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Article posted: 12/7/2012 6:00 AM

'War Horse' author marvels that 'modest' book became international stage play

By Scott C. Morgan

British children's author Michael Murpurgo never dreamed that his book "War Horse" would one day inspire an international multi-award-winning stage play that would subsequently inspire an Academy Award-nominated 2011 film, directed by Steven Spielberg no less. Chicago-area audiences get their chance to experience the stage success that is "War Horse" when the North American tour plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre from Tuesday, Dec. 18, through Saturday, Jan. 5.

"I never ceased to be surprised," said Murpurgo about the delayed fame of his 1982 children's novel during a telephone interview last month.

When it was first published, "War Horse" was a finalist for the Witbreak Book Award, but lost. Calling it "a modest success," Murpurgo said "War Horse" never sold more than 1,000 copies a year. "I thought it would sit on my backlist and that would be that."

But the fortunes of "War Horse" changed once the mother of British Theatre director Tom Morris suggested he take a look at a history-inspired book by a writer "with a rather unpronounceable name." As the associate director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, Morris was looking for a suitable property to collaborate with South Africa's acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company on a large scale project for the National's 2007-08 season.

On the surface, "War Horse" is an unlikely candidate for stage adaptation. It's presented from the perspective of a horse named Joey, who is trained by a devoted farm boy named Albert in the Southwestern English region of Devon. Against Albert's wishes, Joey is sold off to the British army to become a cavalry horse at the start of World War I in 1914. The novel then follows Joey's often horrific wartime experiences.

"It was tentative to start with and they weren't sure it would work," said Murpurgo about early "War Horse" workshops. "I saw the work of Handspring and was hugely inspired by what they had done by the maquettes of the horses. All the time I felt maybe this could work, but I also at the same time kept losing faith because I thought, well, it's just too complicated to tell this epic story onstage with puppets."

But Murpurgo's doubts were erased when the 2007 theatrical collaboration featuring a script by playwright Nick Stafford and featuring music and songs by Adrian Sutton and John Tams proved to be a smash hit. "War Horse" was originally set to only to play a limited seasonal run at the National Theatre, but it was immediately brought back the following year before transferring to London's West End in 2009 where it continues to run. A Broadway production opened at Lincoln Center in 2011 and went on to win five Tony Awards, including Best Play. By the end of this year, "War Horse" productions will have been launched in Toronto, on a North American tour and in Melbourne, Australia. A future "War Horse" production is even planned for Berlin.

Though the 2011 Spielberg film version of "War Horse" sticks closer to the events of Murpurgo's novel, he says the stage production "keeps to the spirt of the book more closely."

"The story is a story of all wars anywhere and everywhere," Murpurgo said. "Very quickly, it's the horse that takes us through this story and we identify so strongly with it as 'the innocent victim' as represented, I suppose, by the horse and the suffering that goes on both sides."

Murpurgo's many other children's novels also feature animals and children in other historical eras, giving kids a chance to contemplate how they might have behaved when faced with past events.

"It's really important for children I think to have some sort of grasp of where they've come from, who've they've been before," said Murpurgo about his history-infused novels. He's also pleased at how "War Horse" as a stage show can similarly spur an interest in history and introduce children to the magic of live theater.

"I think it's wonderful for children to discover in theater, they can find enormous strength and power in what happens onstage to touch them and move them in a way they haven't been moved before," Murpurgo said. "And I've no doubt at all that there are going to be hundreds of thousands of kids who go to 'War Horse' as the first play they've ever seen and they're going to be theatergoers for the rest of their lives because they're going to have felt the power of those actors and the story onstage."

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