Michael Morpurgo, author of one of the hottest literary properties ever, sat unrecognized as he had breakfast at the Riverside Hotel on Las Olas back in January 2012.
The British author of "War Horse," a book that has been turned into a Steven Spielberg movie and a Tony-winning play, was in town with the producers of the stage version's touring company, checking out the Broward Center in advance of its run this Tuesday through May 19.
The team of technicians and designers were planning to reconfigure the Au-Rene Theater to accommodate a thrust stage, all the better to put the audience in the middle of the action. The play uses enormous puppets from South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company and stages huge battle scenes that are an integral part of the World War I story.
While they did that, Morpurgo noshed at Indigo Restaurant and chatted about how his 1982 children's book had become a bona fide mega-hit on Broadway and in London’s West End.
"I have to tell you, it was not a particularly successful book," explained Morpugo, a former school teacher like his wife, Clare. "After 25 years, it got there by selling 2,000 copies per year. But then, the Royal National Theatre rang me because they were looking for [a show] aimed at a family audience and they were looking for a way to work with the Handspring Puppet Company. They were looking for a story with animals. I thought they were mad. I really did."
The theater showed Morpurgo a video of Handspring's work that featured a giraffe puppet walking across a room, mimicking moves from the wild. "Suddenly, I saw what [they] meant," he said. "They made him come alive. He was a feeling, sentient being."
Two years later, in 2007, he went to the premiere and was "blown away … The spirit of that story is an anthem to peace. What it showed was that unfortunately suffering, grief and longing was universal."
The story of a farm boy named Albert, whose beloved horse, Joey, is enlisted to fight for the English in World War I is an epic one. The plot follows Joey as he is caught in enemy crossfire, serves both sides of the conflict and ends up in no man’s land. Albert, too young to enlist, leaves home to find his horse.
Like many great yarns, this one got its start in an English pub, specifically the Duke of York in Morpurgo’s home village, Iddlesleigh.
"It's a very small one, maybe 18 people in there," Morpurgo said. "Anyway, there were these three old blokes, vets from World War I. We started talking over a beer, and I was hugely moved by their stories. One of them was 17, lied about his age, when he joined up. He told me of this incredible story with a German soldier who jumped into the trench where he lay wounded. This German put his bayonet at his throat. And then, for some reason, he took the bayonet away and walked away. That's when this man said he realized that they were just like us. I was so moved that he could talk about the enemy that way. He was in the cavalry … and said, 'I would talk to my horse. I could talk to him about my fear and how much I wanted to go home. He was my best friend.' This wasn’t sentimental guff."
Morpurgo said he next went to the Imperial War Museum in London and asked them how many horses were used by Great Britain. "I found out more than a million horses left and only about 65,000 came back. And that's only the English. Many of them that did survive were sold off to French butchers. They think they were about 10 million horses on all sides. That got me thinking, 'How did they die?' The answer is: the same way as men."
The Morpurgos have seen the healing power of horses close up through their Farms for City Children program, in which kids from urban areas spend time on a farm.
"[Clare] and I are both teachers, and so we know that you could teach in a classroom everything with the exception of self-worth," Morpurgo said. "So in 1975, we had a group of them come down, and they do chores on the farm. They can see that their work has value, real value. That builds self-worth and confidence. There is this young man named Billy who had been terribly traumatized. He never spoke. Well, he would come into the stable at night and talk to this horse. The words just came pouring out while the horse just stood there. The horse liked the trust, you see."
The last piece of the "War Horse" puzzle came from a painting. Clare Morpurgo is the eldest daughter of Sir Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books. After his death, the Morpurgos were clearing out his home when they came upon four watercolor paintings of the First World War British Cavalry by F.W. Reed. One of them, which now hangs in the National Army Museum of London, showed a horse flailing about on the ground, its legs tangled in barbed wire as cavalrymen charge toward the enemy all around it.
“It was horrible to look at,” Morpurgo said. “But I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”
And now, the book is, according to one producer, the most-successful play the Royal National Theatre has ever done. Morpurgo thinks that is in part due to its appeal not only to parents and grandparents latching onto the historical references and mortality themes, but to kids and teens.
"For kids, it's the puppets," he explained. "For teens, there simply isn't anything like this. They are quite overwhelmed with emotion. They are breathless. Literally breathless. It matters to them. Children like to be taken seriously. Of course, they have these vampires and such, and I like those books, too, but nothing touches them, and nothing is made these days to touch them emotionally. The great thing about the play is that it is troubling."
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday; 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesday (May 15)
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale