As King Kong prepares to bring puppets to Broadway on a giant scale, we examine seven other plays and musicals that use puppetry to tell their stories.
“There’s something we’re innately drawn to, seeing life in objects. I don’t know why, but we all seem to have it,” says Sonny Tilders, the CEO of Global Creatures—one of the globe’s leading innovators in puppetry and animatronics for the stage—and the puppet designer behind Broadway’s King Kong. “I think one of the beauties about puppetry is that we’re sitting there reveling at our own ability to see life in something. That’s why puppetry is so compelling.”
While Broadway is about to witness puppetry on an unprecedented scale, puppets have a long theatrical history—largely as a standalone theatrical artform, but also as a visual storytelling style in more traditional plays and musicals. From Avenue Q to Carnival, Playbill reflects on Broadway plays and musicals that have relied on puppetry to enhance the onstage story.
1. Avenue Q Originally conceived as a TV show, this musical took its inspiration from the popular puppet-heavy children’s show Sesame Street, redefining it for a decidedly adult audience. Gone were Sesame Street’s G-rated characters, in favor of Princeton, a recent college graduate who navigates his post-education life, and a group of colorful neighbors from his neighborhood on Avenue Q. Characters include the internet porn-obsessed Trekkie Monster, longtime roommates Nicky and definitely-not-gay Rod, and of course television’s Gary Coleman. Instead of learning about letters and the importance of sharing, Avenue Q teaches lessons like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and the joys of “Schadenfreude,” or taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes.
Like Sesame Street, most of the characters in Avenue Q are puppets, though unlike the children’s show, the musical leaves the operators in full view of the audience throughout. Actor-puppeteers operate the vast majority of the using their hand to control the mouth and their other hand to control the puppet’s arms by manipulating rods. Other puppets, like Trekkie Monster (modeled somewhat after Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster) feature two full arm and hand “gloves,” and require a second puppeteer to operate. Rick Lyon conceived and designed the array of puppets for the show, and originated the role of Trekkie Monster.
With a score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and a book by Jeff Whitty, Avenue Q premiered at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre in March, 2003, transferring to Broadway in July of the same year. The show went on to become the Tony-winning Best Musical of 2003, famously taking the award over Broadway juggernaut Wicked. The show closed on Broadway in September, 2009, but re-opened just a few months later again Off-Broadway, where it continues to run today at New World Stages.
2. War Horse Adapted by Nick Stafford from Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novella, the play tells the story of a boy and his beloved horse, who find themselves separated and serving in World War I. Challenged with depicting the horse Joey as a young foal to a full-grown horse, director Marianne Elliott recruited the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa to develop a series of life-size horse puppets for Joey and the other horse characters. They developed a puppet that, with a group of five fully-visible puppeteers, was truly able to create the illusion of a living, breathing horse on the stage, a vital achievement when the play’s story relies on the audience’s emotional connection with the horse.
3. Little Shop of Horrors It was book writer, lyricist, and director Howard Ashman’s idea to turn Roger Corman’s low-budget 1960 horror movie The Little Shop of Horrors, about a man-eating plant from outer space, into a musical. Though the idea seemed crazy, he recruited Alan Menken—who had collaborated with Ashman on a successful Off-Broadway musical in 1979 titled God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater—to write the music. What they came up with defied the odds and became one of the most successful Off-Broadway musicals ever. (A recent semi-staged production played The Kennedy Center October 2018.)
One of Ashman’s biggest challenges in bringing the sci-fi classic to the stage was Audrey II, a venus flytrap-like plant that talks, sings, and eats actors during the action of the musical. He found Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer best known for operating Mr. Snuffleupagus and other characters on Sesame Street, who designed and operated the Audrey II puppets in the original Off-Broadway production in 1982. Robinson built four plants to illustrate the plant’s growth from tiny pod to full-grown man-eating menace. The two smallest puppets were relatively simple hand puppets, while the plant’s last two sizes require an operator on the inside.
Since the original production, new versions of the popular musical have built upon what Robinson created. The 1987 film adaptation added animatronic lip movements so complex that most scenes with the plant were filmed at half speed and then sped up for the final film. A 2003 Broadway production added hydraulics that allowed Audrey II to take up the entire proscenium of the Virginia (now August Wilson) Theatre and extend over five rows of the audience. Recent concert productions at the Kennedy Center (in 2018) and New York’s City Center (in 2015) dispensed with puppets altogether, using only the actor voicing the character instead.
4. Hand to God Robert Askins’ Hand to God featured fairly simple sock puppets, but they were an important part of the show’s scary—and hilarious—story. Set in the small religious town of Cypress, Texas, Hand to God centers on a troubled teenager and his recently-widowed mom. Both mother and son participate in their local church’s puppet club, but the latter’s puppet Tyrone takes on a life of its own, declaring itself Satan and causing much drama and trouble for everyone.
Hand to God’s puppets were designed by Marte Johanne Ekhougen, a visual artist with experience working as a scenic, costume, and creature designer. Though designed to look like simple sock puppets, they also had moveable arms and hands that allowed original star Steven Boyer to fully create the illusion that Tyrone was possessed and acting independently.
After three hit Off-Broadway engagements in 2011, 2012, and 2014, Hand to God premiered on Broadway in 2015 and went on to run through early 2016. Boyer won a Lucille Lortel Award in 2014 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play, and the Broadway production earned five 2015 Tony Award nominations, including Best Play.
5. The Lion King Broadway’s most famous—and longest-running—show of puppets is undeniably The Lion King. Disney’s animated film that roughly re-tells Shakespeare’s Hamlet but set in Africa’s pride lands has no human characters. When they endeavored to bring the popular movie to the stage, Disney knew that literal translations of the animated character designs would not allow the story to work on a Broadway stage. Visual artist and director Julie Taymor, then best known for visually stunning productions of Shakespeare, was brought on board to bring The Lion King to Broadway. Taymor, along with Michael Curry, designed countless masks and puppets that allowed a company of 38 to become animals, from gazelles and hyenas to a giant elephant.
Like many other shows on this list, Taymor and Curry opted to leave most of their human performers visible while operating their puppets for the “double event” concept. Influenced by Indonesian shadow puppetry and Japanese Bunraku, the style of puppet varies dramatically from character to character. Lions wear masks as a headdress; for some characters, like Scar, the mask can pivot down in front of the actor’s face for fight scenes. Actors portraying giraffes wear headdresses that represent the animal’s neck and head while walking with stilts attached to all four limbs for the legs. Timon’s feet are connected to his actor’s feet, while his mouth is operated by the actor’s hand. The production won the Tony for Best Costume Design of a musical for Taymor as well as Outstanding Puppetry Design for Taymor and Curry at the Drama Desk Awards (a category that does not exist at the Tonys).
The inventive visual storytelling of The Lion King helped make the show a massive hit. It opened on Broadway in November 1997 and continues to run today, making it the third longest-running production in Broadway history. After success on Broadway, including winning Best Musical at the 1998 Tony Awards, The Lion King has spawned productions around the world, including national tours, on London’s West End, and even a Tokyo production that has been running almost as long as the Broadway production.
6. The Green Bird This modern adaptation of a 17th-century fable tells the story of a prince trapped inside a bird. Taymor directed a production in 1996 at Off-Broadway’s New Victory Theatre, with elaborate masks and puppets she designed. After her wild success on Broadway with The Lion King, The Green Bird came to Broadway in 2000. Though the production received rave reviews for Taymor’s visual style, including a Tony Award nomination for Best Costume Design, The Green Bird failed to captivate audiences in the same way that Lion King did and ran for just 56 performances.
7. Carnival! This 1961 Broadway musical was based on the 1953 film Lili, which tells the story of a French girl whose naïveté pushes her to play out a relationship with a carnival puppeteer through four of his puppets. The original production starred Jerry Orbach as puppeteer Paul Berthalet opposite Anna Maria Alberghetti as Lili. The two carried out their love affair while operating four puppets (Carrot Top, Horrible Henry, Margueritte, and Renardo the Fox), designed by Tom Tichenor, known for his puppet designs used in early children’s theatres and television. As in Hand to God, the puppets of Carnival! were intended in the story to be puppets, and thus were created as the type of hand puppets one would expect to see in an old-fashioned puppet show.
With a score by Bob Merrill and a book by Michael Stewart, Carnival! was a hit when it premiered on Broadway in 1961, winning Tony Awards for its scenic design (by Will Steven Armstrong) and for Alberghetti’s performance. The show has not yet been revived on Broadway, though notable revivals brought the show back to New York in 1968 with the New York City Center Light Opera Company, and in 2002 as part of the City Center Encores! series. The latter, starring Anne Hathaway and Brian Stokes Mitchell, featured puppets designed by the Jim Henson Company Muppet Workshop.
8. King Kong Broadway’s newest puppet is also its largest. Bringing the giant Empire State Building-climbing ape to the stage (following the classic 1933 film) required the development of a ground-breaking puppet unlike anything previously seen on the stage. Weighing in at one ton and measuring two stories tall, King Kong was developed by Global Creatures in Australia for a 2013 production in Melbourne. The production that has now come to Broadway features a new book and score from the Australian production, but Kong is the same. Combining marionette puppet techniques with sophisticated animatronic controls, King Kong is operated by hydraulics, automation, and manual manipulation by a team of puppeteer-aerialists. What they hope to have created is a puppet capable of showing a wide range of emotions, allowing the audience to be taken on a journey that sees the ape forging an unlikely kinship with Ann Darrow (played on Broadway by Christiani Pitts), while also having to escape the clutches of his would-be captors and climbing the Empire State Building in rage.
King Kong began performances at the Broadway Theatre October 5 and is scheduled to open November 8.