She'll have you at moo: Milky White and the power of puppetry

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She'll have you at moo: Milky White and the power of puppetry
Phillipa Soo, as Cinderella, and Albert Guerzon rehearse a scene from “Into the Woods” in which he operates Cinderella’s loyal bird friends, in New York, June 18, 2022. The cow Milky White is the principal puppet in the revival of the James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods, but the production does include some puppet company for her. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Once upon a time on Broadway, back in 1987, the skinny old “cow as white as milk” in the new James Lapine-Stephen Sondheim musical “Into the Woods” was played by a prop as still as a statue. The cow, Milky White, has no lines, so it worked.

Years went by, the fairy tale mashup musical returned to Broadway in 2002, and this time Milky White was played by an actor in a cow suit. Now she could dance, and that worked, too.

Decades passed, and in the frenzied spring of 2022 came a hit Encores! revival so delicious that it transferred almost instantly from New York City Center to Broadway. Now in previews at the St. James Theater, where it opens July 10, this “Into the Woods” presents Milky White as a puppet who breathes, coughs, moos and mourns — which works enchantingly.

Or as an enchantment? It is a mysterious thing, the preternatural dynamic between a puppet onstage and the people in the seats, even the grown-up ones.

We, the savvy spectators, know that the puppet isn’t what it pretends to be. We can plainly see, for example, that Milky White is not an actual cow, that her scrawny ribs are built of cardboard, that an agile actor — Broadway newcomer Kennedy Kanagawa — is operating her. But we look right past the artifice and invest in the puppet. Whereupon it unlocks in us a less guarded, more primal sympathy than we might allow ourselves to feel for a human performer.

“There is a funny sort of ‘Yes, and ... ’ that has to take place,” said James Ortiz, the Obie Award winner (for the puppet-filled Tin Man prequel “The Woodsman”) who designed Milky White. “There’s a magical sort of agreement that automatically happens. I really can’t explain fully why, but an audience just leans in and goes, ‘It’s real.’”

In the musical, Milky White is the cow traded by Jack — the not-so-bright boy of beanstalk fame — for a pittance of five magic beans. With floppy ears, a free-swinging udder and a head of soft foam textured with paper, she has a handmade aesthetic that is ideal for Lear deBessonet, the revival’s director, who confessed to having “almost an inverse emotional relationship” to slickly engineered production elements.

For her, high-tech means low emotion. Whereas with Milky White, deBessonet melted as soon as she saw her move — although that initial glimpse was digital, in a short video that Ortiz shot after he first built Milky White.

“He conceived a cow that has a full range of ecstasy and sadness and embarrassment and longing and all of these things,” said deBessonet, artistic director of Encores!, who is making her Broadway debut with this production. “He knows how to leave just that right amount of space for the actor’s imagination, the puppeteer’s imagination and the audience’s imagination to combine and lift that object into this whole other stratosphere of meaning and play.”

As high-profile Sondheim revivals tend to be, deBessonet’s is packed with stars: Brian d’Arcy James as the Baker, Sara Bareilles as the Baker’s Wife, Phillipa Soo as Cinderella, Patina Miller as the Witch, Gavin Creel as the Wolf and Joshua Henry as Rapunzel’s Prince.

Milky White is the principal puppet, but Ortiz has designed her some puppet company: a gargantuan and sinister pair of witch’s hands; the Giant’s elegant, open-weave boots (for which Ortiz tapped the wicker expertise of a fellow puppet designer, Camille Labarre); and, as Cinderella’s loyal friends, a flock of normal-size birds. Their wings have fragments of text on them, even though Ortiz knows the detail is too tiny for the audience to see.

“The feathers are made out of torn-up pieces of poetry,” he said. “There’s also bits of Shakespeare in there from ‘Twelfth Night,’ because it’s about a young girl who disguises herself and finds love.”

Early one evening in June, after the first rehearsal for the Broadway run, Ortiz and Kanagawa were sitting in a rehearsal studio on West 42nd Street, giving an interview for this article. A few feet away, Milky White hung next to the birds on a metal rack, looking as lifeless as any puppet does without its puppeteer.

Kanagawa walked over and, after checking with Ortiz to make sure it was OK, took her down. Holding her by the handles, Kanagawa played with her spindly, splaying cardboard legs and recounted how he learned to shift her udder to one side when she needs to sit down. But he wasn’t puppeteering her just yet; she was still inanimate.

Then he tilted her head ever so slightly, and instantly there she was: imbued with life and seemingly quizzical — even if her big, almost teary eyes are really just beveled foam coated with clear epoxy that catches the light.

“Yeah, we’re best friends,” said Kanagawa, who was praised for his expert puppeteering in Alexis Soloski’s review of the Encores! production in The New York Times.

It’s a recent skill for Kanagawa. Ortiz asked him to play Milky White because of his playfulness and imagination as an actor and his deep-rooted passion for the show. Then he taught him how to do it.

This production has offered both of them the space to evolve the musical’s performance tradition, considering the sparsely written Milky White as a full character in puppet form.

“We just kind of talk endlessly about cow logic,” Ortiz said.

“Which honestly is kind of dog logic,” Kanagawa said. “Milky is a pet.”

Ortiz, 38, grew up in Dallas and made his Broadway debut this past spring, designing the frolicsome mammoth and dinosaur puppets for “The Skin of Our Teeth” — and, the season being what it was, filling in for three performances as that show’s head puppeteer. The first live musical he ever saw was a high school production of “Into the Woods,” with a statue-style cow.

Kanagawa, 37, was born in Tokyo and moved to the Washington, D.C., area when he was 10. In seventh grade, at a birthday party, he watched the video recording of “Into the Woods” with its original Broadway cast and original Broadway cow — then got his own VHS copy and, he said, “absolutely destroyed it with watching it so many times.”

More recently, in Rob Marshall’s 2014 movie version (with James Corden as the Baker, Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, and Meryl Streep as the Witch), a genuine cow played the cow — not a casting decision likely to be emulated by many stage productions.

Long before that, though, an idea percolated in Hollywood that might have permanently altered the performance tradition of “Into the Woods.” Muppets creator Jim Henson was interested in making a film adaptation. He “saw the show and was a fan,” Lapine wrote in an email. “He was a wonderful fellow.” But Henson died in 1990.

Five years later, the idea moved forward anyway at Columbia Pictures. As Sondheim recalls in his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” the animals in the movie were to be played by “Henson creatures.” The script got a couple of readings with a couple of deliriously starry casts (one had Robin Williams as the Baker, Cher as the Witch, and Carrie Fisher and Bebe Neuwirth as Cinderella’s stepsisters) before, Sondheim writes, the project was killed in a studio shake-up.

It’s easy to envision a profusion of puppet Milky Whites, a whole generation’s worth, blossoming forth onstage if that film had happened. Instead, the cow that deBessonet asked for, and Ortiz designed, and Kanagawa operates will be Broadway’s first puppet Milky White.

Just lean in and look into her eyes. There’s no question at all: She’s real.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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