I had heard a lot of buzz about War Horse, up to and including its Tony win for best play. However, I hadn't really considered seeing it because, for better or worse, my Broadway dollars tend to go more towards comedies and musicals. However, my boyfriend had seen a talk about the puppets and puppeteers in the show and wanted to see it, so for his birthday this year, I got tickets.
Overall, it was a phenomenal show. It's amazing how they make the horses come alive. Even though you can see two pairs of human legs underneath and another person walking in front of the horse to operate the head--those three puppeteers completely disappear and all you see is a living, breathing equine. I'd heard the show criticized (I can't remember where, but, based on the criticism, I would guess the New York Times) for being too simple a story and being easily written off as a play for children. The story line is admittedly fairly straightforward and the twists and turns are pretty standard. War Horse is definitely a play that is driven by emotion and not by super memorable dialogue. That said, I don't see how this is a play for children any more than Equus is. (Okay, maybe a little more than Equus is.) Sure kids love horses, but I'm not sure at what age a child needs to start learning about trench foot, people being taken down my machine gun fire or tear gas, or a horse being put out of its misery with a knife through the brain. That, coupled with the fact that apparently in addition to the 10 million people who died during WWI, apparently 8 million horses were also killed. Outside of The Sound of Music, world wars make questionable children's programming.
One of the things I'd heard repeated about War Horse was that it caused audiences full of grown men and women to weep openly. The play was certainly a tear-jerker, but not in the way I thought it would be (which I hope isn't too much of a spoiler). Normally I instinctively dislike anything that I feel like is trying too hard to pull at my heartstrings. I'm still pissed at both 12-year-old me and Michael Bay for making me cry at the end of Armageddon. No tears should ever be shed over any dialogue issued by Billy Bob Thornton. But I digress. The fact that the play was working the emotional angle pretty hard didn't make me dislike it. In the end, I think because the horses were such captivating stage presences, I really felt that the relationship between a boy and his horse was worth all the hype.
Second to the fantastic puppetry, the show was aided by some excellent music. There was a somewhat maudlin singer, a violinist, an accordion player, and a number of other Irish musicians who tied the play together like a Greek chorus. Perhaps it's my soft spot for Irish music, but I felt like it drew me into the play far more.
Overall, I recommend this experience highly. It's very different from any play I've seen on Broadway before. I'm skeptical of the Steven Speilburg movie coming out later this year. I think it will be all of the histrionics and none of the spirit. And using real horses instead of puppets makes it run the risk of being just another WWI horse movie. Nevertheless, I'll probably see it. And I'll probably cry.
Here are some clips from War Horse: