A month or so ago, I mentioned to my 8-year-old daughter that I’d just done a phone interview with the man who trained the dogs who’ve played Sandy in every Broadway production of Annie. She responded that she’d just been reading about the same guy, Bill Berloni, in the Time For Kids magazine she receives at school.
Berloni’s everywhere—he’s also got a book out, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars.
I wasn’t calling Berloni to talk about Annie, though that’s a good topic in itself. When James Lapine agreed to direct the current New York revival, he decreed that his rendition would be so different that it could not include anyone who’d worked on other versions of the longrunning little orphan opus. Only Berloni, who’s probably been involved with more Annies that any single person, starting with the very first production at the Goodspeed Opera House in the mid-1970s when he was still in his teens, was the only exception to Lapine’s rule.
But this story isn’t going to the dogs. It’s coming in like a lamb. I called Berloni because the Long Wharf Theatre announced the cast for its production of The Curse of the Starving Class, and I noticed an omission. The cast for that particular Sam Shepard play always includes a live sheep. That’s where Bill Berloni comes in.
For years, Berloni has been the go-to guy for live animals in stage shows. Annie didn’t just put him on the map because it was one of the biggest hits of its time. It was also, as he explains it, the first show in which an animal had to play an actual character. The dog in Annie doesn’t just run across stage. He has to be Sandy, and come when the show’s mop-headed title character summons him, so they can elude the dogcatcher. He must sit while Annie sings “Tomorrow.” He must get wrapped up like a gift on Christmas Day.
Berloni production duties earn him credits such as “Animal Director.” He’s also something of a casting agent, “but with much different requirements. At this point, I am somewhat like a designer.”
Berloni balances all sorts of requests. While involved with the high-profile Annie on Broadway, he was also supplying a dog for a high school production of Legally Blonde and admits that “there are certain high schools who pay me better than Broadway. This is definitely a cottage industry we have here in Connecticut.” He works with five or six handlers. His previous Long Wharf credit was the biographical play Paper Doll, in which Dixie Carter starred as the novelist Jackie Susann. “There was a dog in that play.”
Berloni, who has a bachelor’s degree in acting and a great respect for live theater process, is concerned that the animals he puts in stage events stay in character and not upstage their human castmates. “You can’t predict an animal’s behavior,” he says. “But there should always be a contingency plan, a way that actors can respond naturally. I think it’s an injustice to the playwright if an actor cracks up because an animal does something.
The Long Wharf reached out to Berloni when looking for a lamb. It was a smart choice. Not only does the Animal Director have experience with putting lambs on stage—remember the Bernadette Peters revival of Gypsy?—he’s even done Curse of the Starving Class before, when New York’s Signature Theater Company did an all-Sam Shepard season in 1997. (When the Yale Rep did the play in 2000, its sheep was rather larger than the one at the Long Wharf and resided in a Yale faculty member’s yard during the run.)
Finding a lamb for a show scheduled for wintertime had its own issues. “Lambs are usually bred in the spring,” Berloni says. “The only reason they’re bred now is for meat.” Curse of the Starving Class has therefore spared the life of this lamb. All the animals Berloni has trained are similarly “rescued”—found in shelters, generally. It’s part of his process that he assures there will be a home for each animal once the run of the show is over.
In the case of this lamb, which hails from Kensington, Connecticut, its acting career begins and ends in extreme childhood. The lamb was not even two weeks old when called to the Long Wharf boards, and finishes the run on March 10 as an accomplished thespian barely six weeks of age. On opening night, it delighted audiences with adlib bleats during a scene when it was being openly discussed by the play’s debauched and disenfranchised Tate family. The lamb was a symbol of innocence and sweetness. Due to its youth, it is not required to do more than sit in a makeshift cage made out of a child’s crib. At one point it is hoisted aloft by Peter Albrink, the actor playing Wesley in the play. The staging needs are minimal for good reason, Berloni makes clear. “It’s just like putting a 10-day old human baby on the stage. How much do you expect it to do?”
For a man who trains animals to play comic strip dogs and metaphorical lambs-to-the-slaughter in live stage plays, Bill Berloni comes off as more level-headed and sensible and real-world conscious than do a lot of producers who work with humans.
When interviewing actors, it’s customary to ask if they have a dream role they hope to play in future. When Berloni’s asked if he has any, ahem, pet projects, he gushes “Funny you should ask that. For years, I’d been waiting for someone to do Lassie the musical.” Nearly 40 years after he proved it was possible with Annie, the animal director is still stuck on the concept of an animal carrying a role and not just doing a walk-on. So he acquired the rights to the popular children’s book Because of Winn-Dixie and has developed it into a stage musical, with the title role played alternately Irish wolfhounds.