The mythic creature most associated with New York City is headed to Broadway this fall in the spectacular new musical King Kong — and when it comes to the title character, spectacular is most definitely not hyperbole. Standing 20 feet tall and weighing in at 2,000 pounds, Kong will thunder on stage at the Broadway Theatre thanks to an innovative marriage of puppetry and animatronics. Not only does the giant gorilla go to battle with an evil cobra and climb the Empire State Building, his face can express emotion as he communicates with his new friend. Previews begin October 5, with opening night set for November 8.
Since his big-screen debut in 1933, King Kong has headlined at least a half dozen major movies, but it took an Australian team spearheaded by creature designer Sonny Tilders and Kong/aerial movement director Gavin Robins to turn this classic “beauty and the beast” tale into a theatrical event, which debuted in Melbourne in 2013. “Kong is essentially a sophisticated marionette hung by giant cables from the roof of the stage,” says Tilders, “but he represents a hybrid of traditional puppetry and mechanics that make you believe you are seeing a sentient being. That’s the most thrilling thing a puppet maker can project.”
Describing Kong as “a moving sculpture,” Tilders explains that the puppet’s skin is made from stretch netting topped with a thin coat of paint. Inside, bean-filled fabric bags simulate muscles that stretch and contract as Kong moves around the stage. The absence of fur emphasizes the raw power of the puppet, adds Tilders. “We said, ‘Let’s create this incredibly masculine thing that feels slightly exposed.’ There’s a lovely balance between making Kong powerful and godlike and yet a fragile creature in the middle of New York. It’s not like any Kong you’ve seen in any other version, and yet it is immediately recognizable as our iconic character.”
A total of 13 performers, informally known as “the King’s Company,” bring Kong to life. Ten are on stage, “manipulating all the physical elements,” says Tilders, “placing the puppet’s hands and feet in the right spots and pulling ropes, like bell ringers, to lift an arm.” The other three remain off stage and operate hydraulic, electrical, and pneumatic axes via remote control that allow Kong to blink, turn his head, and move his shoulders in a lifelike way. “Kong has to be both terrifying and powerful on one hand and able to express subtle emotion and stillness on the other,” says Tilders. “Both qualities are important.”
For the audience, the King’s Company becomes part of the performance alongside Broadway vets Christiani Pitts (A Bronx Tale), as heroine Ann Darrow, and Eric William Morris (Mamma Mia!), as Carl Denham, a filmmaker who travels to Skull Island to capture Kong and transport him to 1930s-era Manhattan. Enter Gavin Robins, a former acrobat whose mastery of aerial choreography has been seen in stage productions, music videos, and the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Robins and Tilders previously worked together on a How to Train Your Dragon arena show, but King Kong brought their collaboration to an exciting new level.
“From the beginning, I was an advocate for showing off the strength of the puppeteers,” says Robins. “In a sense, Kong’s movements had to celebrate the artists manipulating him on stage. They become an extension of Kong’s psychology and his humanity.” When the gorilla shares his first moment of tenderness with Ann, for example, the puppeteers peer out in curiosity, ducking away when he resumes his gruff demeanor. “There are moments when the ferocity of Kong is extended through the fierceness of the physical performances,” says Robins, “and other times when the audience totally forgets [the puppeteers] and feels that Kong is alive without manipulation.”
The Broadway production of King Kong features a new script by Jack Thorne, the Tony-nominated playwright of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a score by Marius de Vries (La La Land), songs by Eddie Perfect (Beetlejuice), and direction and choreography by Drew McOnie, an Olivier Award winner for the London production of In the Heights and Olivier nominee for Jesus Christ Superstar. “Drew and I understand each other implicitly because we both come from a performance background,” Robins says of McOnie’s new staging. “And his choreography is absolutely stunning. The King’s Company [on Broadway] will have fierce dance skills and the strength to tumble across the floor. When they’re not on Kong, they’re dancing.”
It all adds up to an experience as immediate and thrilling as any movie version of King Kong. “What distinguishes a live theater experience is precisely that,” says Robins. “The audience gasps when Kong appears, and celebrates when he scoops up Ann and runs with her. It creates the strongest reaction I have ever witnessed in the theater, which is absolutely thrilling for me. There simply is nothing like the collective energy of real performers in real space with a live audience.”
In an age when moviegoers have grown used to computer-generated graphics, Tilders senses a hunger for an experience he characterizes as “more tactile,” noting, “This Kong is not on a flat screen. He has genuine dimension and exists in a physical world, and audiences get excited about that. I love the fact that we’re embracing traditional theater skills to create this creature.” After a long and successful career designing life-size dinosaurs, dragons, and assorted sci-fi characters, Tilders sees King Kong as his ultimate achievement. “All the elements have come together to make this the most satisfying show I’ve ever worked on.”