'King Kong' musical eyes New York
The next big thing appears to be big.
Broadway's newest obsession is not happening in midtown, but across the world in Melbourne, Australia, where a huge musical, "King Kong," is gathering forces for an all-but-certain move to a place nearer the Empire State Building.
The show, based on the iconic 1933 movie, has a star gorilla -- an animatronic-marionette hybrid -- who weighs more than a ton and measures, according to producer Carmen Pavlovic, "around 18 feet to the shoulders." The musical opened in June to a mix of reviews that ranged from "dazzling staging ... redefined the musical form" (The Australian) to "intermittently powerful but synthetic spectacle that seeks to be more" (Sydney Morning Herald).
But just about everyone has been wowed by the technology and the emotional appeal of the massive silverback, who is controlled by hydraulics, automation and a team of puppeteers/aerialists. The problems, which Pavlovic tells me are being addressed, involve the integration of the pop-and-'30s music (a mash-up from "Buddy Can You Spare a Dime?" to songs by Sarah McLachlan and Massive Attack's 3D) and the book by Craig Lucas, better known for such sensitive intimacies as "Prelude to a Kiss" and "The Light in the Piazza."
But what appears to be keeping the big guy from moving here before late 2014 is the lack of an available, suitable theater. I guess that, contrary to the old joke, the 800-pound gorilla cannot sit anywhere he wants.
Meanwhile, oddly enough, a very different idea of Kong is stoking theatrical flames through the month for free in parks around Manhattan, Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx as part of SummerStage Theater. This "King Kong" uses music, dance, comedy and Kong mythology to tell what sounds like a wildly daring and subversive story of hip-hop and racial stereotypes.
"There is no giant monkey in our show," stresses Alfred Preisser, founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, who has created the piece with Randy Weiner, immersive-
theater pioneer behind the alt-variety club The Box and the smash environmental Macbeth "Sleep No More" done in a fantasy five-story hotel. "We're not putting the movie on the stage."
Instead, this is the story of the Gold brothers, two Jewish record producers, who -- along with their beautiful secretary, named Faye -- venture into the burning South Bronx of 1978 to capture Kong, a genius hip-hop innovator, and bring him to so-called civilization. According to Preisser, the Bronx at the time, like Skull Island in the movie, has an "almost mythical relationship to the city," a marginalized place that became world famous for being blighted and dangerous.
Weiner, who once worked at a hip-hop label, talks affectionately about "a bunch of Jewish upper-middle-class guys raised in Long Island . . . American show-biz hucksters who go into this dark, wonderful jungle to find the eighth wonder of the world. They find incredible artists. And that tiny speck of the universe in the South Bronx took over the world."
But why Kong? Why now? Pavlovic, in a phone interview from Melbourne, jokes, "In the beginning, 'King Kong: the Musical' sounded a little bit comedic. That's not what I had in mind."
More seriously, she draws parallels with the Depression story and the recent economy, what she calls a "fall from grace" theme. She also mentions the destruction of the environment.
The producer, who has an MA in business administration and has been executive producer of both Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company and Clear Channel Entertainment, also talks about the more practical reasons. When she took over Global Creations, the company responsible for big arena productions of "Walking With Dinosaurs" and "How to Train Your Dragon," she found they had "unwittingly created a form of animatronics that nobody in the world was doing. They created creatures who can get up and walk around.
"It wasn't the biggest leap in the world to come up with 'King Kong,' " she says with disarming frankness. She originally intended it as another arena spectacle and started with the set designs. "But I started focusing on the possibilities in an intimate traditional proscenium. We are dealing with a great love story."
They spent six months to a year exploring the proscenium option. "How do you store Kong, how do you get him on and off the stage, how does he wave his arm without knocking out a cast member -- things you don't normally have to think about in a show. . . . And we didn't want him to be too realistic. We didn't want to do a theme park."
The first Kong, used in a workshop during the show's luxuriously long development, was 10 percent bigger than the current one. "At the top of the Empire State Building, we suddenly realized we were having trouble getting his face and her face into a reasonable frame," she says, not flinching from the inevitable size-matters humor. "He's a lot more effective a performer now. . . . He is so gorgeous. I can't help being in love with him."
Another inevitability is the comparison with another costly spectacle, "Spider-Man, Turn Off the Dark," which had to work out all its growing pains right here for everyone to see in New York. She addressed speculation that, should the Spider guy run out of box-office steam, Kong would fit nicely in the Foxwood Theatre. "There's no pretending that wouldn't be a great theater for us," she says, though "other theaters would be good as well."
She doesn't want to talk about money, partly because most was spent in the development process. Whatever the show has cost (one report has it at more than $30 million, compared to an estimated $75 million for "Spider-Man"), she says that much of the budget went into developing a work in a country with lower labor costs and with an eye toward productions around the world.
Besides, she says pointedly, "Just because you spend a lot of money and have a lot of special effects, it doesn't mean you have a good show."
This is one opinion on which both of our new "Kong" creators would agree.