The current Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy is the rare play that makes the audience afraid to blink, lest they miss something beautiful. Although this 1937 script lends itself to bombast, director Bartlett Sher has the good sense to tell his actors—including Seth Numrich, Danny Burstein, Michael Aronov and Tony Shalhoub—to keep things understated. The acting is excellent; the set is intricate; the lighting as lush as The Godfather. But Golden Boy—which closes January 20th, by the way—is a play about boxing, and it wouldn’t amount to much if the stage combat weren’t first rate.
None of the golden boy’s bouts occur on stage, so the play’s muscular force rests on a set piece at the top of the second act—a sparring session in the gym that takes place with several other boxers training in the background. It’s dizzying and electrifying—and makes a strong argument for why the lead character, zippy young prizefighter Joe Bonaparte, might choose boxing over the violin. To find out more about that scene, we spoke to fight director B.H. Barry, a five-decade veteran who is known as one of the best in the country.
Boxing is so essential to this play—what challenges did you find in designing Golden Boy‘s combat?
It was one of the strangest challenges ever. All the company went into boxing lessons, and they finished up knowing a lot more about boxing than I did. But the guy playing Golden Boy [Seth Numrich] was not quite as fast as the other boxers, so I had to slow them down.
What they learned was a modern style of boxing, so I had to reorganize what they learned into something that was more theatrical. I mentioned to them that they had to make the hero look better than they were. One of the guys who was really good, he was very, very fast, so I made him an old slugger—someone used to throwing his punches really heavy, a guy who had been beaten up a lot in his life.
What I do is, I try to tell stories through fights. Just doing the fights themselves, anyone can do that. It has to be about character, and it has to tell the story.
Does having the actors in boxing gloves, which let them actually make contact with each other’s faces, make your job easier than if you were choreographing a bare-knuckled fight?
Strangely enough, no. They don’t hit each other. The trick is, they hit the gloves. The glove looks as if it’s coming up for the defense, and the actor who’s being hit reacts. It’s not based on reality. It’s based on a separate reality. That’s all a bit high-falutin’, though. I didn’t mean to do that. It’s just actors beating the crap out of each other. With Odets, he tried to make the play as realistic as possible, so I tried to be as authentic as possible.
After they took that boxing class, did the actors get into it?
Oh, God yes. I have to give them a lot of credit. They gave me a lot of information. What they’d learnt in their training periods was valuable to me. It was like having a lot of little encyclopedias in the room. Seth and Dimo [Demosthenes Chrysan] and the rest of the guys wanted to have a trainer, but not necessarily a fight director. I think if I’d let them be free, they’d have been much better on the boxing, but not on the storytelling. They’d just be doing a boxing show.
Your bio says you’re directing Treasure Island on Broadway. Tell me about that.
I’m working on producing it. Oh, get me started on that and you’ll have a long conversation.
Give me a thumbnail sketch.
I want to take classic adventure stories and turn them into plays. I feel at the moment that we have a lot of plays of invention, but not plays of passion. There are no plays for families—well, there are two. Peter and the Starcatcher and War Horse. But there are no plays for boys. Wouldn’t it be great to have a show that you can take your son or your nephew to, and say, “You’re going to get off on this. There are going to be swordfights. It’s a story you already know. It’s going to be more fun than you can shake a stick at.”
Your bio also says that you worked on Mulan. What role do you have on an animated picture?
I am probably the proudest of that project out of all the things I’ve ever done. I got an invite from Disney to do the martial arts stuff—to film it so that they cartoonists could watch it, and know what to animate. When I got out there, they asked me, “What do you think of the script?” I said, well, I’ve got a five year old daughter, and you’re telling her that she’s got to turn into a man and win. That’s not right. Have you seen the movie?
Just last week, actually.
So you know the training sequence, when the captain shoots an arrow into the top of a pole and says, “If you can get the arrow, you become a warrior.” In the original draft, Mulan stands at the bottom of the pole, she grits her teeth, and climbs up and gets the arrow. I said, I think she should win because she’s a woman, she’s a girl, and she uses strengths she has that the men don’t have. A woman would do one of two things. She would chop down the pillar, or she would take off her belt and climb it that way.
Mulan uses manipulation, intuition and intelligence in those fight sequences—not just strength. All the things she does in the training sequence should be woman things. And they took my advice. When the film came out, my five year-old daughter—who was eight by then, it took three years—was sitting on my lap, and she said, “Dad. I’m so proud of you.” And I’m like, wow. This is what makes it worthwhile.