When Broadway’s King Kong opened earlier this month, critics did their best to one-up Beauty on how to kill a Beast. Big, hairy gloom might have settled over the cast following the show’s Nov. 8 opening, particularly after the publication of a New York Times pan that was unorthodox, if not downright bizarre. In place of a traditional review, Times critics Ben Brantley and Jesse Green published their back and forth conversation, taking turns lobbing brickbats. (“Ugh,” said Green; “aaaaaaaaargh,” responded Brantley)
Escaping the crossfire was Eric William Morris, the talented and appealing actor who plays Carl Denham, the 1930s-era New York movie director who heads off to Skull Island, along with unknown actress Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts) in search of the legendary gorilla. Morris turns in a fine performance as Denham, playfully manipulating audience perceptions. Is he a hero? A scoundrel? Or worse?
Familiar to theater-goers and TV watchers alike, Morris has had roles in Blue Bloods, Golden Boy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Mindhunter and Quantico. Most recently, he wrote and starred in a still-being-edited short film based on his New York City Fringe Festival play Running Interference about a football quarterback attempting to hide his developing brain trauma.
But his career-and-life-changing role came in 2009, when he took over the lead in Broadway’s Mamma Mia (where he played opposite actress Alyse Alan Louis, who would become his real-life wife). He’s worked steadily on stage since then, originating, by his count, nine musical theater roles – including the Squip in pal Joe Iconis’ viral hit Be More Chill.
But it’s safe to say nothing quite equals the sheer size of the $35 million King Kong musical. With book by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), songs by Eddie Perfect, music by Marius de Vries and direction/choreography by Drew McOnie, Kong seems to be swatting away the critical brickbats like so many biplanes. The musical scored its best weekly box office numbers to date during Thanksgiving holiday, grossing $1.2 million of a potential $1.6 million.
And just this week, J.P Morgan chose King Kong as one of two recommended Broadway shows – the other is Network – for inclusion on its 2019 “Next List” of 12 “exciting new experiences and books.” Said Darin Oduyoye, Chief Communications Officer of J.P. Morgan Asset & Wealth Management, “We believe our clients will appreciate the wonder, spectacle and innovative storytelling that is exemplified by both King Kong and Network.”
Morris recently spoke to Deadline about King Kong, Be More Chill, working with a 2,000-pound co-star and that notorious Times review.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Deadline: The old saying about not working with animals and kids. Should we add giant puppets to that, too?
Eric William Morris: You should always work with giant puppets, in fact you should write that down. That’s something that everybody should do is work with giant multimillion dollar puppets.
Deadline: There’s a moment when Kong moves to the edge of the stage and as I watched I’m hoping kids in that front row keep their fingers off that stage. That’s a ton of machinery. Are you thinking of the mechanics when you’re on stage with it?
Morris: The first time that I saw the puppeteers work it, I was thinking If that hand drops people are going to die. That thing is massive and so impressive, but yeah, it’s exciting every night for me, it still is, and one of my favorite parts of the show is when he makes his entrance and I get to stand on stage with my back to the audience. I get to hear everybody’s reaction, which is wonderful. About 70 percent of the time somebody in the audience will let out a loud scream. Two days ago somebody screamed “Holy shit!”
But what that does is gives the audience permission to interact, like they’re watching an adventure, you know, a scary movie, which is kind of what we want. If you get people in a theater where they’re trying to stifle a scream at a puppet, you’re telling a good story. Do you know what I mean? It’s 2018 and we’re watching a huge marionette puppet and to get that kind of response is awesome.
Deadline: The night I was there a girl screamed so loud the whole audience cracked up. Like when people laughed at The Exorcist to break that nervous tension.
Morris: It’s permission to not feel like you need to be snobby because you’re in a Broadway theater. It’s like oh, we can scream because it’s a big-ass scary puppet here and this is what’s fun about it. It takes one person to kind of lose it and then everybody else feels, okay, good, we can laugh and yell, too.
Deadline: Critics weren’t laughing so much. You personally got good reviews, but the show itself not so much. Does that affect your performance or your approach to the show, going in the day after the reviews came out?
Morris: When I was a younger man I used to hear actors say what I’m about to say and I wouldn’t believe it, but I actually came to a point where I stopped reading reviews a couple years ago simply because of exactly what you’re saying. Of course I love that people are enjoying my performance, but what can I do if they don’t like the show? What can I do if they don’t like my performance? I don’t know how to put this other than it feels like in order for me to go out and keep getting better at what I’m doing and keep enjoying telling the story and keep growing in the role, I have to guard my own joy with it. If I start thinking about something specifically that somebody else has pointed out, it’ll get in my head.
Deadline: The New York Times review…well, if you haven’t read it I really hate to be the one to tell you. But… It was sort of like a back and forth between the two critics pretty much saying how much they hated it.
Morris: So I’ve heard. What’s actually kind of nice about that is it sort of, in a roundabout way, galvanized the theater community behind us. People started to write letters and post things that were like, Guys, you didn’t write a review, that was very stupid, and like that. You know, it felt like people had our backs a little bit, which is nice.
Deadline: This coming spring, a show that you were long associated with, Be More Chill, will finally arrive on Broadway. You were involved in the original production at the Two River Theater in New Jersey [Morris played the Squip]…
Morris: I got offered this role in King Kong in January and about two months later I was having a drink with Joe Iconis, who’s the composer for Be More Chill and is one of my best friends, and he was like Hey, so what are you doing this summer? And I was like I’m going to be in King Kong. He’s like oh, shit, Be More Chill’s going Off Broadway. It was one of those wonderful things to happen to both of us but something where I was like God, I wish I could go along on that journey as well. Just total conflict of time, but it’s been such a dream come true for everybody involved to watch that show grow and to now be making its way to Broadway.
The cast album, which is the thing that blew up online and has like 100 million [streams], that’s me playing the Squip.
Deadline: You have a moment in King Kong, or rather your character does, that feels like #MeToo [The powerful Denham threatens a desperate Ann Darrow with career ruin if she doesn’t go along with his plan to exploit King Kong.] I’m assuming that was an intentional update of the old story to reflect recent real-life events. Harvey Weinstein?
Morris: You know, I have to tell you, that scene was written and unchanged from two years ago. That was one of the first scenes that Jack Thorne wrote and I auditioned with that a year and a half ago. I think that was before even Harvey Weinstein started coming up, and it’s remained so potent and still remains almost word for word unchanged since that time. The crux of the story that Jack, our book writer, and Drew, our director, and Eddie, our composer, wanted to tell was that you can’t limit somebody’s power by putting them in a box, and monsters aren’t exactly who you think they are. That was the scene that they all kind of thought was the linchpin. I’m literally in her face going, I am a producer with power and all I have to do is tell people you’ve lost your mind and no one would ever employ you again.
I was immediately drawn to this script because our protagonist, Ann, she’s not a damsel in distress any more. In our story she doesn’t need a man, you know? In every other King Kong there’s a character named Jack that she ends up falling in love with – he’s been either the writer of Denham’s film or one of the men on the ship, and he usually tracks down Kong and helps Ann escape, and then also he ends up climbing the Empire State Building and helping her get down. Our team wanted the protagonist to be a woman with agency. In the other versions, all the men kind of decide to bring Kong back to New York and exploit him, but in our story Ann makes a very clear decision to help with that and aid in that, so she’s responsible for the decisions that she’s made.
Deadline: Is there ever any actual physical danger on stage? Could a ton of puppet fall over?
Morris: Knock on wood or whatever superstitions people have, but nobody has even come close to being hurt. The only failure we had was our third performance when he didn’t make the entrance on time so we had to stop the show for a few minutes.
But the technical team involved in this is so on top of it. They redesigned the roof of the Broadway Theatre in order to be able to support this whole thing. I think people who came to some of the early shows were hoping to see a train wreck, you know what I mean? I think some people hoped it would be like a Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark thing where it’s like Oh, my God, what if somebody gets hurt? What if the thing collapses? What if this whole thing…And then pretty quickly people realized that that’s not happening. And I actually loved Spider-Man so that’s not any sort of knock, but that was the buzz around it, that’s the kind of stuff that gets chattered about in our community, unfortunately, and sometimes you lose scope of the story that’s being told. So fortunately for us everything’s been quite safe. And it’s really spectacular to look at.