Gorillaz masterminds Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett are no strangers to ambitious work. Together, the pair created a cartoon band that not only got taken extremely seriously, but also sold millions of albums worldwide. In fact, the world of Gorillaz became so fully developed that the virtual band members began to feel as real as the actual musicians (led by Blur frontman Albarn) who brought their music to life. So, while many might balk at the idea of taking a hugely influential 16th-century Chinese novel and turning it into a modern-day acrobatic opera, Hewlett and Albarn jumped at the idea.
Approached by Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng, the pair developed another magical, musical experience for Monkey: Journey to the West, which premiered six years ago at the UK’s Manchester International Festival. A soundtrack was released in 2008, and further performances took place in London, Paris, and South Carolina — but it wasn’t until a recent invitation from Lincoln Center that the extravagant production finally had an opportunity to come to New York, where it’s currently running at the David H. Koch Theater.
A mesmerizing blend of acrobatic feats, elaborate set design, masterfully crafted music, and animated interludes, Monkey is theater at its most inventive and engaging. A spectacle with impressively wide appeal, it’s family-friendly, culturally significant, and simultaneously timeless and of-the-moment. We caught up with animator/illustrator Hewlett at Lincoln Center as he prepared to help the show rise again, to talk about its genesis, the challenges of putting it together, and what’s next for him and Albarn.
Flavorwire: What’s involved in setting up for a production like this?
Hewlett: All the costumes and the sets have been in crates in various warehouses, so everything had to be taken out and dusted off and prepared. It’s a whole new cast, so the costumes had to be changed and fitted to different bodies, and new prosthetics had to be made.
Shi-Zheng has had the difficult task of finding dozens of cast members who can perform unbelievable physical tasks and sing; they have to have good voices, because Damon wants everyone to be able to sing properly. And they also need to somehow physically resemble the stupid drawings I’ve done. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but he always manages to do it.
So there are no cast members left from the original production?
Hewlett: There’s one original member. A guy called Elvis, who’s a wonderful character. He’s the only one. Some of them have gone on to be Chinese pop stars, and a lot of them are too old to do what they were doing. A lot of the stuff that they do is very physically demanding, something that you do when you’re 19, 20, 21. The contortionists, for instance, they can’t do that past the age of 22. You just can’t physically sit on your head after 22.
What was the original process of everything coming together like for you and Damon?
Hewlett: There was a lot less control than we’re used to. With something like Gorillaz, it’s me and Damon and our big team of people, and we’re kind of in charge. Everyone works with us. But with this, there are many different aspects, from the music, to the performers, to where the costumes are actually being made. Originally, we were working with a French, Chinese, and English crew, so there was a huge team of translators just to help the communication process run smoothly.
The first time it was performed in Manchester, it was really quite scary. It didn’t quite fit properly. Bits were missing, so we had to find a way of making everything fit. But then, by the time it made it to the Châtelet opera house in Paris, we had fixed all of the mistakes. You have to translate how it all works so that there aren’t too many accidents. There are a lot of accidents that can happen in a show like this.
What obstacles made Monkey take so long to make it to NYC?
Hewlett: We did a bunch of different runs before, and we finished at the O2 in England. We did a big thing there, where we had our own Chinese restaurant that I designed, and Damon and I picked the menu. We wanted to do a “Monkey Experience,” so we had this giant black tent that seated 3,000 people, and we had this huge restaurant. We threw all this money into it, and we did this big, lavish performance. And it opened just about the time that the recession hit in England.
It was still a success, and it played for two months, but after that, people just didn’t want to be putting money into operas and things like that. It was kind of a low point. So we packed it all up in a warehouse off the M25, and we moved on to the next Gorillaz album. And then, at the end of last year, we got a call from Lincoln Center saying, “We want to put Monkey on.” So it’s been wonderful to bring it back after four years. New York’s the perfect place for Monkey, so I’m really excited that it’s showing here.
Has the show changed at all since the first incarnation?
Hewlett: Well, we’ve ironed out all of the little creases and fixed up all of the problems. Shi-Zheng also has two new performers who perform a particular art form that required new set pieces to be built. It’s become more refined.
Are a lot of people who see Monkey coming to it through Gorillaz, or are they finding it through other paths?
Hewlett: It’s a real mixture. At the Royal Opera House, there were a lot of people coming because of Gorillaz, and then there was the whole opera crowd, who were prepared to see something that was a little bit different. But I don’t know what the opera crowd is like in New York, whether they’re similar to European opera crowds or not. Do you have the blue-rinse brigade here?
Ha, something like that. So what’s next for you guys?
Hewlett: At the moment, we’re doing separate things. I’m working on a few of my own projects, and Damon’s got quite a few things going on. Between Gorillaz albums, it’s good to have sort of a five-year break. Monkey was four years of work, and the Gorillaz albums take two or three years to put together, so I think it’s nice to go off and do our own thing for a while. But we’ll see. Maybe another Gorillaz album, but it really depends on whether or not a good idea presents itself. You have to be passionate about it; otherwise there’s no point in doing it.
Monkey: Journey to the West is showing at Lincoln Center through Sunday, July 28.