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Best Broadway Shows with Puppets

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
Last Updated on: Mar 22, 2024
By: Kathryn Willingham
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Broadway Shows with Puppets

When you think of puppets, you might think of Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood or Lambchop. You might even think that puppets are always meant for children. But they have always had a place in theater, from a Punch and Judy puppet show in the 1600s all the way through to The Lion King today. And they have been included in both shows geared toward children (Winnie the Pooh just made a splash off-Broadway) and shows meant decidedly for adults (looking at you, Avenue Q). That tradition continues, and you can see these shows on Broadway right now!

Broadway Shows with Puppets:



When you think of “puppets on Broadway,” The Lion King is probably the first show that comes to mind. Julie Taymor’s production has been astonishing audiences ever since it first opened in 1997, when it won 6 Tony Award including the Tony Award for Best Musical. The New York Times raved, “The puppets help to make possible special effects that no amount of heavy machinery could ever accomplish. Look out for the stampede of the wildebeests, be prepared for the moment when birds fill the theater. Time and again Ms. Taymor seduces the audience into seeing what, in reality, isn't there. That is theater.” The Lion King has gone on to be one of the most popular shows in the world; it has played in 21 countries and on every continent except Antarctica. 

Who made the puppets in The Lion King? Michael Curry and director Julie Taymor co-designed the masks and puppets.

How many puppets are in the show? Over 200, including elephants, giraffes, birds, wildebeests, hyenas, gazelles, and of course, lions! Most of the puppets make an appearance in the first song, Circle of Life, an awe-inspiring scene that stops the show.

What are the puppets made out of? The masks and many of the puppets are made from carbon fiber, which is light enough to allow the actors to move without too much difficulty. That movement (choreography by Tony Award winner Garth Fagan) is just as important as the puppets themselves. For the giraffes, actors walk on stilts and simulate the movement of giraffe legs. Other actors use dance to get across the movement of each animal.

Can I see the puppets in action? Check out this video from Disney that shows how the masks and puppets were created and how they work on stage.

Water for Elephants at the Imperial Theatre


Water for Elephants, adapted from the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen, has a book by Rick Elice, music by PigPen Theatre Co, and is told from the point of view of a man in a nursing home remembering his younger days in a traveling circus. Director Jessica Stone brings the circus to life on stage using puppetry to portray the animals, including the titular elephant. Variety said, “puppet designers Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman and Camille LaBarre work wonders, capturing each animal’s essence, sometimes with detailed designs but also with the simplest suggestion, especially for Rosie [the elephant] who becomes, via puppeteer Caroline Kane, a fully realized character – and star of this show, too.”

Who made the puppets in Water for Elephants? Ray Wetmore, JR Goodman, and Camilla Labarre designed the puppets.

What kind of puppets are in the show? All of the animals – in whole or in part – are created using puppets, including horses, orangutans, and of course, elephants.

What do the puppets look like? Check out the New York Times review to see pictures of the Antoine Boissereau as a white stallion horse.

Off-Broadway Shows with Puppets:


Playing at the Westside Theatre, this cult classic with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken follows flower shop assistant Seymour, his co-worker Audrey, a sadistic dentist, and a man-eating plant named Audrey II. This production with direction from Michael Mayer has been a hit with audiences, with Theatermania raving that “Little Shop is the greatest off-Broadway musical ever…and, of course, the puppetry remains top-notch.”

Who made the puppets in Little Shop of Horrors? Nicholas Mahon designed the puppets, which were built by the Monkey Boys Productions. Marty Robinson designed the original puppets when the show first premiered in 1982

How many puppets are in the show? The bloodthirsty star of the show, Audrey II, is played by four puppets of increasing size, from a small bud to a giant, man-eating plant.

What are the puppets made out of? The puppets are made out of fiberglass, foam, and fabric and recycled from other existing puppets. The final, giant puppet (who can swallow a person whole!) requires two puppeteers to operate.

Can I see the puppets in action? Check out this video of Audrey II singing “Feed Me” in the off-Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors!

Recent Broadway Shows with Puppets:


Inspired by Sesame Street, but with an R-rating and more adult themes, this musical follows a recent college graduate trying to find his purpose as he moves into an apartment in New York City on Avenue Q. With a book by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, this show features puppets like Kate Monster, Rod and Nicky (a take on Bert and Ernie), and Mrs. Thistletwat as well as the human characters Brian, Christmas Eve, and Gary Coleman. John Tartaglia created and served as puppeteer for both Princeton and the Rod puppet. Avenue Q originated off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre before moving to Broadway’s Golden Theatre, where it ran for over 6 years. It then moved back off-Broadway at New World Stages where it ran almost 10 more years before finally closing in 2019. 

Who made the puppets in Avenue Q? Rick Lyon designed the puppets, and his company, The Lyon Puppets, built them. Rick Lyon also originated the roles of Trekkie Monster, Nicky, and other characters in Avenue Q. Rick is also known for his many puppeteering credits in films like Men in Black and The Neverending Story III, as well as tv shows like The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and At Home with Amy Sedaris. He also worked with the Jim Henson company, where he was one of the operators of Big Bird.

How many puppets are in the show? Eleven characters in Avenue Q are puppets, including Princeton, Kate Monster, Nicky, Rod, Trekkie Monster, Lucy, and Mrs. Lavinia Thistletwat.

What are the puppets made out of? Each puppet has to withstand heavy use (often 8 shows a week!), so many have steel boning underneath the fabric, dye, foam, and custom wigs. In an article from SFGate, puppet designer Rick Lyon describes the many man hours it takes to craft a puppet and how they are operated.

Can I see the puppets in action? Check out this video of the original Broadway cast – humans and puppets alike – singing “It Sucks to Be Me.”


Hand to God by Robert Askins premiered off-Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theatre before opening on Broadway in 2015 at the Booth Theatre directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. The play follows Jason, originally played by actor Steven Boyer, who joins a puppet club at his church, but his hand puppet Tyrone seems to have its own personality, urging Jason and his peers to give in to their base desires. Read Hand to God here!

Who made the puppets in Hand to God? Marte Johanne Ekhougen designed the puppets.

How many puppets are there in the show? Set partly at a church's puppet club, a few characters make puppets over the course of Hand to God, but only one becomes sentient – Jason's sock puppet Tyrone.

Can I see the puppet in action? Check out this video from The Tony Awards to see a clip of Steven Boyer’s Tony-nominated performance as Jason/Tyrone.


This musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine is chock full of fairy tale characters like Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Cinderella, a witch, two princes, and – in this most recent Broadway production directed by Lear deBessonet – one very special puppet: a cow called Milky White. The New York Times said the puppet “breathes, coughs, moos and mourns – which works enchantingly…it unlocks in us a less guarded, more primal sympathy than we might allow ourselves to feel for a human performer.” This Broadway show includes a handful of other puppets too: a flock of birds and giant hands and feet.

Who made the puppets in Into the Woods? James Ortiz designed the puppets with assistant Camille Labarre.

How many puppets are there in the show? Into the Woods uses puppets to portray birds and giant boots, but the biggest puppet star of the show is the cow Milky White. In other productions, actors in a cow costume have played the role, but in this production, Milky White is a puppet operated by Kennedy Kanagawa, who brought the cow to life and charmed Broadway crowds.

What are the puppets made out of? Milky White is mostly made out of cardboard, and the giant’s boots are made out of wicker.

Can I see Milky White in action? Check out this video from TheaterMania and go backstage with Milky White herself!


King Kong with book by Jack Thorne and music by Marius de Vries and Eddie Perfect is based on the classic movie and stars a 20-foot-tall puppet. The show was developed in Melbourne, Australia and produced by Global Creatures, the same company behind Moulin Rouge! The Musical! The puppet wowed audiences from the start, with Entertainment Weekly saying, “At an early performance of King Kong the standing ovation went to the 2,000-pound puppet.”

Who made the puppet in King Kong? Sonny Tilders designed the puppet and Gavin Robins was the movement director.

What is the puppet made out of? Standing at 20 feet tall, weighting 2,000 pounds, and moved by 15 puppeteers, the puppet is made out of steel, styrofoam, and air and bean-filled bags to simulate giant muscles.

Can I see King Kong in action? CBS Mornings has a great video that describes the technology and stagecraft of the puppet.



Life of Pi is adapted for stage by Lolita Chakrabarti and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The play follows sixteen-year-old Pi who is left stranded on a lifeboat after a cargo ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The only other survivor? A Royal Bengal tiger. Life of Pi comes to Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre after a hit run on London's West End, where it won five Olivier Awards including Best New Play. Referencing the impressive Bengal tiger at the center of the story, The Guardian said,  “the star of the show is a mesmerizing puppet.” 

Who made the puppets in Life of Pi? Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes designed the puppets, and Finn Caldwell provided puppetry and movement direction.

How many puppets are in the show? More than you might think – you’ll already have heard about the impressive tiger at the center of the play, but there are also hyenas, orangutans, zebras, sea turtles, fish, butterflies, rats, and a goat.

What are the puppets made out of? The puppets are made using a lightweight material called plastozote; the overall look of the puppets is based on driftwood. Looking at the star puppet of the show, the Bengal tiger, it’s easy to imagine him as a collection of driftwood parts coming together. For even more information, read Nick Barnes’ interview with The Harvard Gazette.

Can I see the puppets in action? Yes! Check out this video segment from The Today Show that includes behind the scenes footage of how the puppets work.


War Horse was adapted by Nick Stafford from the book of the same name written by Michael Morpurgo. Directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, the production includes life-sized horse puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed by Toby Sedgwick. The play premiered at the National Theatre in London before moving to the West End and Broadway. The New York Times raved, “It takes a team of strong but sensitive puppeteers to bring Joey, a half-Thoroughbred who is sold into a World War I cavalry regiment, to life-size life. And it is how Joey is summoned into being, along with an assortment of other animals, that gives this production its ineffably theatrical magic… nothing on screen could replicate the specific thrill of watching Joey take on substance and soul, out of disparate artificial parts, before our eyes.”

Who made the puppets in War Horse? Handspring Puppet Company was responsible for the puppet design, fabrication, and puppet direction, and Toby Sedgwick provided the movement and horse sequences.

What are the puppets made out of? The puppets are made out of cane, plywood, and mesh.

Can I see the puppets in action? Lincoln Center released this video montage of the puppets in action for its production in 2011.

Recent off-Broadway Shows with Puppets:

Life and Times of Michael K at St. Ann's Warehouse


J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K is adapted and directed by Lara Foot in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company. Winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award when it ran at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2023, the play is set during the Apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and follows Michael K on his journey through a war-torn landscape. The Guardian said, “brutal war [is] brought to life with exquisite puppetry…the artistry on stage is immense.”

Who made the puppets in Life & Times of Michael K? Handspring Puppet Company is the same company who created the awe-inspiring puppets for War Horse and Little Amal.

How many puppets are in the show? Michael K and his mother are both played by puppets, and the puppeteers are fully visible on stage.

What are the puppets made out of? The puppets are carved out of light wood.

Can I see the puppets in action? Check out this trailer of Life & Times of Michael K to see a preview of the show and how the puppets are used. 


Wolf Play, written by Hansol Jung and directed by Dustin Wills, ran at MCC Theater after a hit run at Soho Rep and follows Jeenu and his parents in an off-the-record adoption that goes awry. The New York Times said, “Wolf, who serves as narrator, is a simple but expressive puppet made of wood, cardboard and papier-mâché in this probing and playful exploration of family…[Mitchell] Winter’s double feat as an energetic narrator and a sensitive puppeteer is so nimble that the boy often appears to be a separate living thing, endearing one moment, a terror the next (Amanda Villalobos is the puppet designer).”



The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is based on the beloved children’s book by Eric Carle and includes 75 puppets to delight kids of all ages. Produced by Jonathan Rockefeller and Rockefeller Productions, the same company behind Sesame Street the Musical, Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation, and Paddington Gets in a Jam, Time Out London said, “every child’s favourite bug comes to vibrant life in Jonathan Rockefeller’s globally popular show…there’s plenty of colourful puppets, dancing and music to entrance youngsters.”

Who made the puppets in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show? The puppets are from Rockefeller Studios, who also created the puppets in their shows Paddington Gets in a Jam, Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation, and Sesame Street the Musical.

How many puppets are in the show? The show includes over 75 puppets, including birds, fish, ducks, flamingos, bears, and of course, the very hungry caterpillar.

What are the puppets made out of? It depends on the puppet. In Jonathan Rockefeller’s interview with TheaterMania, he explains that the puppets are usually first made out of cardboard to see if they will work logistically, and then built using foam, fabric, and other materials.

Can I see the puppets in action? Check out this video to see Eric Carle’s classic creations come to life on stage.  

Puppet Companies in New York

HERE Arts Center Dream Music Puppetry celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2024. This program runs for roughly two weeks every year, features puppet works aimed toward adults, and includes local and international companies. Artistic Director Basil Twist oversees Dream Music and commissions and showcases shows that include live music in addition to puppetry.

La MaMa Puppet Festival is a yearly event that showcases local and international puppetry. And be sure to check out La Mama’s programming throughout the year, many of their shows include puppets and multimedia. When the theater reopened in 2021, The New York Times said, “the daring Manhattan theater reopens this month with a gorgeous puppet festival, proving it has lost none of its nerve during the pandemic.”

Phantom Limb Company was founded by Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko and produce works involving puppetry, movement, and multi-media. Their shows often focus on climate change and environmental activism, and past productions include Twelve Angry Animals, Falling Out, Peer Gynt, and Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead.

The Jim Henson Foundation was founded in 1982 by Jim Henson, who is perhaps best known for creating the Muppets. To date, the foundation has awarded over 1200 grants and is responsible for supporting many artists and companies across the United States. Check out their Puppet Happenings page to find nearby shows for all ages.

The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre is located in Central Park near Shakespeare Garden and Belvedere Castle. The theater offers marionette productions for kids and families and the building itself is a great example of traditional Swedish architecture. And be on the lookout for the theater’s PuppetMobile, which brings free shows and classes to kids all around the five boroughs.

Shows For Kids:

Looking for a play or musical theater show that’s great for the whole family? Check out our article on the Best Broadway Shows for Kids!

Kathryn Willingham

Head of Creative Development at Jean Doumanian Productions

Kathryn Willingham has worked in entertainment for over ten years, and recent credits include: Co-producer of SHRINK currently streaming on Peacock, Associate Producer of the independent film UNA, and Creative Executive on multiple theatrical productions including HANGMEN by Martin McDonagh on Broadway, NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour Off-broadway and Associate on productions EVERY BRILLIANT THING by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe and THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble. She was Producer of Todd Almond’s musical travelogue “Wyoming and Parts of Kansas” and Production Coordinator for Karen O and KK Barrett's “Stop the Virgens.”


Education: B.A. in English, Literature & Creative Writing from Rhodes College
Knowledge: Theatrical Production


Nov 6, 2022

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