Interview with King Kong director/choreographer Drew McOnie

Drew McOnie

At just 33 years old, Drew McOnie finds himself making his Broadway debut at the helm of a multi-million dollar production, roaring onto the New York theatre scene as the director and choreographer of King Kong at the Broadway Theatre. In his native England, he quickly established himself as a young force to be reckoned with, especially in the genre of dance. Working across the UK and Europe as a choreographer, McOnie added credit after credit to an impressive résumé that grew to include well-known titles such as The Full Monty, Spring Awakening, Tommy, James and the Giant Peach, The Sound of Music, Chicago, Hairspray, and Oklahoma! to name just a few.

He would also establish himself in London's illustrious theatre community, choreographing Old Vic productions of Jekyll and Hyde and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax, an off-West End revival of Bugsy Malone, and even winning an Olivier Award in 2016 for his work on the London premiere of In the Heights. The following year, he also earned an Olivier Award nomination for his exhilarating choreography in the Open Air Theatre's acclaimed revival of Jesus Christ Superstar

In recent years, McOnie has branched out and blossomed as a director, as well as choreographer, helming an off-West End production of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party, an Open Air Theatre revival of On The Town, and the UK and West End premieres of Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom: The Musical. It was with the latter production that McOnie began his fruitful relationship with producer Carmen Pavlovic of Global Creatures... a partnership that would eventually lead him to a two-tonne animatronic gorilla and the bright lights of Broadway...


Drew McOnie in Interview
(Photo by Austin Yang)

When you were growing up over in Portsmouth, England, did you ever imagine yourself here making your Broadway debut – and making it at such a young age to boot?

Well, yes and no. I would daydream about it as a kid all the time. I’d suddenly be snapped out of Geography: “Drew! Are you concentrating?!” “Yes sir, but not on what you’re talking about…” Yes, I spent so much time imagining and dreaming about this moment, but as any kinda young kid daydreams, you never think it’s actually going to happen. For me, my Mum always used to say: “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land amongst the stars.” And here I am, walking on the moon! It’s the kinda thing that I don’t think will really settle in for a while, but I do feel very privileged to be here and I am very grateful.


Drew McOnie and family at the Opening Night of King Kong
(Photo by Tom Millward)

Well, I’ve felt privileged seeing a handful of your shows in London already and the gorgeous choreography you bring to each one – In the Heights, On The Town, just to name a couple. If someone held a gun to your head and you had to choose between being a director or a choreographer and you could no longer do both, which would you choose?

I’d say choreography because for me, I choreograph like a director. All the movement that I find is always narrative-led. I feel like if I was never to make up another dance step in my life, I would not be who I am. My identity would be completely lost. Whereas if I only had to work with dance for the rest of my life, I think I’d be a happy person.

I know you worked with producers Global Creatures over in the UK on Strictly Ballroom: The Musical. Is that how this Broadway project all came about?

It is, yes. They produce both shows and when we were re-developing Strictly Ballroom in the early days, they were also having a similar process with Kong at the same time. I built up a very collaborative relationship with [producer] Carmen [Pavlovic]. We have gotten along very well for a very long time. We were just kinda throwing around some ideas of what Kong could be and I really didn’t think I was pitching for the show or anything like that, but there were lots of things that we unfolded together collaboratively. That led to us being able to push a conversation in a way that felt quite exciting. Then, before I knew it, I was talking about doing it. It was weird because there was never that moment where it was: “Here’s your directing gig. Now sign the contract…” That all came much later and it wasn’t until the show was actually announced that all my friends went completely mad. Then I was like: “Oh… This is actually happening!” It had just been little by little this whole time. Luckily it was like that because I think I would have freaked out, if not.


King Kong & Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

What were some of the ideas that you were throwing around for Kong at that early stage?

Well, it wasn’t really about what I wanted to do with Kong, it was more like: “Oh, you’ve got a really interesting challenge there, haven’t you?” Essentially, it’s a story about a creature who can’t speak and a woman who feels like she can’t be heard. What an amazing opportunity to create a story that’s based on visual story-telling; something like a silent movie, but with songs. And obviously you have the puppet and you feel like he’s at the heart of the story and the way his physicality is brought into reality is an extraordinary opportunity. I said: “You must be having fun with that!” More as a mate, I’d suggest things like: “Oh, you should get that person to do this, this and this…” and all of a sudden, I’d thrown myself off into the deep end.

Speaking of that puppet, some people say that cinema will always have an advantage over theatre, in terms of special effects, because of CGI, but watching King Kong, I felt like the grand scale of it was really giving cinema a run for its money…

That’s always going to be the battle, isn’t it, but for me, I’m a theatre creature so I’m always going to stick up for the theatre. The simple fact is that theatre is growing as an industry and I think the reason for that is that no matter what CGI, no matter what special effects or online platform or virtual reality or whatever, at its core, theatre is a share experience and almost a sacred place where people go to watch other extraordinary humans telling extraordinary stories. It doesn’t matter how big the budget of a play or a movie is, at its core, it comes down to communication. I don’t think there will ever become a time when people won’t want to go and watch humans telling incredibly humane stories. I think our King Kong takes the scale of a movie, but only in its sense of ambition – not in its format. Kong does use a lot of LED projection within it, but even that - none of it is photo-realistic – it’s all done with a sense of theatricality that would not work on a cinema screen. The reason that poetic gesture works in theatre is that theatre engages an audience’s imagination in a way that film never will. There’s pros and cons for both, but I’m a creature of the theatre and yes, this is an iconic film, but, of course, we’ve based ours on the original novella and we’ve only approached it filmically in terms of its ambition. Everything else is a pure, bold, poetic gesture of theatre-making.


King Kong
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

I noticed the word “musical” isn’t on the poster or any of the show’s marketing. Why’s that?

Well, there’s two answers to that question really. The first answer is: It sounds like a brilliant one-liner from a Mel Brooks movie, doesn’t it? “We’re gonna make King Kong a musical and we’re gonna take it to Broadway!” [in faux New York accent] It’s an instant comedy, right? But as a team what we wanted to do was to pull out a story about otherness – about a misunderstood monster and about a woman learning to roar back at society. We feel there is a power to the story – if you’re open to receiving it. We didn’t want to call it a musical because a) it’s a non-traditional format – we didn’t want people to come in and ask “Where’s the 11 o’clock number?” or anything like that – and b) we wanted it to be looked at in an unconventional way. We wanted people to come in expecting the unexpected.


(Photo by Austin Yang)

King Kong Tickets are available now for performances through to April 14, 2019.