Never work with children or animals goes the common stage idiom; the original wordsmith clearly never met actor Kennedy Kanagawa, who is currently starring in Broadway’s Into the Woods as the audience favorite: the cow Milky White.
November 5 marks the 35th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Into the Woods in 1987, which has since delighted audiences across the globe. One of the musical’s most beloved characters is its “cow as white as milk,” the charmingly comedic Milky White. Originally a static set piece carried on and off stage as needed, Broadway’s favorite bovine has been brought to life in abundant professional and community productions in a variety of ingenuous ways. Entire social media accounts are dedicated to her endless variations (both clever and concerning), but the 2022 Broadway revival took things a step further.
Now brought to life by Kanagawa, the production utilizes a puppet Milky White that has captivated the theatre community. Fans have constructed their own replicas of the puppet for at home use, Moo! related merchandise is flying off the shelves, and one intrepid audience member even had Milky White’s likeness tattooed.
@ashleyhufford I am a firm believer in getting tattoos I make you smile #milkywhite #intothewoods #intothewoodsmusical #intothewoodsnycc #intothewoodsbway #broadwaytattoo #theatertattoo #kennedykanagawa #sondheim #sondheimtattoo ♬ Giants in the Sky (From the Musical into the Woods)[Piano Audition Backing Track in Ab] - The Accompanist
Playbill sat down with Kanagawa to discuss what it takes to bring such a beloved bovine to life every night, and how his work as an actor transforms the puppet into something undeniably alive.
How did Milky White enter your life?
Kennedy Kanagawa: I actually didn’t audition. James Ortiz (the productions puppet designer) DM’d me on Instagram, and asked if I was free in May. We had worked together before, so he messaged me to tell me he was “working on this thing.”
This was my very first puppetry experience. James and I were given free reign by Lear [deBessonet, the director of the production] to go off on our own. It was a really collaborative experience.
What do you think is different about Milky White in this production, compared to her predecessors?
Milky White is a unique puppet. The mechanics to operate her are specific to her; it is not like a universal sock puppet or marionette. She has a movement vocabulary and breathing that shows she is alive on stage, coughing, being happy versus being sad.
She has a face that is frozen but we show that she lives in her body. Her spine is threaded with bungee cord so she can twist and turn, and she has a little bit of stretch to her. Her legs are stiff, and don’t have any joints in them, but they’re also attached with bungee cords so they can swing freely. And there’s a little lever at the top of her head within her head handle that lets her mouth open and close.
You seem to have the most emotive control with her mouth and head.
Yes, definitely. The legs are more of an accuracy approximation. It kind of works for the character, because she’s so clumsy and on the verge of death — so pathetic that her owner is selling her off, because she’s of no use. It kind of works in our favor that she’s floppy and endearing and kind of a mess.
Where did the decision come in to make the puppeteer as much of the character as the puppet?
James was clear from the beginning that he didn’t want “all black concealed ninja” style puppeteering that some puppet shows utilize. He very much wanted the puppeteer to be their own character that was a part of the story, and a part of the world.
I keep my focus on the puppet the entire time, so that the audience knows to direct their gaze to the puppet. I can’t help but have sympathetic movements and expressions to go along with her while acting the puppet, without taking away from the puppet’s performance. I highlight and accent what’s going on with her until I separate away.
Milky White’s death scene was a fun thing to figure out. When it came time to block that scene in the rehearsal room, I just dropped the cow and ran offstage, and everyone in the room laughed. We kept it!
To see Kanagawa and Milky White in action, check in with the stars below!