Bill Berloni brings out the animal in Broadway

When Bill Berloni barks, Broadway listens.

Or, to be more accurate, when Berloni’s clients bark. Or meow. Or chirp.

Berloni is the foremost theatrical animal trainer working on the stage today. If you’ve seen an animal on stage in the last 32 years, chances are pretty good Berloni had something to do with it. His very first job was finding a Sandy for Annie, and one of his most recent jobs was providing a bulldog and a Chihuahua for Legally Blonde the Musical, which started life last year at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre before heading to New York.

Berloni has been in the news lately because he has written about his work with animal actors in Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars (The Lyons Press, $16.95).

It’s a wonderful book, full of the kinds of backstage stories that theater fans gobble up. And if you like animals AND theater, there simply is no better book for you.

It’s clear from page one that Berloni is a compassionate, gentle man, and that impression only solidifies as he details his work on the Richard Burton revival of Camelot, Alice in Wonderland, Cameron Mackintosh’s Oliver, Madison Square Garden’s The Wizard of Oz, a Susan Stroman dance for the New York City Ballet and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to name just a few.

During a recent telephone conversation, Berloni recalled working at the Goodspeed Opera House in the summer of 1976. He was 19 and was on the stage crew. He was promised his Equity card if he would serve as dog trainer for a new show: a musical based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.”

“The operative word then was `cheap.’ There was no money,” Berloni says. “Instead of borrowing or renting a dog, someone said they have cheap dogs at the pound. I had never been at a shelter, and it was utterly depressing. I saw all these creatures in the cages, and they all needed to be profoundly loved. I found one dog that matched the look, but he was going to be put to sleep the next day, and I didn’t have the money to adopt him. I went back to the theater, borrowed the $7 and adopted the dog.”

That was the original Sandy, who sat alongside Andrea McArdle as she warbled “Tomorrow” to the rafters. Berloni and the dog bonded in a big way. But the show was a flop, so when it was over, Berloni and his dog Sandy moved to Greenwich Village, and Berloni began studying with Stella Adler.

Then director Mike Nichols called and said Annie was heading to Broadway.

“By the time the show opened out of town at the Kennedy Center, I was a world-famous animal trainer,” Berloni recalls of the job that literally fell into his lap.

From that period on, Berloni has maintained his promise to himself that whenever possible he will find his animal actors in shelters and make sure they have homes when the production ends.

Audiences (and critics) tend to love seeing animals on stage and react in big ways.

“I’ve always wondered why that is exactly,” Berloni says. “Then it occurred to me: it’s like Method acting when you try to bring reality to the stage. An animal on stage is the ultimate reality, and that brings people to the edge of their seats. The dog is not acting – it’s real. Compare that to the actors trying to be real. Animals are the ultimate Method.”

Berloni’s approach to working with an animal actor in a show is not about tricks. He has a wider view than that.

“It’s all about being part of a team,” Berloni says. “The more you work with other artistic members of the team, the more you see it’s the result that matters, not one’s shining star. It’s about what the author and the director want combined with what the animals are capable of doing. My job is not to make Bruiser (the bulldog in Legally Blonde) do tricks. My job is to make Elle Woods look good. The animals are acting in a play, telling a story. I’ve been popular in Broadway work as a collaborator, not someone doing a dog act.”

A huge part of Berloni’s career has involved touring Broadway shows (he’s done umpteen Annie tours and revivals) and regional productions. His animals never fly cargo on planes. Rather, he outfits vans for comfortable road travel, and each animal has an attentive handler (often Berloni and his wife, Dorothy).

He’s currently preparing yet another Annie tour as well as the Legally Blonde tour and one more Wizard of Oz tour.

Beyond his stage work, Berloni is, not surprisingly, an advocate for animal rights. At his Connecticut home, he has 23 dogs, 10 of which are retired actor dogs. He also says 20 percent of the royalties from his book (which is co-written by his brother-in-law, Jim Hanrahan) will support the Sandy Fund, which Berloni’s wife set up through the Humane Society of New York.

As for future projects, Berloni would like to get more involved in the creative side.

“Some of the shows I’ve worked on have been criticized because the animal steals the show and gets the best reviews,” Berloni says. “So why not create a whole show starring a dog? That’s my hope, to create a musical in which an animal plays a full character, not a minor character or a prop. It’s my secret hope we’ll be able to pull that off.”

Visit William Berloni’s Theatrical Animals Web site here.

Here’s Berloni in a TV intervie alongside Chloe and Chico from Legally Blonde:

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