How Michael Morpurgo's War Horse Went from Failure to Broadway to Movie Screens to the Winspear

Michael Morpurgo's War Horse was a flop before it wasn't.
Michael Morpurgo's War Horse was a flop before it wasn't.

There used to be a family joke in the Morpurgo farmhouse in Devon, England. Whenever the phone would ring at odd hours or during a meal, dad Michael, author of more than 100 children's books, or his wife Clare or one of their kids would say, "Answer it. It might be Stephen Spielberg."

Then one day, it was.

Morpurgo wrote the book War Horse, which later became the hit play adapted by Nick Stafford for a production by the National Theatre of Great Britain and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. The National Theatre's 20-city American tour arrives at the Winspear Opera House September 13 for a two-week run. Individual tickets went on sale today.

War Horse is the story of a young horse, Joey, sold by a farmer to the British cavalry at the start of World War I. Albert, the boy who raised Joey, is too young to enlist, but he sets out on a quest to find his beloved horse on the battlefields of France and bring him home. The book is told from the horse's point of view. More than 1 million horses died in battle in the Great War. Joey serves on the English and German sides.

The short novel, first published in the early 1980s, was, Morpurgo says now, a "singular failure." Shortlisted by British literature's prestigious Whitbread Prize, it didn't win the award. "My wife says that's probably the best thing that ever happened to me," says Morpurgo, who was in Dallas briefly this week for book signings, readings and interviews in advance of the play's arrival.

Morpurgo kept writing children's lit. And writing. And writing. Many of his books have been adapted for the stage and film. His latest, Private Peaceful, about soldiers in WW I, plays on a London stage this September and will be released as a film in October.

With wife Clare, Morpurgo also started Farms for City Children, a program that brings urban kids to live for a week on working farms in Devon, Wales and Gloucestershire. They get to know the animals and learn to care for them the way War Horse's Albert cared for Joey. To date more than 75,000 children have taken part. The Morpurgos, married for 50 years, have received royal honors for their work as educators. He also served as the UK's Children's Laureate for two years.

It wasn't until around 2005, however, that Morpurgo got the call that would lead to the call from Spielberg. Theater director Tom Morris rang the author to ask permission to adapt the by-then 20-plus-year-old War Horse into a play that would use puppets to portray the horses. "I thought, puppets? Little puppets? But no, it was the National Theatre and they only do splendid work. When I finally saw what they were doing with it, I was absolutely blown away," says Morpurgo.

In the stage version of War Horse, Joey and other steeds are portrayed by life-size puppets operated by three actor-puppeteers. (One team of them visited Dallas few months ago to meet the media and give close-up looks at the mechanics of the puppets, choreographed by Toby Sedgwick.)   The play ran two years at the National before transferring to a West End theater, where it's still playing to sold-out houses. On Broadway, it earned six Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play and a special Tony for the puppet design.

And then, after that long-awaited phone call from Spielberg, came the movie of War Horse, shot near Morpurgo's home in Devon using 1200 actors and extras and more than 200 real horses. The film was released last December. To celebrate the debut of the movie in the UK, Morpurgo rented a bus, rounded up his friends and neighbors and treated them to a screening in the local cinema. He also attended the splashy premiere party with director and cast and some folks named Windsor at Buckingham Palace.

The queen, it appears, is a big fan of Joey. She and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, bought tickets and saw the stage version just like regular theatergoers when it first opened in London. She waved enthusiastically at Joey earlier this summer when her Jubilee celebration culminated in a four-hour flotilla up the Thames, during which Joey made an appearance rearing up on the roof of the National Theatre. The 39-second performance, says Morpurgo, took nine months of rehearsal. He was there on the day of the Jubilee, standing in the rain, he says, watching the queen and her family point and smile at the character he created on paper 30 years ago.

Since the success of the play and the film, the novel has sold 1 million copies and been translated into 40 languages, making Morpurgo the second most successful British children's author, behind Harry Potter's J.K. Rowling.

"All this success, it's at the wrong end of my life," says Morpurgo with a little chuckle. "I'll be 70 next year and I might have dealt with it better 30 years ago. I would have had more energy for all this attention certainly. But it's OK. War Horse is my wife's favorite book of all of mine. It's set in the place where we live. And maybe if I'd won that prize all those years ago, 75,000 children would never have had their week on the farms, and War Horse, play and film, might never have happened. It's lovely really."

War Horse plays September 13-22 at the Winspear Opera House. Get tickets by calling 214-880-0202.

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The Winspear Opera House

2403 Flora St.
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