It’s fair to say that 2013’s Melbourne world premiere of the Australian musical King Kong got a mixed response. There was much critical oohing and aahing over the six-metre-tall monkey, who weighed in at more than a tonne, with several declaring that an artform was being redefined before their very eyes. On the other hand, the book (Craig Lucas) and music (Marius de Vries) came in for a pasting. “King Kong the musical [was] confused both musically and narratively – packed full of ambition and innovation, but unable to pull its constituent parts into one satisfying whole,” said The Guardian, and that was one of the kinder reviews.

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in King Kong. Photo © Matthew Murphy

Well, the ape is back, and this time there’ll be no monkey business, at least if director Dew McOnie has his way. “It’s an entirely new book, new set of costumes, entire characters have been written out of the piece,” he explains over the phone, taking the shortest of breaks from the technical process of getting one of Broadway’s all time most expensive musicals onto its theatrical feet.

McOnie is a rising star in the UK with a string of director and/or choreographer credits that include On The Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party at The Other Place, Jekyll and Hyde: an acclaimed original dance work with composer Grant Olding at the Old Vic, and In the Heights for which he won the Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer. It was on the back of a string of rave reviews that Global Creatures’ CEO Carmen Pavlovic reached out to McOnie to revise Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, a show that had fallen foul of the critics in Sydney and was in need of a facelift ahead of a UK run. Though the British reviews would suggest that even McOnie couldn’t make a silk purse out of that particular sow’s ear, Pavlovic clearly sensed she was on to one good thing at least.

“It started off with a series of very mysterious kind of coffees, looking at videos of King Kong and so on – all very subtle to begin with,” he recalls. “For a while I thought it was just two friends chatting about general ideas. I felt like my ideas for the story were probably a little bit non-traditional and it felt easy giving them away because I thought they were never ideas that Carmen would necessarily be interested putting on stage. I didn’t realise what was happening until I got a contract offer.”

Director and choreographer Drew McOnie

That was two years ago, and McOnie would be the first to admit that what made him say yes was not just the challenge of the new but also a healthy dose of fear. “I’d heard some very positive things about the kind of boundaries it was breaking from a technical point of view; from an emotional capacity within puppetry point of view,” he says. “But my fear of the iconography within the piece [was to do with] the gender politics, the racial politics of the story. I suppose I felt that one of the exciting things would be to re-explore the narrative of a story that has for many years misrepresented entire cultures. It could be for them in a way. Rather than being a story about how you can kill the beast, as in the original novella, it could be a sense of the misunderstood other. You know? How entire cultures can be represented as other – and therefore dangerous – and how the fear of the other can be utilised for the greater good.”

As McOnie sees it, the story of Kong revolves around two creatures, one of whom (the monkey) can’t speak and the other (the girl, Ann Darrow) feels that however loudly she may scream, as a woman in a male-dominated society she can’t be heard. “Darrow has become the most iconic damsel in distress – a screaming woman in a blonde wig – and this creature is a big scary monster who will kill and crush, but actually it’s a relationship between two misunderstood creatures,” he explains. “Neither of these creatures can talk to each other in any verbal sense so all of their communication is purely visual. Because of my background in narrative dance, I thought that lent me an opportunity to create a unique physical and visual storytelling language that could be very, very exciting.”

Over the last five years, the members of the creative team who have come and gone – mostly gone – reads like a who’s who in musical theatre. Original director Daniel Cramer now runs English National Opera, while his one time replacement, Eric Schaeffer, handed over the reins to McOnie. Playwright Craig Lucas has been replaced with Jack Thorne, whose recent successes include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and librettist Marsha Norman came and went, along with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. “What has become evident throughout the process of readings and workshops is that King Kong – with its distinct physicality – doesn’t fit the traditional book musical format,” Pavlovic said in a 2016 statement regarding Norman’s departure.

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow and the cast of King Kong. Photo © Matthew Murphy

The new King Kong retains just one of de Vries original songs, plus a sheaf of new material courtesy of Melbourne-born writer/composer Eddie Perfect. Pavlovic first contracted Perfect to create new songs for Strictly Ballroom, and he will have the nerve-wracking experience of seeing Kong open the same week as his other new musical project, Beetlejuice, which is currently in previews in Washington DC. With all those ups and downs, how did McOnie manage to keep his feet?

“I do think there’s this kind of big, dark story with people thinking that entire creative teams were fired,” he tells me. “But people that apparently got dramatically fired are all actually kind of friends and supporting the show. A handful of them have come and sat in our rehearsal process and laughed with us, and so I think things have been slightly misinterpreted. The show has gone through a group of people at different times with different opinions, and it’s naturally found a way of settling down to a group of people who are going to be on the ground, running it. At the end of the day, you’re always going to be subject to people’s opinions about whether you chose the right side of the story to tell – it’s not like we’re telling a historical piece where people can say it’s correct or isn’t correct – but this is a story that’s come out of many years of opinions and thoughts and heart and passion from many creative voices.”

The Melbourne iteration essentially told the King Kong story as portrayed in the 1933 movie. Filmmaker Carl Denham charters a ship for his new mystery project, hiring a hopeful actress Ann Darrow into the bargain. While on their journey, the ship’s mate, Jack Driscoll, falls in love with Ann. Arriving at the uncharted Skull Island, the locals kidnap Ann, who they think is a goddess, and offer her to Kong, a huge ape-like creature. Rescuing Ann, and stunning Kong with a gas bomb, Denham takes the ‘monster’ back to New York. The monkey, who by now has feelings for Ann, duly escapes, grabbing her before scaling the Empire State Building. At its top, he is felled by airplanes, though not before ensuring that Ann is safe. On the ground, Ann and Jack are reunited as Denham famously declares that “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast”.

King Kong. Photo © Matthew Murphy

“At the core of that story is the idea of a man who would change the world by introducing it to this extraordinary creature,” McOnie explains. “It was all about ambition and hope and dreams. The radical change that our production has taken is that it centres around Ann’s journey. She’s the first character that we meet and she’s the last character we hear from. It’s basically a story that deals with a woman’s complicated choice over whether she fights for greatness or goodness.”

“Now I’m not saying in our show that Kong isn’t a monster – he definitely starts off as a monster – but the monsters aren’t necessarily who we think they are. Every version previously ends with Carl saying, it was beauty that killed the beast – meaning that when the big man was won over by the woman, the man lost his strength and was therefore killed. It was some sort of warning to never let a woman melt your heart, which is sad and just not relevant to us now. Our story is about this misunderstood monster and his relationship with a woman, and when faced with wonder, how do your ambitions kick in and how do you choose to use your life?”

The use of the ensemble has changed as well. “Within our piece, they now inhabit the physicality of the city or the island,” McOnie explains. “The movement is much more expressionistic, rather than literal. There’s a huge amount of dance and physical theatre in the piece, which is inherent in the way the two lead characters interact with each other. Ann does speak in those scenes – out of nerves – but all of her interactions with Kong are based on body language. There’s a visual and physical vocabulary right from the top of the show through to the end. Without doubt, my instinct and passion as a visual storyteller is key to the way this production has come together.”

Christiani Pitts as Ann Darrow in King Kong. Photo © Matthew Murphy

The story still takes place in the Depression era 1930s, and still winds up in New York City, but McOnie believes that the politics and motivations of the characters still hold true for today. “I would say it’s rooted in period,” he says of the music, “but it’s a group of young people interpreting what the 30s must have sounded like. It’s got a beautiful hybrid feeling that mixes an epic, filmic scoring with a light, absolutely swinging 1930s meets modern RnB swagger.”

Of course, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we’ll all know more on Thursday night when the show officially opens. One thing is certain, however, King Kong’s current director knows where the buck stops. “Everything has been worked through since I came onboard,” he admits. “When I started, I was dealing with a title that had no story, no character development and no songs. In other words, I’m going to get the blame for it if it all goes wrong.”

King Kong is at the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway (Between 52nd and 53rd Streets)