Broadway Musical Time Machine: Looking Back at Tarzan
Disney musicals on Broadway can be enormous hits: Beauty and the Beast, Aida, The Lion King, Aladdin, Newsies, Mary Poppins were all unqualified successes. The Little Mermaid didn't fair quite as well, but the title has become a popular one with regional theatres and summer stock companies. Then there is poor Tarzan, a peculiar choice to receive the Broadway treatment, but a production that was filled with some inventive and startling moments. Tarzan is, of course, based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of the same name about a human boy whose family is shipwrecked to a remote African jungle. When the boy's parents are killed, he is raised by a family of gorillas. He grows into adulthood, mastering survival from the animals that surround and teach him by example. When he is reclaimed by the human race, Tarzan must navigate living a life somewhere between his jungle family and his newfound life with the girl Jane and mankind as a whole.
The Disney animated film Tarzan was a hit, thanks largely to a clever script, a starry voice cast, and an energetic and moving score by 80s pop legend Phil Collins. Collins' songs were not really musical theatre in style, but rather they were commentary on the action. Only one song, "You'll Be in My Heart", is sung by the mother gorilla Kala to the baby Tarzan as a lullaby. It is one of the most tender and deeply emotional moments ever in a Disney film and is perhaps the sequence that made Disney think that Tarzan might work as a stage musical.
On Broadway, Tarzan really didn't work. To begin, the scenery by Bob Crowley was a peculiar mishmash of hanging vines and a green, inflatable back wall that served as padding to deflect actors swinging around in aerial "choreography". Collins wrote more songs, none of which were as wonderful as those that came from the film, but serviceably helped the plot along within its sameness. Playwright David Henry Hwang did his best to provide believable dialogue for animals and humans. Crowley also directed, creating some stunning moments, nothing more fantastic than a birds-eye view of Tarzan's parents walking on the beach as the two actors walked up the back wall of theatre. Breathtaking effects for sure, but that does not a musical make. The cast was an assembling of some of Broadway's finest talent, including Josh Strickland, Shuler Hensley, Jenn Gambatese, Merle Dandridge, Chester Gregory II and Timothy Jerome. Talented people were plenty, but the show struggled to find an audience.
Here are some interesting facts about Tarzan:
- The musical opened at Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre on May 10th, 2006 and ran for just over a year, reaching a lackluster (by today's standards) 486 performances.
- Many of the cast members attended an aerial camp at SUNY Purchase where they learned to move, swing and glide in their harnesses.
- Due to the physical workout of the aerial stunts in the show, the actors reported major physical changes in their muscles as the show ran.
- Actor Dylan Riley Snyder, who played Young Tarzan later in the show's run, would go on to star in the Disney XD comedy Kickin' It as the nerdy Milton Krupnick.
- Composer Phil Collins, despite his fame in the pop music industry, was no stranger to musical theatre. He played The Artful Dodger in a production of Oliver! in London when he was young. His Fagin? None other than Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna).