Working like a dog, or cat, on Broadway

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, performs with

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, performs with Lilla Crawford, and her dog Sandy, of Broadway's "Annie," in his portion of the annual Inner Circle show, in New York. (March 23, 2013) (Credit: AP)

The biggest casting upsets of the spring season have been positively inhuman.

Just days before last month's official London opening of "The Audience," starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II, producers fired a corgi named Lizzy because, according to reports, she refused to obey "royal" commands at 16 consecutive previews. She was replaced by Coco, who is two years younger and quicker to run offstage for a treat.

Closer to home, Montie, the understudy cat in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," was sacked for alleged unruliness. He has been succeeded by Moo. But I must say that Vito Vincent, who retains what amounts to a cameo appearance as the feline star of the disappointing adaptation of the Truman Capote novella, did not seem at all happy at the preview I attended.

Vito kept squirming to get away from Emilia Clarke, who plays Holly Golightly, the heroine who, like the ginger bruiser she names Cat, has commitment issues. I suppose we could interpret Vito's reaction to her as a dramatization of a troubled relationship -- you know, as acting.

On the other hand, as any cat person never forgets, these are not creatures who like to be bossed around. (Unlike actors? I never said that.)

Confession: I have mixed emotions whenever an animal comes onto the stage. Like just about anyone with a heart to melt, my first response is the same "aaaw" that spreads throughout the most sober theater audience. But then there is the disconnect. The spell of performance is broken -- and for me, is hard to regain -- as long as there is an unpredictable (and inevitably adorable) reminder of real life in view. Most of all, as the self-appointed unofficial patron saint of show-biz animals, I worry about their treatment.

Bill Berloni, the animal trainer so beloved that Broadway gave him a special Tony in 2011, understands the perceptual glitch that happens when animals take us out of the action. "Whether I am an actor or an audience member, we know we are making believe," he told me in a recent phone interview. "But when an animal comes onstage, we say, 'Wait a minute, this is real.' But, then, if it works with the story, it can be very exciting."

In training, he says, "we do the 'what ifs' to prepare for the unexpected." As much responsibility as Berloni feels for the animals, "I feel as much responsibility to the playwright and the director as does an actor," which is what he intended to be before 1976, when someone at the Goodspeed Opera House promised him an Equity card and a part in a show if he could find and train a dog to play Sandy in a new little musical called "Annie." (An original plan was to use a man in a Sandy suit.)

The dog, whom he famously rescued for $7 at a kill shelter, became a huge star. (The sweet, unassuming Sandy in the current 35th anniversary "Annie" is, of course, one of his.) And thus began Theatrical Animals Inc., a farm in central Connecticut that's home to 23 dogs -- "four currently working" -- plus two cats, four horses, a donkey, a pony, a llama, two pigs, two chickens and a macaw. "The farm animals are mostly for our pleasure," he explains, adding, "I don't work with wild animals. No primates." Cats are the hardest to train because, he says knowledgeably, "they're one generation from being wild."

For something a bit wilder, or at least bigger, the Metropolitan Opera goes to Nancy Novograd and her All-Tame Animals Inc. Although she alarms me by boasting she can deliver anything "from elephants to insects," her opera talent is mainly horses, plus some donkeys (she says Sir Gabriel is "a real doll"), some dogs or, as she told me in a recent phone interview, "whatever the wonderful directors come up with." A chicken is an unlikely supporting character in "War and Peace," along with a dog and a goat. For the newly redone "Falstaff," there are no sheep but a "big magnificent dark bay" to carry a big Falstaff. The old "Carmen" had seven horses. The new "Carmen" has no animals.

Two of the most popular horses are Cordova and Nacho, who were much loved (full disclosure, by me) at Claremont Riding Academy, the last remaining Manhattan stable, which closed in 2007. It was owned by Paul Novograd, Nancy's husband, who has a large horse farm in Maryland.

The Met horses, which are boarded between performances at stables near the city, never leave home without being put through what she calls "a police-horse training program. They are desensitized to flashing lights, sirens, booms, riders with swords -- anything that can make horses stress. They're very big animals. You can't force them to do anything they don't want to do." Also, the Met crew puts down rubber mats and covers electric plates backstage and, as she puts it, "always carves a nice place for the animals."

I wonder, but just for a moment, if it wouldn't be better for everyone to use puppets, as in "War Horse," instead of live creatures. In the new production of "Cinderella," the horses pulling the pumpkin carriage are metal. Berloni agrees that was a "wise decision not to stress two or four horses for just a few minutes onstage."

But then I remember what Berloni said when accepting his Tony. "I'm getting this award for excellence in theater through my work with animals. It's not hard to be excellent when I work with those who have an absolute absence of malice, are forgiving and enjoy working in the moment." Animal moments in the theater should always be so excellent.