Broadway has gone to the dogs — or, more accurately, — to the dogs, the wolves, the goat, the cow and the elephant.
In the past, theatregoers have relied on Disney for their Broadway bestiary — the Mouse gave us both The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. But in the 2001-2002 theatre season, a diverse group of theatre artists — from an African-American playwright in her Broadway debut to America's most respected living musical composer — have brought New York down on the farm and into the woods.
"I am not an animal! I am a human being!" That cry from the film version of The Elephant Man has come to personify the message of Bernard Pomerance play about John Merrick (Billy Crudup), a deformed Londoner who became a medical sensation during the Victorian Era. A rare disease caused the tumors that distorted Merrick's face and body, but an enterprising freak show operator noticed one of the growths was tusk like and dubbed him "The Elephant Man," even making up a story that Merrick's mother had been trampled by elephants while she was pregnant. Despite this disdain, Merrick yearns to be accepted as a normal man and not as the animal and exhibition his keepers think he is.
Topdog/Underdog's Lincoln (Jeffrey Wright) and Booth (Mos Def) are two other human beings who have animal natures hoisted on them by society. In Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Lincoln is the leader of the pack of two, while Booth wants to best his older brother at something besides shoplifting. They spend the drama fighting like, well, dogs, before their battle for supremacy ends with a death.
As in The Elephant Man and Topdog/Underdog, the most touching creatures in Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses aren't animals at all, but human beings transformed by the mercy of the gods. Ceyx, son of the Lucifer the light-bearer, and Alcyon, daughter of the King of the Winds, lose one another in a terrible storm, but Juno, hearing Alcyon's prayers, transforms the lovers into sea birds so they might fly from danger and live together as creatures of the air. Ovid's other beasties are less friendly — a snake ends Eurydice's life and reckless horses throw Phateon from the sun's chariot to his death — but none of them compete with the scheming wolves of Stephen Sondheim James Lapine's Into the Woods. These two hungry carnivores plot and plan their next meal in "Hello, Little Girl," one hungering for the flesh of Little Red Riding Hood, the other for the Three Little Pigs. Thank goodness for Woods' tender relationship between Milky White the cow and her boy Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) to illustrate there can be love between the species!
Not that Jack and Milky White have that kind of relationship. No, that the territory explored by Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, in which Bill Pullman reveals he's having a love affair with the someone — no, something — of the title. The seductive Sylvia has big dark eyes and a very beautiful soul, he insists, but, unfortunately for everyone else involved, she also has hooves and a tail.
Sea birds and Topdogs and goats, oh my! It was a jungle out there in the 2001-02 season. But like in every good zoo, there's a creature on Broadway for everyone.