Tarzan: The Broadway Musical is reportedly one of
the most expensive shows ever mounted on Broadway: The
New York Times reports: "Teching the show - the bringing together of
the show's lights, sets, costumes, props, hair and makeup for the first
time - had taken twice as long as it does for most Broadway musicals. That
meant nearly a month in a darkened theater amid millions of dollars of
equipment and highly paid brainpower, all for what is one of the most expensive
shows ever mounted on Broadway, with a budget rumored to be between $15
million and $20 million."
The project has spanned five years from its conception to
its scheduled opening on May 10.
The production is currently running about three hours --
from 8 to past 11 pm with a 25 minute intermission, but there are plans
to trim up to half an hour out of that. . . mostly dialogue.
The audience starts lining up around 7 pm and the queue extends
west down to "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and east to the Marriott and then
south halfway to 45th St.
So far every show has played to a packed house (capacity
1,368 seats) with people being turned away after waiting for several hours
on the cancellation line.
Much of the audience is made up of families and school groups.
Previews of "Tarzan" have been completely sold out with rush
ticket buyers queuing at the box office before 3 pm each day.
Reportedly, Tarzan is one of the few Broadway shows to open
in the black -- thanks to overwhelming advance ticket sales.
There is a reported advance of nearly $20 million, or about
as much as the show is estimated to have cost.
A hit musical can gross around $1 million a week on Broadway,
which can be multiplied many times if it tours and spawns other productions
around the world.
A highlight of the production is the abundant aerial dynamics
- lots of bungee cord jumping, climbing, swinging, flying - all of which
is inventive and is very exciting and fun to watch.
Last summer the whole operation, under the direction of Argentinean
Pichón Baldinu, attended a five-week "aerial lab"
on the campus of the State University of New York at Purchase, complete
with a half-dozen actors/acrobats. Several actors - in helmets and harnesses
- spent many hours hanging and swinging from thin nylon cords above
Taking their seats at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, viewers
will see spread across the show's curtain a long green vine attached to
a caribiner-style metal clip at its end.
The stage director is Bob Crowley, an acclaimed Irish
production designer ("Mary Poppins," "Aida," "Carousel"), who is also in
charge of the show's sets and costumes. We want to present the clip right
away, because that's the way people fly," explains Crowley. "They're not
really flying," he adds. "Characters obviously attach themselves to the
vines. They clip on and off."
Crowley's concept puts the focus on Tarzan finding himself.
Set in a green box strung with vines, the actors take on the look of rock-climbers
or bungee-jumpers, leaping from vine-covered nooks, sometimes flying over
the audience and finding the nook again.
Buckled beneath their costumes are specially-designed types
of nylon harnesses which afford the performers an amazing flexibility of
motion. "The way it's built, we can take off or come in from anywhere,"
says Stefan Raulston, a member of the ensemble. "There's nothing fun-ner
than being in the air."
Performing animal-like movement plus constant rappelling
on elastic lines has caused actors to develop extra muscle on their thighs
and upper bodies. "You can see how much people's bodies have changed since
we started," says Raulston.
Yoga and body-strengthening exercises have been part of 90-minute
warm-ups before rehearsals. A full-time physical therapist is employed.
Inspired by a two-minute sequence from Disney's 1999 animated
film as Tarzan crests across waves of jungle greenery, the look of the
musical's mid-air movement generally suggests surfing. The process "actually
is closer to rock-climbing," says producer Thomas Schumacher.
Crowley's solution to integrating such a large number of
"flying" actors into the production is to use a bright green inflatable
set, similar to a giant air castle. Holes are fashioned to allow actors
to enter and exit it, with a texture like a tough plastic balloon to protect
them. "There's no scaffolding or walls behind it, and it's soft," he says
of the set. "It's real research-and-development stuff." But some of those
holes must also be filled with lighting and sound equipment so actors must
be very specific about where they're going or they will end up inside of
a speaker or lighting panel.
The set has to be constantly re-inflated as the show progresses,
adding yet more equipment to the mix -- making a complex jungle of the
Rodgers backstage area -- an area already cramped with props, electrical
cable and other stage equipment.
Intense shades of green are colored both by lighting effects
and drops of jungle foliage that travel upstage and down. Hidden in the
rafters along with the overhead electrics and scenic gridwork, is a movable
gantry system. This unit tracks along, containing the machinery and rigging
that suspends the performers as they swing from their lines.
Fortunately, all these technical and acrobatic effects don't
overshadow the story or the characters.
Obviously a tremendous amount of training and rehearsal has
gone into the flying routines. There are frequently many people on stage
in mid-air at the same time and they all appear quite natural and comfortable
in this environment.
Adapting Baldinu's complicated and potentially dangerous
acrobatics so that they will work safely in the 81-year-old Rodgers theatre
has required the show's technical team to install a jungle of winches,
motors, steel wire and supports, all monitored by a technician, who sits
in the balcony, and by the show's stage manager.
The flying on ropes extends out over the first few rows of
the orchestra and on two occasions actors fly from the upper balcony all
the way to the stage. First, the entrance of adult Tarzan, then later,
a butterfly that dances in the air during a slow and beautiful descent
to the stage.
Some of the other special effects and aerial scenes include:
Tarzan's parents' escape from the shipwreck at the very start
of the show
Tarzan's parents' "gravity-defying" arrival on shore
Their dramatic deaths from the leopard
Gorilla aerial acrobatics during the introductory scene
Terk's introductory scene
The shadow puppets sequence during the "Son of Man" number
Adult Tarzan's dramatic entrance into the show
Jane's entrapment in the giant spider web
Tarzan's rescue of Jane
Tarzan's and Jane's Act II exit
Unfortunately, some of the aerial production in the first
act in which characters swing out over the audience and perform above the
stage cannot be seen by audience members seated in some of the orchestra
section below the balcony. Tickets for that section are stamped with a
disclaimer: "Obstructed View." The warning posted at TicketMaster states:
"Partial view seats are located in the rear of the orchestra ... A section
of the theatre above the stage cannot be seen because of the mezzanine
There are 24 rows in the orchestra and only the last four
are really affected and this involves no more than a few minutes of action.
There are over 500 seats in the mezzanine that are fantastic for the show.
For a full unobstructed view of the production the mezzanine
might be the best place to sit for this show.
Tickets for these preview performances are at discounted
Tom Schumacher, Director of Disney Theatricals, made
a point of welcoming the audience to the first preview performance:
"A lot of you are that curious breed," he said. "Freaks of the first preview,
Schumacher advised them that since this is a preview there
may be possible hitches and periodic stops to the show -- and that the
crew might need to come out on stage should any such technical problems
arise. So far, however, everything has appears to have gone smoothly.
Schumacher said, "The creative team for Tarzan has re-imagined,
and in some cases, reinvented characters from the original Edgar Rice Burroughs
novel, and Disney's animated film. We hope to bring a fresh perspective
to the Tarzan legend, and we think that we have found a wonderful cast
to make these roles their own."
"The design team has created a universe on stage, a flexible
environment in which the show is staged both on the ground and above the
ground. . . . Everybody wears a visible harness. There are visible ropes
all over the stage, both for gorillas and for Tarzan — and you will see
them literally clip in and harness up. It's part of the language of the
piece. . . . we went to Argentina to see what it looks like if people are
wearing harnesses and they're totally visible, and decided we liked that."
There have been a few reports that some of the dialogue needs
editing as some parts drag a bit and slow down the pace of the production.
Henry Hwang is currently playing doctor on the production. Armed
with a notebook, Mr. Hwang occupies different seats at different performances
to check out the characters — and to gauge audience reaction. "I have to
say, I wasn't all that familiar with the Tarzan legend at that time," David
tells us. "In fact, there are so many different versions of the tale (movies,
TV shows, comic books), that I eventually came to realize that I didn't
know the real story at all. So I read the original novel by Edgar Rice
Burroughs, and looked again at the Disney movie, which I'd always loved.
I discovered a tale of a man caught between two worlds, who has to find
his true identity before he can move forward. This was a story that excited
me, so I agreed to join the team. So began our 4 1/2 year journey to opening
night!" . . . "My favorite thing about 'Tarzan' is that it combines lavish
spectacle with a deeply personal and intimate story, which I believe gives
audiences the best of both worlds," David says. And it's a story that he
finds deeply moving. "One of the reasons stories endure is that they contain
elements which people of many different backgrounds can appreciate, each
from their own point of view. As a Chinese American, I particularly related
to a man caught between two worlds (in Tarzan's case, between human and
ape families), taking elements from each to become his best self." Disney
Other members of the core "creative" team are scattered throughout
the theatre, each monitoring his or her specialty.
The show is visually stunning with a superb cast of 34 actors.
Since the show is in preview the show is dark on some weekdays
Although the dialogue could use tightening it the audience
generally has been impressed by its many meaningful and sentimental
Phil Collins, before his many years performing with
Genesis, Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, began his performing career as
the Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver! (Barry Humphries
[Dame Edna] played Fagin.)
40 years later, Collins now a youthful 55, is making his
Broadway debut as the composer of Disney's lavish new musical, Tarzan.
For this latest phase in his prolific career, he's added nine new songs
to the five he wrote for the 1999 animated film (including the Oscar-winning
"You'll Be In My Heart").
Collins is fully committed to the Disney Tarzan project,
having lived with it since 1995 when preparations started . He's also resigned
to the harsh reviews that seem to be the norm from Broadway critics: "I
get kicked around by critics all the time. I can count on one hand the
amount of really good reviews I've had for anything I've done throughout
my career. . . . I'm prepared for anything."
Collins has indicated that his five children (aged 2-33 years)
are looking forward to attending opening night.
Three of the major songs in the production were eleventh
hour compositions he wrote since starting to work in New York: The song
for Tarzan's best friend, Terk, "Who Better Than Me" and two songs for
Tarzan's ape father, Kerchak, "Sure as Sun Turns to Moon" and "No Other
Way." These additional songs have expanded Kerchak's part beyond what it
was in the movie -- in fact, all of the characters have been expanded to
become "real people."
Other song titles include: "You'll Be in My Heart" "Two Worlds,"
"Jungle Funk," "I Need to Know," "Son of Man," "Sure As Sun Turns to Moon,"
"Waiting for This Moment," "Different," "Trashin' the Camp," "Like No Man
I've Ever Seen," "Strangers Like Me," "For the First Time" and "Everything
That I Am."
The drum-heavy "Jungle Funk" instrumental, where young Tarzan
is watching and learning the apes, sounds a lot like "something you'd find
on a Phil Collins record," the composer says.
Collins has sat in the mid-orchestra section for most of
the performances -- to the delight of his many fans in the audience. "I've
spent three or four years on this," said Collins of the show. "And
I intend to stay with them to the death."
Collins has even played percussion on the cast album.
Collins will be heard on a bonus track on the CD singing
the Tarzan tune "Everything That I Am." "At one point," Collins said, "I
thought I'd record all the songs on a record, but, of course, that takes
a bit of steam away from the cast album. So, for the cast album we did
last week, I ended up playing percussion."
The show opens with impressive visuals, but the two opening
songs -- "Two Worlds" and one other -- are sung (prerecorded?) off-stage.
Many of the songs throughout the production are accompanied
by an off-stage chorus.
The cast vocals are marvellous, especially considering that
many of the songs are done while swinging about on harnesses above the
The opening sequence is a spectacular piece of stagecraft.
The first image - an elegant blue map of Africa - is projected on the stage,
and a elaborate soundscape (seagulls, waves, a groaning ship) fill the
theater. And then, with a clap of thunder and a flash of artificial lightning,
the hall goes dark and the first act begins. It involves some great lighting
effects with a scrim, a simulated drowning, and a terrific stage-clearing
It's a great opening effect -- a sinking boat with people
lifted into the air in such a way as to make it look like they are submerged
in water, struggling to get to the surface.
The survivors are then attached to the upper back stage wall
to make it look like they have drifted up onto the beach.
Act I also features an impressive waterfall effect.
The ape costumes are fabulous, covering much of the actors'
bodies with long brown hair.
The various small animal, insect and flower costumes are
very colorful and attractive.
There is an on-stage transition from baby Tarzan to young
Tarzan -- mostly done with lighting effects.
Young Tarzan is played by two fine actors: Daniel Manche
and Alex Rutherford, who play the role on alternate nights.
They spend much of their time on all fours, scampering ape-like
and doing flips and ground pounding.
Accompanying part of the young Tarzan appearances is a "Son
of Man" video sequence where a movie-like screen is used to project a delightful
Shuler Hensley (Kerchak) and the other "ape actors"
are in elaborate and realistic ape makeup with lycra and human hair. Hensley's
impressive big First Act number is "No Other Way."
The Act Two opener – "Trashin’ the Camp" is a crowd pleaser
that recreates much of the action and many of the sound effects used in
the film version.
The "Camp" scene is led by Chester Gregory (he previously
played Seaweed in Hairspray) who does an upbeat, rhythmic song called
"Who Better Than Me."
Gregory along with Hensley and Merle Dandridge are
the only cast members playing gorillas who have a real face and personality.
The gorilla dances and acrobatics are full of boundless energy
-- jumping, twirling, pounding the ground, and flying via ropes while making
ape sounds and motions.
Tim Jerome plays Jane's father, Professor Porter,
as a somewhat distracted and stereotypical English bumbling old man --
he even has a piano playing scene.
Donnie Keshawarz plays Clayton with an American southern
accent rather than as an English gentleman as played in the Diesney film
performance as Jane is impressive, especially considering the acrobatics
she must go through.
Jane first appears in long tropical garden sequence in a
beautifully choreographed dance amid flora and fauna, with insects, spiders,
creepy-crawlies, etc. hanging and dancing and spinning from ropes at various
heights above the stage floor.
Her singing, especially in "Waiting for this Moment," is
crystal clear and she speaks with a refined English accent.
She is very lovely and wears many pretty costumes although
some of the audience find the dresses unflattering.
The adult Tarzan (Josh Strickland) makes his first appearance
by flying in from the back of the mezzanine.
The extremely fit Strickland (a Charleston, South Carolina
native of American Idol and Star Search fame) plays most
of his performance in a loin cloth, which the ladies in the audience especially
find most appealing.
Strickland's acting and singing are top notch.
A song highlight of the second act is "Like No Man I've Ever
Seen" sung by Jenn Gambatese.
One of the most impressive new songs is "For the First Time"
which showcases the glorious singing of the two leads.
The Tarzan scenes, where he learns about language and gets
acquainted with Jane, are touching, warm and funny.
Also very touching is the scene where Jane’s dad (Tim Jerome)
meets Tarzan’s ape mom (Merle Dandridge).
Merle Dandridge, as Kala, has just the right maternal presence
-- enhanced by her rich and warm voice.
There are bursts of spontaneous applause all through the
show. . . culminating each night with a standing ovation.
The basic ingredients are already present in the show in
its preview form -- the scenic wizardry is especially impressive. As it
evolves with revisions it will no doubt gain more heart and maturity, which
will develop an emotional connection with the audience.
Crowley hopes viewers will drop disbeliefs and go with the
flow of sheer theatricality. "Pure spectacle," he terms the production.
"The audience is never given anything realistic. There's a whole jungle
on stage, but there isn't a real leaf. A beach on stage, but there isn't
a bit of sand. A waterfall and there's no water. Crowley believes that
all that illusion -- plus everybody soaring through the air in time to
music causes a child-like reaction in people. "I hope that 'Tarzan' brings
out that 'play' thing that we un-learned as adults."
"The audience makes this thing come alive," says Collins.
"You can rehearse and rehearse it and you know what is supposed to be funny.
There are still a couple of things I laugh at every night that I'm the
only one — nevertheless, I'm sure they'll catch up."
The buzz in the theatre's outdoor terrace bar, where guests
gather during intermission, has been enthusiastic.
Since we're among the guests invited by Disney for opening
night, May 10, we will have much more to report upon our return to Canada.
of the Tarzan Cast
See news releases on the show from over the last half year
at ERBzine News
The Tarzan cast recording will be released on June 27 on
Walt Disney Records. The recording is currently available for pre-order
at the Richard Rodgers Theatre or on-line at www.tarzanonbroadway.com
Danton Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs,
who flew in from Tarzana, California for the previews, is very impressed
with the show: "I was just bowled over by it; I loved it. My granfather's
creation -- the Tarzan 'Legend' -- carries on in so many different forms,
generation after generation."