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Michael Curry on reinventing some of the movie's most iconic nonhuman characters for the stage
Compliment Michael Curry on his eye-popping puppets for Beetlejuice on Broadway, and he'll politely correct you. "They're characters really," he insists. "While they're not played by human beings, they're designed in a way where they have a sentient quality." Take his spectacular Sandworm, which slithers on stage early in Act I. It may come from the Land of the Dead, yet it seems as alive as any of the people populating this dark musical comedy about grief, ghosts and one hellraising ghoul.
Based on Tim Burton's beloved cult classic of the same name, Beetlejuice was quite challenging to bring to the stage. In addition to adding songs (by Tony nominee Eddie Perfect), upping the raunch factor (there's a reason it's recommended for ages 12 and up!) and raising the narrative stakes, the creative team needed to figure out how to conjure the source material's macabre aesthetics. Curry's contributions are key to making this netherworld pop, as incorrigible demon Beetlejuice (played by Tony nominee Alex Brightman) tries to help a pair of newlydeads scare away a living family for his own nefarious ends.
Director Alex Timbers is the one who hired the Oregon-based Curry for the production. The two had previously collaborated on the musical Frozen but were "interrupted" as Curry puts it when Timbers was let go from the project. "Alex is the most holistic director I've worked with and that's saying a lot because I've worked with a lot of the greats," says Curry, whose past credits include designing the puppets and masks for Broadway's The Lion King with Julie Taymor. "With the Beetlejuice movie, Alex knew what to keep, what to lose and what we could play with, and I think he found a really nice new overlay."
From the outset, Curry realized there were certain creatures in the film that had to be resurrected on stage. "At the end of the day, you can't avoid the iconic characters," he says. "The Sandworm, the shrimp plates, the shrunken head -- I was adamant about that one. Then Alex had additional ideas -- he wanted to put his own signature, like the roast pig at the dinner party," referring to a dish that suddenly comes alive and undresses a guest. "For our Washington, DC run, we had a penis on the pig that was pretty amazing, but we circumcised it for New York. We probably went further than we should have in DC with some of the humor."
Some of Beetlejuice's most jaw-dropping moments involve cast members interacting with Curry's creations, and that's by design. "I love puppetry when it's in contact with humans," he says. "At my studio, we make independent creatures, like the ones for The Lion King, but usually there's a connection. I love when Beetlejuice rides in on the Sandworm, or when it comes in alone and engulfs an actress. This is another reason I call them characters rather than puppets, and why I separate them from scenic props."
While Curry worked with Timbers to find the best ways to integrate his inventions into Beetlejuice, he was wary of them hogging the spotlight. "People sometimes say, 'I wish the Sandworm could spend more time on stage,' but that wouldn't work as well," he says. "Puppetry can really outlast its welcome quickly. That's why you don't see me doing productions that are puppet shows that ask an audience to spend 90 minutes just investing in puppetry. It's much better if you just use them for 10% of a show."
Curry's artistry can currently be seen in three Broadway productions, Beetlejuice, The Lion King and Frozen, though his résumé also includes a slew of Cirque du Soleil spectacles, multiple Olympics ceremonies and Katy Perry's massive metallic lion at the 2015 Super Bowl. "It's a testament to puppetry -- and I use that as a very loose term to describe a great many things -- how popular it is suddenly," he says. "I think it gives an alternative to how tired we are of screens. Reality is a sort of new special effect. I'm often shown a film effect or animation and asked, 'How can we find the equivalent on stage?' There's a sort of vapid quality to 2D and CG animation compared to real objects. That's what's always fascinated me and it's nice to see it come into the vanguard."
Top image: Alex Brightman riding Michael Curry's Sandworm puppet in Beetlejuice. Photo by Matthew Murphy.