“Why, in a few months, it’ll be up in lights on Broadway: Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
– Carl Denham
Eighty-five years after Robert Armstrong uttered that line in the original King Kong, the king of Skull Island has made the leap off of screens and onto an actual Broadway stage, with the debut of a new musical now in previews at the Broadway Theatre. It’s not exactly fair to critique the production before their November 8th opening (and there are plenty of folks much better suited to give you a real theater review), but I’m more interested in talking about how the show stacks up as an entry into the Kong canon anyway.*
*Well, that, and raving about how spectacular and beautiful the full-sized Kong puppet is. Seriously, with the help of a small army of puppeteers, this thing gives a remarkable performance. Worth the price of admission by itself.
Note: I am going to spoil many of the specific beats that are unique to this musical, so if you have tickets, maybe save this for after you see the show.
This King Kong began life in 2013 in Melbourne, Australia, as a musical adaptation of, putatively, the King Kong novel by Merian C. Cooper and Delos Lovelace. (This workaround, a way to deal with the Cooper estate instead of with a movie studio when trying to figure out rights, is most obvious to Kong fans when the ship that takes our characters to and from Skull Island is called the Wanderer, as in the novel, instead of the Venture, as in the original film.) The show opened to mixed reviews in Australia, and between that iteration of the show and the version that made it to New York, new writers were brought in to provide new book and lyrics. The new version follows the same general arc that should be familiar to audiences: filmmaker Carl Denham recruits Ann Darrow to join his expedition to shoot a movie on a mysterious island, the island is populated with strange creatures and ruled over by Kong, Kong is captured and brought to New York, he escapes and climbs the Empire State Building, enter the airplanes. This basic story (with some small details changed) is present in the original film, the novel, and both film remakes. But, interestingly, playwright Jack Thorne’s book incorporates elements from the remakes that don’t appear in the original version. Instead of fighting his way through an island full of dinosaurs, the theatrical Kong does (thrillingly staged) battle with a single giant snake, just as he does in the 1976 film remake. And the play opens with a sequence depicting Ann Darrow’s struggles finding work as an actress in Depression-era New York City, much more reminiscent of the extended look at Ann’s life that we got in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. There has also been a general trend in the remakes (and this musical) to get more explicit about the darker shadings to Denham’s character, to look for ways to combat the “damsel in distress” element of Ann’s character, and to introduce more notes of genuine (and mutual) tenderness in the relationship between Kong and Ann.
The change to Denham’s character is interesting, as it is incredibly understandable (the world has changed since 1933 and it’s all but impossible to imagine a heroic character causing that much death and destruction, to humans and endangered or extinct species alike, in pursuit of making money in the entertainment industry) and because no storyteller could have as much natural sympathy for Denham as his creators would, since he was basically their alter-ego. The play’s Denham has shades of the Jack Black version from 2005, a bit morally shifty and mercenary when it comes to making his movie (and is similarly abandoned by his longtime assistant/conscience after they see how far he’s willing to go), but this Denham has an even more overt scene of villainy when his “devil on the shoulder” routine urging Ann to ignore her misgivings about their plans for Kong turns into bullying and threats to keep her in line. They also continue the trend of shifting the portrayal of Denham’s relationship with Englehorn, captain of the Wanderer/Venture, from chummy to adversarial. They were pals in the 1933 film; Englehorn doesn’t much trust him in the 2005 film; and, in the musical, Englehorn himself leads an actual mutiny and attempts to throw Denham overboard during the voyage. With all of these darker shadings to the Denham character, it came as a bit of a surprise that his comeuppance feels relatively light (he’s told off by the aforementioned assistant and led away quietly by the police; Charles Grodin, as the Denham figure in the 1976 remake, gets squished!).
The biggest changes to the story/characters in the musical are centered around Ann Darrow. Again, following a trend away from Fay Wray’s Ann (most well known for her screaming), the musical’s Ann is re-conceived (even more than the previous remakes) as a tough, modern heroine. More than once the notion of a damsel in distress is brought up and dismissed, as Ann & Denham both acknowledge she doesn’t need saving (in fact, in another radical departure, the Jack Driscoll character is eliminated entirely! Ann doesn’t have a human love interest, and her wary relationship with Denham becomes even more central). Instead of saving her from an angry fruit-cart owner who catches her shoplifting an apple, Denham discovers her righteously telling off (and slapping) a sleazy barman. To recruit her for the voyage, Denham preys on her ambition; she’s not just a starving Depression-era woman, but an actress who harbors big dreams of becoming “queen of New York.” Ann frames these dreams in opposition to the life she’d have led if she stayed back on the farm, ending up a farmer’s wife with no dreams of her own. Once on the ship, the show introduces a running thread about her not being able to scream in terror for her screen test. After numerous failed attempts to elicit the scream he wants, Denham acknowledges that this Ann’s version of the famous Darrow scream is actually a war cry. This is further developed in the second act when Denham insists that Ann scream in the stage show to unveil Kong and she can’t bring herself to do it. She is grappling with her complicity in Kong’s fallen state (made explicit in the show after she tries to keep Denham from capturing Kong and he convinces her to go along with it to accomplish her dream of stardom), and he once again gets her (first by cajoling, then by threatening to get her blacklisted) to agree to “scream for the money.” Onstage, she doesn’t go through with it and instead actively urges Kong to break free & escape. When she reconnects with him during the rampage (in a quiet moment similar to the 2005 film & a contrast to the shrieking abduction in the ‘33 original), she actually rides on his back shouting her war cry. The finale of the show doesn’t quite resolve all this development of her character in a way that suggests a way forward for her. She ends the show, after Kong’s death, singing about how he as show her how to “break free,” but there’s nothing to indicate specially how she can resolve her dilemma between going home and resigning herself to life in an apron, or staying in New York and either struggling to stay afloat or becoming something she doesn’t like (this may be something that gets ironed out as they head toward opening night, or I confess it could be something I just missed in the lyrics to Ann’s final song). But there is still something that lingers in the way the show explores and recontextualizes that iconic scream.