When your name is the title of the show, you’d better live up to the hype. King Kong the musical won’t have any trouble with that, boasting the biggest star on Broadway (or, really, anywhere else).
Drew McOnie, who’s doing double duty as director and choreographer, talks about flying to Australia to “meet him for the first time” at the home of Kong’s creator Global Creatures. As though a 20-foot-tall gorilla puppet were just another of his actors. “I prepared myself to be underwhelmed, because everyone was going so crazy about him,” he recalls.
“And when I got into the hangar I went, ‘Oh, he’s actually really really big.’ But the thing that really hit me around the head was his eyes. I just wasn’t prepared for the emotional intelligence that his face can create, and his eyes have a real kind of aura and magic around them.”
How King Kong comes to life on Broadway
It’s just one of the many surprising elements of King Kong on Broadway, which reworks the 1933 film into a modern story about shared ambition and empathy courtesy of Harry Potter and the Cursed child playwright Jack Thorne, as well as new songs by Eddie Perfect (Beetlejuice). It’s a change the show needed, according to critics of the original version of the production that ran briefly in Australia in 2013. But everyone agreed: that giant ape is a triumph.
For McOnie, looking into Kong’s eyes came as a “massive relief” about the task ahead of him. “As a director, I’m responsible for the emotional arc of the character, and we have this incredible central character that has to deliver all these emotional beats opposite our leading lady,” he says. “Obviously, it was still mildly terrifying, but at the same time it was a big relief because it really felt like I was dealing with an actor and not just an inanimate object.”
And oh, how King Kong can act, thanks to his team of 14 puppeteers. Onstage, 10 black-clad actors known as the King’s Company hoist his knuckles up via handles and slam them down, beat his chest using pulleys and make him run and even leap into the air. Inside a balcony booth, three “voodoo operators” manipulate the hydraulic motors under his skin to produce an incredible range of facial expressions and body language; and a backstage “creature engineer” raises and lowers him. Kong also has his own “movement director,” Gavin Robins, and his roars and grunts are performed live by one of the voodoo operators, Jon Hoche.
But there’s nothing, not even these photos, that could prepare you for seeing King Kong “alive on Broadway,” as the show’s tagline says. His entrance is a heart-pounding masterwork of suspense; several times during the show, spontaneous applause breaks out from sheer astonishment at his feats; and only the stoniest theatergoers won’t be moved to tears at least once.
And in the biggest surprise of all, McOnie already knew how to tackle working with a character who’s actually made up of 14 people: “It’s both unique and oddly normal to me. My origins are in dance, I have a dance company, and so when you’re dealing with a body of dancers, you’re very used to orchestrating an emotion through a group so you can be delivering it in a unison beat.”