PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: War Horse The Neighs Have It

By Harry Haun
April 15, 2011

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's puppet-and-people-populated War Horse.



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Victor Frankenstein's castle laboratory for the creation of dubious human facsimiles had nothing on the Vivian Beaumont April 14 when a spectacular fire-and-light show was summoned to give dramatic animation to a life-sized, puppet-crafted horse and send him charging into any available heart in the audience.

War Horse is a play that loves theatre and all its effects and draws on not a few of them to camouflage the fact that this is actually the sort of broad-strokes plot that adolescent boys used to encounter in storybook form. Behind its massive smokescreen, you'll find a simplistic tale of a boy and his horse. The boy is Albert, an English farm lad of 16 whose chestnut horse is sold to the British Cavalry and shipped off to the French trenches of World War I.

Surely you don't have to be told the boy follows suit, from plowfield to battlefield, dodging bullets and bayonets to bring back his beloved Joey. Yes, that's the name of the horse. Not Trigger. Not Trevor. Not Colin. Joey. And when Adrian Sutton's musical score kicks up a major fuss over the war-hardships that the horse endures, it sounds a little like a dirge version of Frank Loesser's "Joey, Joey, Joey."

It's a sentimental journey, but it served Lassie well for many a moist movie. Here you hardly notice that familiar terrain because of bombasts of great theatricality.

"I'd say I'm speechless," Michael Morpurgo admitted, once the stage pyrotechnics had ceased and the party fireworks had started across the way from the Beaumont on three floors of Avery Fisher Hall. War Horse was born in his brain, after all. He committed it to paper and published it as a children's book in 1982, so he was understandably nonplused at what he had spectacularly wrought.

"It was stunning to see the energy of these American actors. Their intensity was quite amazing. They brought to this show something completely unforgettable. The first half was beautiful and lyrical, extraordinary, and, when it went to hell in the second half, it was a darker place than I have ever been with the show before.

"I would say that it has been reinvented for this country. That's what good about the National Theatre — what they've done instead of just coming in with a new show from the U.K. and saying, 'Well, we'll plunk it on the stage in America, and it's fine.' It's not fine, actually, because the Americans are not the same as the British. Why should we stick the same package here? These American actors come at this with a different history, a different kind of background altogether, and I think that Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, who co-directed this show, realized that this was a chance to look at the script and the music again and sharpen everything."

Exactement! nodded Morris, a youngish 46 who, conditioned to The Grand Scale, will be trying his hand at opera next (called The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams). "We've reworked the show for this version," he said of War Horse. "It's a strange show because it's not like a conventional play where you start with the words and then you work at how to interpret those words.

"Really, we started with the novel and a puppet, and then everyone including the writer [lest he be forgot: Nick Stafford] responded to that. The first time we made the show, a lot of it was devised in the rehearsal room. The writer would come in and respond to that, and we'd edit the writing.

"A lot of this story is told by the design or the puppetry or the music instead of words. Rae Smith did the sets and costumes; the lighting is by Paule Constable, who is extraordinary. And the video [animation and projection design] was done by a company called 59 Productions. All those people worked on the first version, but, when we came to remake the show here, we kept as many as we could from the original creative team. Some of the things that we weren't happy with in the London version, we decided to try to make them better over here. And, with the great hospitality of Andre Bishop and Bernie Gersten at Lincoln Center Theater, we did just that. We said, 'We're not just going to do three weeks rehearsal and stand the thing up. It won't work like that. We need a proper rehearsal period so we can really re-imagine the show,' and that's what we've done.

"I think that people do respond very emotionally to the show, and I think there's something rather beautiful about theatre in that. I think part of the emotional response is because it's really clear that this is not a real horse. From the beginning, when you can see the baby horse, you see three puppeteers standing around it. The audience wants it to be a real horse so the audience makes it a real horse. That's why audiences feel so much about it, because they have imagined the thing into life."

The visual impact of this stage show is so stunning that it is not surprising that there have been film nibbles in the past. "We tried to work on a film 15 years ago and failed to get it going," confessed Morpurgo. "Then, this play came about by pure accident. Tom Morris was looking for a subject for the Handspring Puppet Company, for those wonderful South African puppeteers, and what he did was look around for a book where the central hero was an animal. He just couldn't find one — and then his mum, who's here tonight, said, 'Oh, Tom, I just read this book, 'War Horse.' Read it. It's fantastic.' He read it. And, since his own grandfather had been to the First World War — with horses, it resonated, and the next thing I knew they were putting it on.

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T. Ryder Smith
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"Then Steven Spielberg comes along, sees the show and wants to make a movie of it. It's all done. It's coming out the 28th of December in the U.S. John Williams, I believe, has just done the music. The actors are all British because they're British characters, and the French actors are French, and the German actors are German. He's done it wonderfully. It's a whole new experience from the stage."

Director Jack O'Brien, who is coming from the opposite direction (having just turned a Spielberg film, "Catch Me If You Can," into a stage piece), readily attested to the changes the property has gone through crossing the Atlantic. "Oh, they've done a huge job on it," he said. "The film images are more articulate and elaborate. The second act is tighter. The horses go up and down the aisles now. And also you've got the depth of that theatre which you don't have in London. Nobody's been that far back since Henry IV. Some of my dead bodies are back there."

Another testimony from one who has seen it on both sides now — agent Lionel Larner, a Brit who says, "Blast chauvinism!" "To me, it was better than in London," he contended. "Maybe it's unfair to say, but I thought the performances were stronger. Tonight, I thought everyone was extremely strong. The performances were dynamite. The whole thing was magical. It's amazing how after a minute you're completely seduced by those horses, and you're laughing and crying and you totally care about those horses. I think it'll be the prestige hit of the season."

Seth Numrich, who just made his Broadway debut as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice but has been turning in extraordinary performances Off-Broadway for a while (On the Levee, Slipping, Blind, Dutch Masters), is the Albert whose time has come, playing the part with easy authority and earnest passion. He's acutely aware of the emotions that are triggered in the audience. "At the end, there's some very vocal reactions, and I can hear all of that, " he said. "It's really powerful to know we're affecting the audience in that way. I'm really happy that it's reaching people and that people are walking away with a great experience. I'm so honored to be a part of this experience, this production. Everything about it has been amazing. I feel like the luckiest actor alive."

His cousin Billy who troops off to war as well is played Matt Doyle in his third Broadway show (and first nonmusical). Both were congratulated by Streamers actor Hale Appleman, a recent co-star of theirs who plays a modern-dress version of Mercutio to Numrich's Romeo and Doyle's Juliet in a film the trio just did with writer-director Alan Brown called "Private Romeo."

Stephen Plunkett, who gets a memorable battlefield exit in the first act, also hails from On the Levee and was congratulated by that show's composer, Todd Almond, who is now doing the songs for Warren Leight's stage adaptation of John Knowles' classic 1959 bromance, A Separate Peace.


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Mariska Hargitay tried to stay demurely on the sidelines like the good wife while hubby Peter Hermann was being interviewed about his portrayal of a kind German doctor. Did Hermann the German make for an easy casting? "I think that it's always a great mystery what ends up getting you the role. You just never know."

Tell that to Leenya Rideout who plays Joey as a foal or T. Ryder Smith who plays Albert's uncle. "I guess I only do boy-and-his-horse shows," he said, "this and Equus, and if they do Three Men on a Horse on Broadway, I'm in." [They're doing it now, in fact, Off-Broadway in a production by TACT/The Actors Company Theatre, on Theatre Row to April 23.]

Theatregoer Lorenzo Pisoni, who played Nugget, the lead horse, in Broadway's last Equus and is now doing for Shakespeare in the Park, took note of the horse-puppetry here. "It's a different thing than what we did, but it's incredible," he said. "This is the second time I've seen it." As for his young master taking up another kind of hoofing, it didn't surprise him. "Daniel [Radcliffe] was always singing backstage."

The play's fight director, Tom Shaw, who, like B.H. Barry, slogs on with this lost art, admitted that he had his hands full with World War I combat. His spring plate is full, coming to this assignment from A Free Man of Color and The House of Blue Leaves. Now, he's girding his loins for some Shakespeare in the Park.

An unexpected recruit for this play, wig master Paul Huntley, revealed he provided facial hair for the troops — and, knowing him, extra mane for the horses.

Larry Villa and his wife came in from Clinton, IA, to see son Zach make his Broadway debut. "See" isn't quite the right word, but they knew where he was. There are three different teams of horses, usually three-man units each, and they are democratically rotated. "He plays the main horse tomorrow night, not tonight," explained Dad. "Tonight, he was one of the wounded horses and one of the wounded soldiers. He does a lot of different things in this show." When his son arrived at the party, he confirmed that he'd be Star Horse the following night — "but I'm in the back. Don't tell anybody I'm a horse's ass." Your secret is safe with me.

Since retiring from Mrs. Warren's Profession in November, Cherry Jones has been catching up on theatre, she was happy to say. "Yesterday, I saw the Andre Gregory-Wally Shawn Master Builder on East 10th Street, and it is magnificent. It'll have to move, so as many people who should see it will see it. Julie Haggerty is in it, and so is Lisa Joyce, who was Sister Jane in the tour of Doubt. She's really unbelievable in this."

Slipping in under everybody's radar, under the mighty cloak of the National, was a startlingly svelte Simon Russell Beale, who returns in August to play a mini-cab driver with some pretty heavy fare in a 2005 play by Simon Stephens called Bluebird. Next, in November, he said, he'll be returning to the National Theatre in London to play Stalin in Collaborators, the debut play of John Hodge, the author of "Trainspotting" and "Shallow Grave." It imagines a meeting between the Soviet dictator and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov.

Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Nicholas Hytner, co-artistic head of the National Theatre and twice a Tony-winning director on these shores (Carousel and The History Boys), said Collaborators and its new Cherry Orchard would make the cut for next season's "National Theatre Live Broadcasts" which are beamed abroad.

Also brandishing her British roots was "Sex and the City"-transplant Kim Cattrall, who finally expects to be on Broadway in November, reprising the Private Lives hit she did for director Richard Eyre on the West End a year ago — but Amanda's Elyot, Matthew Macfadyen, isn't coming with her. "He just got a new baby," she explained. A new American cast looks likely.

While waiting for hubby Maxwell Caulfield to join the party late from Cactus Flower, Juliet Mills scratched the scoop she gave me three parties ago. It now develops that she won't be doing the new Alan Ayckbourn, after all — the 73th play for the 73-year-old playwright, which will be surfacing in December as part of 59E59's Brits Off-Broadway series. "It meant returning to England for an eight-month commitment so I turned it down," the actress relayed. "I loved the play, though — and all of Alan's work. In fact, Max and I toured 20 towns in 20 weeks last year in Alan's Bedroom Farce."

Broadway's Boswell, Rick McKay, expects to Christmas-release the second of his film-documentary trilogy on The Great White Way — "Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age" — and rattled off its stars like a tobacco auctioneer: "Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Liza Minnelli, Al Pacino, Vanessa Redgrave, Dick Van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, the entire original casts of Chicago and A Chorus Line — and more unknown, anonymous dancers than stars. I wanted to tell their stories, too."

Composer-conductor Andre Previn was singing the praises of the production at his table — "remarkable, absolutely remarkable."

Mixing among the visiting Brits like Mamma Mia! producer Judy Craymer and Noel Coward flame-keeper Barry Day were homies like Elaine Stritch, TV's Regis Philbin and wife Joy, producer-actress Tamara Tunie and hubby-singer Gregory Generet, Das Barbecu wordsmith Jim Luigs and producer Liz McCann.

A lot of Lincoln Center Theater alums were in attendance: director-choreographer Graciela Daniele and lighting designer Jules Fisher, its Abe Lincoln in Illinois (Sam Waterston), prolific playwright A.R. "Pete" Gurney Jr. with his Molly, South Pacific director Bartlett Sher and Austin Pendleton, currently the book writer of the Mitzi Newhouse's Candida musical, A Minister's Wife.

Richard Easton must have found the evening vaguely déjà vu, having survived the Somme Valley slaughter once, when it was fought below Beaumont in the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre in Frank McGuinness' 2003 Observe the Sons of the Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, and now having to review that tragic scene again through the eyes of a horse in the field.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman currently has designs on the Newhouse for a musical Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens are writing for her. "It still needs a name," she allowed, "but we'll know a lot more in June when we do a workshop. It'll be great to be back in the building."

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