In Legally Blonde, some actors threaten to chew the scenery, literally.
Published May 29, 2007
NEW YORK - In a dressing room on the ninth floor of the Palace Theatre are arguably some of the most pampered actors on Broadway.
They bark their demands.
They crave treats and attention.
They constantly want their egos stroked.
Ask anyone - they're beasts.
"Ignore them until they calm down, " instructs William Berloni, as the elevator doors open and five dogs make a noisy, tail-wagging beeline for a visitor.
Berloni is the ultimate stage mother to Chloe, Zizi, Chico, Boo Boo and Teddie, two bulldogs and three chihuahuas trained for the musical Legally Blonde.
One dog from each breed is needed for each performance, and that usually means Chico and Chloe, the top dogs. The rest of the pack - like their human counterparts - are understudies.
The musical, based on the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, tells the story of a bubbly blond who finds her inner strength at Harvard Law School. The show employs the animals sparingly onstage, but to great effect.
At one point, Chico the chihuahua, who plays Bruiser, the lead character's pup, yelps on cue with supporting actor Annaleigh Ashford, the two appearing to have a conversation.
The dog later elicits cheers when he scoots across the stage to pop into a handbag. During one recent performance, Chico yawned widely, apparently nonplussed by all the fuss.
For her part, Chloe, 47 pounds of glorious wrinkles, causes similar audience squeals when she lumbers into view to play with a squeaky toy.
"When an animal comes out, we know that they're not acting. They don't know how to act. So there's a sense of danger in having an animal onstage, " says Berloni, who trained all the dogs. "I think it's the ultimate special effect."
The dogs seem to bask in the adoration. On opening night, the two leads joined their human castmates on the red carpet; Chico, 2 1/2, wore a tiny tux, and Chloe, 3, was in a pink tulle skirt.
It's a far cry from where the animals started: caged in animal shelters and facing a potential death sentence. Berloni, in his 30th year as an animal trainer, makes it a point to rescue all his stars.
Chico, who was severely abused, was found in a shelter in Newark, N.J. The 6-pound pup had been left outside to defend himself in a back yard for more than a year.
"When I met him, he was not afraid of anything because he survived the experience, " Berloni says. "I thought, 'That's the will we need to have a chihuahua run out onstage in front of 1, 700 people.'"
Though Berloni concentrates mostly on dogs, he has also trained cats, birds and rodents. He coached a cat in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a rat in The Woman in White and 23 lambs for Bernadette Peters' run in Gypsy.
His other Broadway credits include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Awake and Sing and The Wizard of Oz, for which he had to find a terrier to be Toto. That's no easy task, he points out - terriers are tenacious ratters.
"There are animals that are better suited for this, but nobody tells the writer before I get the script, " he says.
Berloni also has trained animals for commercials and films. He most recently got a dog and cat ready for the upcoming Charlie Wilson's War, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
He has some limits: no primates, no wild animals and no predators. Berloni, 50, who has won awards from the ASPCA and American Humane Association, recently declined to train a monkey for the current run of Inherit the Wind, arguing that it was just a sight gag and not integral to the plot. (The producers dropped the idea.)
Along the way, Berloni has become a storehouse of knowledge about animal behavior. For instance, he knows that bulldogs can throw up when they get overly happy, so he has asked some actors to secretly carry paper towels onstage.
"I respect the fact that they are living creatures that I have no control over - as much as I do the weather, " he says.
During the Legally Blonde run, he and his assistant, Rob Cox, chart each dog's bowel movements and feed them twice a day, at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m., after the curtain has come down.
"You don't get an accident unless there's something in there, " Berloni explains.
To ensure that the dogs and actors mix well, Berloni organizes sleepovers. He also brings Chico and Chloe down to mingle with the actors before each show to make sure they don't get too worked up upon seeing their pals.
"C'mon, bud, " he says, scooping up Chico about an hour before a matinee performance and going downstairs to have the dog rehearse with Ashford.
"Hi! Come here, you! You are so funny! How are you?" she says to the chihuahua, who runs to her and wriggles in pure happiness. "I love him so much."
Ashford, who uses verbal commands and hand gestures to cue Chico and rewards him onstage with hidden treats, says she tries not to radiate any nervousness before performances.
"He looks right in your eyes and knows. It's the power of the animal spirit, " she says. "You couldn't ask for a better improv partner - you never know what's going to happen."
Berloni didn't intend to make it his life's work training animals. He graduated from high school in Connecticut with the dream of becoming an actor.
He was an 18-year-old apprentice carpenter building scenery at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., when the musical Annie originally premiered in summer stock in 1976.
"All the other carpenters threatened to quit if they had to train the dogs, so the producer needed a sucker, " Berloni said. "He offered me my Equity card in exchange for finding and training a dog for no money."
He went to a dog pound and paid $7 for the original Sandy. After the show bombed, Berloni studied at New York University with Stella Adler until he got a call six months later: Director Mike Nichols was readying Annie for Broadway and would he like to join as animal trainer? He did.
"Over the course of the next two years, I got two or three more Broadway shows and realized I was more talented at that than acting, " he says.
Berloni and his wife, Dorothy, have a 4-acre animal retirement home in Higganum, Conn., where they care for 16 former little performers. He's hoping to spend more time there.
"I started my career with a redheaded girl and a dog, and I'm hoping a blond-headed girl and a dog will lead me toward retirement."
But first there's a matinee to deal with. Berloni and Cox begin brushing their brood and putting them into their costumes.
How do you say "Break a leg" to dogs?
"Sprain a paw, " Berloni says.