At an early performance of King Kong, the standing ovation went to the 2,000-pound puppet.
Broadway’s new animatronic attraction — the 20-foot-tall gorilla star of the musical based on the 1932 novel that inspired the famous monster movie — took its curtain-call bow with the 10 actors who operated its limbs (while three “voodoo operators” and an automation pro controlled more robotics off stage).
“It’s particularly unheard of what this show had to do,” remarks director-choreographer Drew McOnie, who had the same response as likely everyone else in the world when first presented with the idea a Kong musical: “It was a crazy idea that should probably never be done.”
Seeing the puppet in person “knocked away” those fears. “Kong really is like an actor,” McOnie tells EW — always referring to the puppet as “he” and never “it,” by the way. “Because he’s being manipulated by live humans, there’s an interactivity that you have with any group of actors,” the director continues. “So he’s becoming a very fluid part of the storytelling.”
In some versions of Kong, a crew traverses Skull Island to bring back the gargantuan beast. McOnie only had to go to Australia, where the stage production had its initial run after a lengthy, buzzy development. The puppet went through years of workshopping to become one of the most ambitious creatures realized on stage.
“In the original [Melbourne] production, they would rehearse for six months how to best integrate the mechanics of the puppet,” McOnie explains. “You can climb on him, you can dance on him. The original idea was the voice of Kong was going to sit on Kong’s shoulder and voice him through the back of the head, but what was discovered by the puppet team is, in doing that, he felt like Kong the puppet was subservient to a human. And what we wanted to do was relieve him of that subservience.”
Meanwhile, New York’s Broadway Theatre stayed dark for months while the design team transplanted Kong’s intricate pulley system. Even the human cast didn’t see their headliner until the first day of rehearsals. McOnie was “amazed” by his troupe’s reaction. Instead of rushing up to lay hands on the puppet, they “moved to him very slowly,” maintaining a sense of respect for the work.
“It was important for me that we included Kong in the official meet-and-greet,” he says. “So he was part of the circle we stood in.”
Now the world gets to meet him, which McOnie admits is a “high-pressure” situation. While it’s common for many Broadway-bound productions to test out shows in other cities to work out the kinks before hitting the big city, King Kong went straight to the concrete jungle. “We’re essentially doing our out-of-town try-outs now,” McOnie says, noting “the requirements of the puppet.” After all, not every theater knows how to handle such a beast.
This also means the show — now in previews at the Broadway Theatre, with opening night set for this Wednesday — will be “hugely” different from the version shown during those early previews. “Since the first preview, we’ve done an extraordinary amount of work — more than I’ve worked on any show before,” McOnie says. “This show has become such a fluid response to the audience to feedback, the clarity that’s needed.” Over three days, three scenes were reworked and “brand-new versions of songs” were already composed.
“None of us have slept much,” McOnie admitted last month. “We won’t get much for the next three weeks.” Which means Kong won’t either.