. But his family tree has other branches — particularly bunraku, the classic form of Japanese puppetry in which the puppeteer is visible to the audience, as well as the 21st-century London and Broadway hit “War Horse,” which starred a life-size, human-powered horse puppet that was transparently inanimate but also affectingly lifelike.
Kong is arguably the most significant advance in Broadway puppetry since “The Lion King,” Julie Taymor’s masterwork, and like Ms. Taymor, Sonny Tilders, the “King Kong” creature designer, says he was influenced by time spent in Indonesia. Mr. Tilders credits in particular Indonesian depictions of a Hindu monkey king, Hanuman, with helping him think through the physical relationship between the puppet and those who operate him.
“If you get the sublime realism right, they forgive you seeing things that aren’t really part of it,” said Mr. Tilders, who is the creative director of Creature Technology Co., an animatronics business, spun off from Global Creatures in 2015, that manufactured Kong and the arena show creatures.
“It’s the question I often ask myself — why can I pick up a paper bag or a sock and put my hand in it and instantly you recognize life in it? Because you want to see life in it,” Mr. Tilders said. “Of course you know it’s not real, and you sit here knowing that’s a stage and they’re all actors, but we love to use our imagination. It’s what separates us from the other great apes.”
Buns of steel. Seriously.
Kong, a muscular, hairless primate, has a steel skeleton and a carbon fiber skull. His back and hips are molded fiberglass shells; his chest and abs are inflatable airbags, allowing them to flex, while his arms and legs are high-pressure inflatable tubes, reducing the risk of injury to actors and the set. His body, which from the theater’s seats looks taut and tough, is actually soft to the touch, covered with a gray fabric skin.
And then there are his eyes — jet black (like many nonhuman primates, Kong has no visible white around his irises) and made of a frosted, vacuum-formed acrylic that glistens as if moist.
“Everybody will be impressed by the weight of him and the scale of him and the versatility of him, but the thing that really smacks you in the teeth is that his eyes are so powerful,” said Drew McOnie, the musical’s director, who flew from London to Melbourne to meet the puppet in a warehouse before taking the job.
“This probably makes me sound like a complete weirdo, but he’s definitely got an aura that has something to do with his eyes,” he said. “He ends up reflecting the person he’s looking at, and that ends up feeling very theatrical and very beautiful.”
Caution: Heavy load
Despite his heft, Kong can run, ski across the floor, and leap into the air; he also appears to lift Ann Darrow and scale the set walls.
It takes a team of 10 onstage performers, dubbed the King’s Company, to manually move his limbs. They push, pull (via rigging ropes), and even use torque exerted by jumping off the beast’s back to force his fists upward.
“I feel like we are him — it wouldn’t work if we were individuals,” said Lauren Yalango-Grant, a Pilobolus alumna making her Broadway debut as a member of the King’s Company, often working Kong’s right back foot, and sometimes his right elbow. “He feels like he’s alive,” she said, “and when he’s suffering, you want to fight with him on his team.”
Ms. Yalango-Grant is one of two women regularly in the King’s Company. In the one previous production, in Melbourne in 2013, the group was all male; for Broadway Mr. McOnie suggested incorporating women, and they double as members of the ensemble when Kong is not on stage. (“In Melbourne it was clear Kong stood for man — masculine energy — and I wanted to change that,” Mr. McOnie said.)
Three offstage “voodoo operators” control some of the action from a soundproof booth in the theater’s balcony, manipulating Kong’s hips, shoulders, neck, head and facial expressions using joysticks and pedals that operate motors and hydraulics inside his body.
At the same time, an automation operator lifts and lowers the ape’s entire body using winches connected by steel cables to a giant gantry crane in the theater’s fly space overhead. (Kong is too big to fit in a theater’s wings, so he spends his offstage time hanging over the action. One night during an early developmental workshop in Australia, a Kong prototype crashed onto the empty stage; since then, the production has redoubled safety measures, and there have been no major gorilla mishaps.)
The audience perception of Kong’s movement is also enhanced by video projection — as at many contemporary Broadway shows, “King Kong” integrates technology into its scenic design to amplify the sense of a shifting setting.
Kong also has his own movement director, Gavin Robins, who came out of the physical theater world and has experience with acrobatics and aerial choreography. He watched documentaries, YouTube videos, and even “Planet of the Apes” movies, and then Creature Technology did animation studies to figure out how to keep Kong moving in a realistic way.
Of course, even a gorilla has to rest, and Mr. Robins said that one sign of success in Australia was watching how audience members would yawn when Kong did, suggesting they identified with him. (That production was dinged by critics for confused storytelling, but the gorilla won raves. “Eyes will pop, jaws will drop — there’s no doubt about that,” said The Age. And The Guardian called the puppet “a remarkable theatrical achievement.”)
He is Kong. Hear him roar.
Kong is voiced, live, by one of the voodoo operators, Curt James, who creates Kong’s (heavy) breathing, as well as his growls, moans, cries, sighs, sneezes, grunts and barks. Mr. James’s voice is digitally modulated — processed and mixed with sampled sounds — in real time to make it deeper and more animalistic.
“I want to sound as authentically gorilla-like as possible,” said Mr. James, a classically trained British actor who found his way into bunraku productions in London and then spent years in “War Horse” and the recent revival of “Angels in America” (helping to animate the angel’s wings). Mr. James, on all fours, has also played Kong in rehearsals, when the actors train without the puppet.
“We might slightly bend naturalism, as all theater does, but we don’t want to go into anthropomorphic territory,” he said. “The only way this story works is to keep him as animal-like as possible.”
What about the story?
The “King Kong” musical follows the outlines of the original 1933 movie: a terrifyingly large creature, residing in a place called Skull Island, who is captivated by a young woman (Ann Darrow), captured by a filmmaker (Carl Denham), and transported to New York so his monstrousness can be monetized. He breaks free, rampages through the city, and then scales the Empire State Building with Ann, only to be shot down and die.
Jack Thorne, who won a Tony Award this year for “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” has streamlined and updated the story for the stage; the Australian Eddie Perfect wrote the pop songs, along with a score by the British film composer Marius de Vries.
And reflecting shifting cultural sensibilities, Ann Darrow is no longer a screaming blonde, but a “fearless woman” (that’s the marketing language plastered all over the side of the Broadway Theater), played by an African-American actress, who forges a friendship with Kong.
Kong’s monstrousness itself is also up for debate, since any exploration of the story today raises the question of who is the monster when a wild creature is caged.
“The megalomania behind all this becomes stronger when you’re seeing a creature that’s believable in this actual predicament,” Mr. Robins said. “The more authentic he is as a wild animal, the more powerful the story can be.”