Each individual involved in the daily operation of the New York production of "War Horse" -- from cast to crew to LCT staff -- has memories unique to his or her experience of the twenty-two-month engagement. But when I asked several of the actors for their favorite moments from the show, which plays its final performance on Sunday, I was struck by the consistency of theme. Not surprisingly for a story about the Great War, their reminiscences are marked by martial virtues: perseverance, camaraderie, horsemanship, gallows humor."
Prentice Onayemi, a horse puppeteer from the first-year cast, singled out that first virtue. He recalled "Elliot [Villar] finishing the show on a fractured leg and David [Pegram] toughing it out with an air cast." "War Horse," added Onayemi, "was a master course in will power."
Joby Earle, also a horse puppeteer from the original cast, was one of many actors who remembered the camaderie of the early times. He recalled "standing backstage getting ready to sing 'Only Remembered' for our first preview. Everyone quieted down and the curtain rose. I had never performed for that many people before, and the shock of seeing them cut off the first few words of the song for me."
Zach Appelman singled out Earle's reason for another aspect: he and Earle and Austin Durant, who was the Chapman Carter and Manfred from the original cast, had spent three years together at the Yale School of Drama just before the "War Horse" run, and Appelman was grateful to be making "my Broadway debut alongside two of my dearest friends."
In recalling that first preview, Jude Sandy, a puppeteer for the entire run, said that at the end of the performance, "the crowd erupted in an uproar that shocked us all. We were really taken off-guard...It was at that moment that we began to get a tangible sense of how special this show would be for so many people."
Sandy was one of several cast members who cited incidents involving horse-handling. He said that at one performance he "tripped and went crashing onto my back, almost taking the entire horse down with me! In the space of about three seconds, I let go of Joey's head, did a back roll, jumped back, up, grabbed the head again, yelled 'Go!', and off we were trying to catch up to our next cue."
Some of the horse moments have been flecked with more irreverence than risk. Seth Numrich, who was Albert during the first year and who now stars in LCT's Broadway production of "Golden Boy," said that "there was one performance when I was getting close to baby Joey. All of a sudden, one of his puppeteers couldn't pick baby Joey's leg back up. So I grabbed the leg and handed it back to him. After the performance, I was told that as I handed the horse his leg back I said, 'Here you, go, Joey.' Crazy!"
Madeleine Yen, who has portrayed the young farm girl Emilie throughout the run, also selected an equine instance as her favorite moment. It was, she said, "the first time riding Joey in rehearsal...I remember it being nerve-racking, exciting, and nervous. Once I had gotten on Joey I couldn't believe I was actually on a puppet horse made out of cane."
As for the gallows humor that the "War Horse" actors, in true trench-warfare fashion, have developed throughout their strenuous run, I must mention what Durant, one of that Yale graduate-school trio, described. "I remember the overwhelming sense of pride I felt," he said, "when I realized I spent most of the second act of the play as a corpse. I think I'm correct in saying that I had the most onstage deaths of anyone in the company of 'War Horse.' I spent scene after cadaverous scene developing a rich inner life for those dead and dying characters. As I lay on the floor of the Vivian Beaumont Theater, night after night, drifting between this world and the next, the one though that haunted me more than any other was: 'I have an MFA.'"
There is another martial virtue I have neglected to mention, the one that helped make having to die Durantishly onstage every night worth living for: celebration. Sometimes, it has been on display amongst the cast, sometimes amongst the audience. Stephen James Anthony, who was part of the Joey team the first year and played Billy Narracott the second, said that his favorite moment of the run came during the all-student matinee. "I'll never forget," he stated, "the deafening sound of one thousand inner-city school kids crying out for Joey. As the play reached its climax they couldn't help but try to vocally influence the proceedings. It was amazing for the show to have such a profound effect on them."
As for the celebrations amongst the cast, I could spill some details about a few of them, both pre-performance backstage (birthdays, holidays, various comings and goings) and post-performance at a local pub or two. But I learned long ago that the pact I make with actors -- the price I pay for the privilege of spending so much time with them -- is that certain things must go unrevealed. (Even if the actors themselves disclose them on their Facebook pages.) Why? Because I wish for as long as possible to avoid swimming with the fishes at the bottom of a cold Hudson River.
I can say, however, that I agree with David Pegram, the Private David Taylor throughout the run, that one particular celebration must absolutely be counted as a "War Horse" high point: the night of the Tony Awards. The cast and crew and various friends of the production had gathered across the street from Lincoln Center at PJ Clarke's cozy hamburger joint. We all watched the broadcast on several TV monitors, cheering when colleagues' names were called out and especially when Joey appeared, with host Neil Patrick Harris astride. We were unaware that the actors who were operating Joey that night at the Tonys were having an even livelier time than we were: as Onayemi, one of the Tonys horse-team performers, told me: We had to prepare ourselves "in the same tent as a bunch of rambunctious nuns and drag queens. Only in the theater."
No matter. As Pegram described the scene at PJ Clarke's: "The energy in that room, that evening, was electric." I suspect it will be sadder, yet still celebratory, this Sunday, when the "War Horse" team, past and present, gather at the same watering hole to commemorate the final performance.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.