• Industry

Life of Pi: An Asian Mirage on Broadway

A tiger, a young Indian castaway, a boat, an ocean: those are certainly not the typical ingredients of a Broadway show, but the new production Life of Pie made it possible.

The stage play Life of Pi is based on the book written by Canadian writer Yann Martel. The best seller work had already inspired a 2012 movie that would receive one Golden Globe award (best score, Mychael Danna) and two additional nominations (Best Director, Ang Lee

Then not surprisingly, visual effects were a challenge when adapting the book’s story into a play. The magic solution came from using big puppets rather than actors wearing animal costumes like in the famous Disney musicals The Lion King and The Little Mermaid.

“… the animal puppets for Life of Pi hang on rolling racks. They are impressive to look at. The interior is a skeleton made from wood and aluminum, with joints made out of bungee cords to allow movement, and trigger mechanisms to manipulate ears or mouths. The exterior is crafted from a type of foam that is light, easy to carve, and able to take paint without melting. These puppets, co-designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, are works of art. But to watch them come to life… is mesmerizing. According to Caldwell, through puppetry, “You get to tell the impossible stories,”” wrote Talaura Harms for Playbill this April.


The “impossible story” here was born in the book Martel first published in 2001, becoming an international bestseller in more than 50 territories, earning him several literary recognitions, including the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and the 2002 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. It had sold more than ten million copies worldwide by February 2013, according to Los Angeles Times.

Ironically, it was rejected by at least five London publishing houses before being accepted by Knopf Canada, pointed out The Guardian. Defined as a “philosophical novel”, it follows Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, an Indian teen born in the 1960s whose father owns a zoo.

When the family decides to emigrate to Canada in 1976 after Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of national “emergency”, the Patels bring along some animals from their zoo. But the Japanese ship they took encounters a storm and sinks. Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a spotted hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and the most unexpected stowaway: “Richard Parker”, a Bengal tiger that had been hiding under the boat’s tarpaulin.

Pi would recount all that from a hospital bed in Mexico City, while being questioned by a couple of incredulous bureaucrats. Did that odyssey really happen? Is he conscientiously lying? Or has his reason been affected by hallucinations, isolation, and extreme sun exposure? At some point Pi decides to tell a second version, asking his examiners to choose which one they believe the most.

The story of Pi is a dramedy tale about reality versus how it is perceived and told by each one. Martel has said that Life of Pi can be summarized in three statements: “Life is a story”; “You can choose your story”; and “A story with God is the better story”.

Keith Robinson did the first stage adaptation in 2003, which toured England and Ireland in 2004 and 2007, some years before the awarded 20th Century Fox’s movie (2012). It was said that directors M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were involved at various stages in the project before the hiring of Lee. Filming was divided between India, Taiwan, and Montreal in 2011.

The second play adaptation was done by Lolita Chakrabarti and premiered in Sheffield (England) in June 2019. It was directed by Max Webster, with puppetry and movement led by Caldwell, creating “the single greatest innovation in puppetry ever to hit the global stage,” according to Chris Jones, critic of the New York Daily News.

In November 2021 it opened in West End in London, winning 5 Olivier Awards last year, including Best New Play, Best Actor (Hiran Abeysekera, a Sri Lankan native), and Best Supporting Actor (the whole team of seven puppeteers of the tiger, something unprecedented in that award history). The play had received a total of 9 nominations. This spring it premiered in New York, with the same leading cast.

“Between Richard Parker and Pi, adamant carnivore and lifelong vegetarian, there is a desperate struggle for dominance. Richard Parker needs to eat. Pi would prefer not to be eaten. But these two passengers eventually achieve a détente, even a kind of friendship, a hallucinatory acknowledgment of what is human within the animal and animal within the human. It is the example of Richard Parker –and his companionship, however imagined– that allows Pi to survive,” wrote critic Alexis Soloski for The New York Times last March. “Human ingenuity and animal grace course through this rich, inventive play about difficult choices and the stories we tell to make sense of them.”

The Broadway production of Life of Pi has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “Much like Richard Parker, wild tigers face considerable obstacles to survival,” said Ginette Hemley, Vice President of WWF in a statement. “They have lost an estimated 95% of their habitat range due to development and deforestation. Through our partnership with Life of Pi on Broadway, we hope to educate new audiences and inspire them to take action in support of this charismatic species. Together, we can secure a stable future for tigers.”

At the moment Life of Pi is a big bet for the Tonys -Broadway’s main award-, whose nominations will be announced this May 2nd.