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Pulling the Strings: 'King Kong' and The Evolution of Puppetry on Broadway

Category Broadway

|by Mark Robinson |


As ‘King Kong’ breaks ground with its central character, we’re looking back at some of the most innovative uses of puppets on Broadway

King Kong just opened on Broadway, and everyone seems to be in agreement that the giant puppet that is the show’s central character is spectacular stage magic and engineering. It is not typical, but it is also not impossible, for puppets to figure into musicals. Today, we take a look back at some of the plays and musicals that have utilized puppets in their storytelling.

The puppets of ‘King Kong’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The puppets of ‘King Kong’ on Broadway (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Flahooley
The 1951 musical Flahooley is not one that many people know, though they should definitely take some time to listen to its glorious Sammy Fain / E.Y. Harburg score. The musical takes place in a doll factory where the toys sing the chirpy “You Too Can Be a Puppet.” These dolls were puppets, operated by Bill Baird and his wife Cora. You may remember the Bill Baird marionettes from the “Lonely Goatherd” sequence in the film The Sound of Music. Flahooley had a short run on Broadway, mostly attributed to its anti-McCarthyism undertones that struck fear in critics who were afraid of being blacklisted, not to mention a complicated plot that was sometimes hard to follow.

Carnival!
The 1961 musical Carnival! was adapted from the 1953 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Lili, about an orphan who joins a traveling carnival. One of the performers who befriends the young girl is Paul Berthalet, a puppeteer who was injured in the war. Emotionally repressed, the only way he can interact with Lili is through his puppets. Among his menagerie are Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Marguerite, and Reynardo the Fox, each representing a part of their operator’s psyche. The puppets were designed and created by Tom Tichenor. Carnival! features a score by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart. Both Carnival! and Lili were inspired by the book Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico.

Little Shop of Horrors
How do you bring a man-eating plant to life? Why, you use a puppet, of course. One of the requirements of the 1982 Off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors was that a blood-slurping, Venus Flytrap-like plant that feeds off humans figured prominently in the plot. Martin Robinson rose to the task, creating unforgettable puppets that captured the musical’s sci-fi roots while demonstrating its growing size. According to Robinson, “the original set of plants was very simple and entirely operated by one person.” Little Shop of Horrors features music by Alan Menken and book & lyrics by Howard Ashman, who gave us the scores for the Disney films The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Nunsense
The Little Sisters of Hoboken are having a fundraising talent show? Why? Because 52 members of their convent have died from food poisoning and they have to pay for their burials. As they put together their acts, one of the sisters, Sister Mary Amnesia (who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head), reveals a special talent. She is a puppeteer and, for the show, she introduces the foul-mouthed Sister Mary Annette (Get it? Marionette?). Nunsense (1985) is full of off-color humor, found in both the story and the score by creator Dan Goggin, but nothing tops the frank and funny Sister Mary Annette.

Avenue Q
Not all puppets are innocent and created for children’s entertainment. The 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q gave us a whole new side of puppets that was naughty, foul-mouthed, and sexually active. Even some of the show’s advertising asserted the caution of “Full Puppet Nudity.” Avenue Q is (without outright saying so) a spoof of Sesame Street, a mixture of live-actors and puppets living in the same NYC community, learning lessons of unemployment, paying bills, sex and being an adult. John Tartaglia, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Jennifer Barnhart and Rick Lyon, who operated and voiced the show’s puppets, were all Sesame Street alums. Lyon’s company Lyon Puppets designed and built such characters as Kate Monster, Princeton, Trekkie Monster, Rod, Nicky and Lucy T. Slut.

Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass
Before Julie Taymor redefined the theatrical use of puppetry in The Lion King, she created a startling world using her theater craft in the Lincoln Center produced Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass. The piece originated Off-Broadway in 1988, but it wasn’t until LCT recreated the piece for their space in the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in 1996 that the masses had the opportunity to appreciate its artistry. A combination of live actors and spectacular puppets, the musical (music and lyrics by Elliott Goldenthal), set in South America, told the story of a tiger cub that is turned into a human being. Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass was nominated for Best Musical at the 1997 Tony Awards.

The Lion King
If Julie Taymor impressed with Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass, she blew our minds with her sheer artistry and creativity in bringing the Disney animated film The Lion King to the Broadway stage. The magnitude of the production, a stunning blend of puppetry, mask-building, costume creation and the utilization of theater magic from a variety of cultures, made The Lion King the must-see musical of the 1997-1998 season. Given the lion’s share of creative control as one of the show’s creators, designers and its director, not to mention a budget that only Disney can provide, Taymor brought to life the world of the lion cub Simba and the myriad animals that populated his African home of the Pride Lands.

War Horse
Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo’s novel War Horse for the Royal National Theatre in 2007 and it eventually came to Broadway’s Lincoln Center in 2011 where it won the Tony Award for Best Play. Under the direction of Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the play required some elaborate puppetry to depict the animals of the story’s plot. The life-size horse puppets were created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa and horse choreography was staged by Toby Sedgwick. The story follows one-particular horse who goes through several owners and adventures during World War I.

Hand to God
In 2015, a Broadway play about a puppet delighted audiences with its offbeat humor. Robert Askins’s Hand to God is about a possessed puppet belonging to a member of a Christian ministry puppet troupe. Taking on a life of its own, the puppet declares that he is Satan and begins to lead members of the church into temptation. A hilarious use of puppetry in a play, Hand to God was nominated for a 2015 Tony Award for Best Play.

The Woodsman
One of the more arresting uses of puppetry in recent years was in the 2016 Off-Broadway play with music called The Woodsman. Written by James Ortiz, with music by Edward W. Hardy and lyrics by Jen Loring, the musical tells the story of the Tin Woodman from the L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the tragic events that led to his becoming a man made out of tin. Among the haunting puppets in the show are a frightfully horrific witch, an oversized ferocious beast, and, ultimately, the title character himself. James Ortiz designed the memorable puppets and also starred as Nick Chopper, who eventually would become the beloved Tin Woodsman.

King Kong
And here we are, back to the present, reveling in the towering magic of King Kong. The puppet is 20 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. This puppet requires 14 performers and 16 microprocessors to operate, making it one of the most-elaborate examples of puppet engineering to ever grace the Broadway stage. The King Kong puppet/animatronic was designed and created by Sonny Tilders, who was inspired by Indonesian depictions of Hanuman, a Hindu monkey king.   

Mark Robinson is the author of the two-volume encyclopedia The World of Musicals, The Disney Song Encyclopedia, and The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs. He maintains a theater and entertainment blog at markrobinsonwrites.com.

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