04/13/2011 06:13 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

Anatomy Of A War Horse: The Actors Behind The Puppets Speak (SLIDESHOW)

When the three actors who play one horse sat down for an interview recently, they unwittingly sat in order: head, heart, and hind.

Some of the stars of the hit play "War Horse" will never be noticed when they're walking down the street. In fact, if they do their job, they won't be noticed onstage, either.

Together, Tom Lee, 37, Joel Reuben Ganz, 34, and Jonathan Christopher MacMillan, 25, make up one of several teams of actors who turn a life-sized puppet into a horse named Topthorn.

"It could be frustrating," says Lee, who operates the hind, "But it's also beautiful. People believe these horses are here. It's kind of humbling."

In 2007, "War Horse" premiered at London's Royal National Theatre to terrific acclaim. It played two separate engagements there before transferring to London's West End in 2009, where it broke records for ticket sales and continues to play to packed houses. On Thursday, "War Horse" will open in New York, at Broadway's Vivian Beaumont Theater. The production, like the London one that preceded it, is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

Based on the 1982 children's book by Michael Morpurgo, "War Horse" is the story of young Albert Narracott, a farm boy from Devon, whose horse, Joey, is sent off to the cavalry in France during World War I. While there, Joey stumbles into all the horrors of combat, serves both British and German armies, and meets Topthorn, another cavalry horse. Though he is underage, Albert enlists in a desperate attempt to find Joey, ultimately spending years in battle with the hope of one day reuniting with his horse.

It is a tremendously simple narrative, linear and sweet -- a love story of boy meets horse, boy loses horse, boy goes through hell to get horse back. But it takes place against the backdrop of World War I and emphasizes a part of its history that is seldom recounted. Britain lost between one and two million horses in the war, they died as gruesomely as soldiers, and suffered for nothing they understood.

"We don't call them puppets," says MacMillan, who operates Topthorn's head. "No, we call them horses," says Ganz, the heart. "They're Joey and Topthorn."

From Joey's first appearance onstage, as a small, straight-legged and awkward colt, the audience believes. He twitches his head and trots about, he whinnies and bucks, his eyes great, black orbs that catch the light and seem moist. He is soon replaced by his adult version, an enormous creature whose ribcage rises and falls with each snort.

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, of Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town, South Africa, fashioned these beasts out of cane, leather, and aluminum. They designed them to be as lightweight as possible, yet made sure they would move with every nuance of life, right down to a shiver of skin or the flick of an ear.

"They call them 'micro-movements,'" says Ganz. "When we're really still on stage -- silent -- and then, just an ear moves. That's terrifyingly beautiful."

And it is. Without fail, the audience smiles with affection at the horses. They look on dearly, the way they might gaze into the eyes of a pet. "Oh, that horse," sighs a woman to her friend. "I just want to take him home."

It took months for each team of actors to learn how to bring the horses to life -- a feat of strength, selflessness, and symbiosis. Together, they walk, breathe, and gallop; they splutter and trot. At certain points, the war-ravished horses appear wraith-like and spectral in the mist, their bodies ragged and gaunt. Some horses die horrifically. They stumble and fall, and the actors fall to the stage with them. It could break your heart. (Most audience members cry.)

The men who make up the teams must work with perfect awareness of each others' bodies and breaths. Even the sounds of the animal are produced by the human trio. Ganz points out that a horse has a lung capacity of three humans. "We each have different vocal ranges," he says. "So, he starts, and I pick up, and he follows."

Sitting side-by-side around a table in the Beaumont's lobby, and dressed not as one horse but three men -- t-shirts, jeans, a baseball cap -- they demonstrate the sounds. From whinny to splutter: MacMillan starts, Ganz picks up, and Lee brings up the rear. Together they reproduce that wonderful complexity of a horse's voice. Onstage, the effect of the snorting, neighing, and nickering coming out from deep in that horse's belly is magical.

It is grueling work, too. While they speak, Lee massages his right bicep with his thumb, Ganz flexes his hands.

"I'm crouched in a constant lunge position," says Lee, the hind. "Left leg forward, right leg back. I'm holding levers for each leg, with triggers on them for the tail twitch." And then the rider climbs on top."

"He's only 5'7" and 140 pounds," says Ganz, the heart. "But it feels like 6'5" and 250." They do eight shows a week, and on days off from Topthorn, they play different roles. (MacMillan, for example, also plays a duck.)

"But it's not the movement that makes it hard," says Ganz. "It's the stillness. It's the breathing that makes a thing live. Watching the show is about that simplicity, and the stillness that these animals have. We have to be brave enough, as performers, to be still."

Check out some production stills below: