After Sonny Tilders completed the feat of bringing to life prehistoric reptilian creatures in his Walking With Dinosaurs, the Australian puppet designer and founder of Global Creatures felt compelled to conquer the next level up in extreme puppetry. That desire initiated the conceit of King Kong as theatre. “The whole idea of the musical,” says Tilders, “was, ‘Let’s do something that really takes puppetry beyond spectacle to story and narrative.’”
Twelve years and hundreds of designs of an overgrown silverback gorilla later, the musical adaptation of the 1933 film classic strikes the Great White Way at the Broadway Theatre. Unlike the puppets of Broadway’s War Horse or The Lion King, King Kong is a 2,000-pound, two-story-tall marionette.
Don’t let that simplistic descriptor fool you. With 45 individual axes (a.k.a. points of movement—from an eyelid to an elbow joint) Kong operates on three basic levels: a marionette foundation with roped rigging; motorized elements dictating Kong’s facial expressions operated live by four “Voodoo” artists; and the onstage King’s Company, ten performers who manually maneuver his limbs while also doubling as the musical’s ensemble.
Movement director Gavin Robins—whose sole responsibility is to choreograph each millimeter of Kong’s movement while director Drew McOnie serves as choreographer in the traditional sense—drafted his King’s Company like the Navy Seals of ensembles. On top of singing, dancing, and acting talent, he required animalistic core strength, acrobatic skills, parkour or gymnastics training, and an innate affinity for teamwork.
“A principle of puppetry [dictates] that the head and the intelligence and the thought of the character is leading the rest of the movement,” says Robins. He had the Company “mark through the psychology of every scene and get them all to play Kong, beat to beat. So even if you’re operating the left foot, you’re aware of what the entire body is doing with each moment.”
But the King’s Company aren’t just the visible levers of Kong; their emotions channel through him and, in keeping with Bunraku puppetry principle, the audience is meant to experience the duality of puppet and puppeteer.
In the iconic moment when Kong swipes a plane out of the sky, a Company member stands on his shoulder to connect a rope and then dives off; the freefalling weight of the Company member acts like a lever to lift the silverback’s arm. “We see the virtuosity and the risk-taking of a performer jumping off Kong’s shoulder, and we see the fragility of a human life taking that risk,” says Robins. “It becomes this kamikaze image of a puppeteer meeting [that in] Kong, who takes the risk of being on top of the Empire State Building.”
These showstoppping moments combine with minute details—like sound engineers who electronically manipulate and mix a Voodoo artist’s voice in real time to create Kong’s roars and hydraulics inside Kong that give him the appearance of breath—to create a puppet that pulses with energy and ethos.
“Unless the puppet has displayed some sense of emotion, it hasn’t succeeded or been worthwhile,” Tilders urges. “We want people to believe King Kong to the extent that you have great empathy for him. I didn’t want it to be a parade of technology. I want people to go, ‘Wow, he’s so alive.’”
King Kong plays at the Broadway Theatre (1681 Broadway between 52nd & 53rd Streets) in an open-ended run, with previews from October 5 and an opening night set for November 8.