The first time I saw “War Horse,” it was as a civilian; the second time, as a theater professional. The two experiences are about as different as a horse chestnut and a chestnut horse.
“Do you really want someone working for you who cried through most of the show?” I wrote to Mim Pollock, chief usher of Lincoln Center Theater, in negotiating my debut at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in late April. My friend Heidi had been ushering on Broadway for a couple of years, often at LCT, and kept urging me to try it. “I’m not ready,” I kept telling her, but after seeing “War Horse” from B501, the front-row seat right on Aisle 4, I was ready.
“War Horse” is, of course, this year’s winner of the Tony Award for best new play, and several others. Adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel about a horse sold to the British Army for service in World War I, it stars Joey, a life-size puppet, and a chestnut-colored one at that. (The supporting role of Topthorn is ably played by a corresponding black puppet.) A sturdy horse constructed of slender strips and mesh, Joey is brought to life eight times a week by teams of three puppeteers known as Head, Heart and Hind. Among the Tony haul was a special award to Joey’s creators, the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The highly cinematic score (long since added to my iTunes) is at least as good as any for a new musical last season, but it wasn’t nominated, even though the Tony Awards Administration Committee declared it eligible. Nor was the show’s human cast, which surely deserves recognition for its ensemble work.
I passed up a chance to see “War Horse” in London last September. If I’d had one more theater slot on my schedule, it would have been my choice. But it faced stiff competition: the opening night of Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion “ at the Donmar Warehouse, a new Alan Bennett play at the National, Michael Gambon’s opening in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” my maiden voyage to the Menier Chocolate Factory. In any case, it was coming to Broadway, so what was the rush?
What a miscalculation. I could have met Joey seven months sooner. Now I’m as smitten with him as I was with one of his predecessors on the Beaumont’s stage, Paulo Szot in “South Pacific.”
To me, ushering “War Horse” a few times a week as a sub isn’t so much a job as a way to spend even more time at the theater. Having worked in arts journalism for so long, I never had a chance to work in theater; it would have been a conflict of interest. (And besides, I have no talent.) Ushering has given me an opportunity to learn, from the inside, a bit about how a professional theater operates. It’s also introduced me to the subculture of Broadway ushers, and how interesting these often-overlooked people can be. Among those I’ve met are an actress who once understudied Barbra Streisand; a younger actor who carries a thick volume of Alan Ayckbourn plays; a National Park ranger at the Statue of Liberty; a screenwriter, and more than one person who’s lived abroad for extended periods.
As a ticket-buyer, I was free to sit in my seat sniffling, clapping, covering my eyes at the difficult moments, possibly even exclaiming, at a moment of high melodrama, “Oh, no, don’t shoot Joey!” As an usher – I’ve now worked 20 performances of “War Horse” – I spend most of the show in the curved passageways between the lobby and the house known as “the smoke rings” and have actual responsibilities. Even so, every show has its moments of magic: Sitting on the steps, stuffing inserts into Playbills, while the horses rehearse onstage. Watching the seats fill up like the squares of a crossword puzzle, and feeling an irrational satisfaction when everyone in my section is in place before the house lights go down. (My late-seating skills still need improvement.) Running up the stairs to close the doors quickly when they do.
The best assignment is house right, the side of the theater where Joey takes his break. About 40 minutes into Act I, he marches up aisle 4 into the smoke ring, where, minutes before, someone from the backstage crew has set up a pair of tripods and a young woman wearing a headset has carried a plastic bucket containing three water bottles, for Head, Heart and Hind. The doors open and out comes Joey, to be set on the tripods while the puppeteers sip from the bottles and do stretches on the floor, as do Seth Numrich (who plays Joey’s master, 15-year-old Albert Narracott) and Alyssa Bresnahan (Albert’s mother, Rose); Boris McGiver (Albert’s sad-sack father) has his hair spritzed. A couple of minutes later, the puppeteers are back in harness to take Joey back down the aisle, to be sent off to war. The tripods go back into the closet; the water bottles are carried off. I decline all offers to take my break until Joey has had his.
As a member of the audience, I was free to run out at intermission and sob on the phone to Heidi, “Why would anybody bother to produce ‘Spiderman’ when this exists?” Now at intermission, I’m on duty. That consists of opening my assigned doors and curtains, then either standing at the lobby doors, to answer questions like “Where’s the ladies’ room?” and watch for drinks being carried back in, or “working the stage” – standing guard at the bottom of aisles that have access to the thrust stage to make sure no one tries to climb on, or use it as a shelf or a footrest. Fifteen minutes of guard duty may sound boring, but in fact it’s an opportunity to interact with audience members, who can be almost as much fun as Joey.
There are the children who ask when I hand them their Playbills, “Are there real horses in this show?” (My answer: “You tell me after the show. I certainly believe they’re real horses.”) There are the people who’ve already seen the London production and couldn’t wait to see the show again, and bring their friends. There are the ones who ask how many times I’ve seen the show (just twice all the way through; occasional snippets during late seating) and want to know everything about it, and to tell me how wonderful it is. There are the people who run up the aisle, hoping to beat the crowd; it’s their loss, since they miss seeing Joey and Topthorn rear up for their curtain calls. There are the people in wheelchairs and scooters for whom a trip to the theater is no easy matter, but worth it, judging from the tears they wipe away.
“Does it have a happy ending?” a woman about my age rushed up to ask me at intermission a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to spoil it for her, but she seemed in genuine distress, so I said a quiet “Yes” and nothing more. Minutes later another woman followed: “Does it have a happy ending? I mean, do Albert and Joey make it through the war?” By that time I had figured out a better answer: “Yes, but you’re going to cry anyway.” After the curtain call, she passed me at the top of the aisle on her way out. “You were right,” she said, still sniffing.
“War Horse” is far from the only LCT production that‘s made me cry, for all the right reasons; “Pride’s Crossing,” in particular, comes to mind. It’s not just the beauty of the puppetry, but the resonance in the writing. The line I never tire of hearing is Rose Narracott’s, “I know we done it all wrong, Albert”; who among us wouldn’t give anything to hear that from our own parents? I still tear up a little when, outside the doors, I hear the deceptively brief, economical final scene, then slip inside the house to join the cheering audience in applause. By then, it’s been an emotional three-hour journey since Mim’s call rang out in the empty house: “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have you in your places, please. The house is open.” Hearing that is almost as good as being in the show.