Monday, June 25, 2007

Broadway Funk: Overhauling Tarzan

As Peter Stone wrote in "How Did They Build Titanic?" from Titanic: The Complete Book of the Musical:

Because there is, unhappily, a very large contingent of the New York theatre people and journalists . . . who pray devoutly, with all of their being, that any new show is a disaster. And in the case of Titanic, a title synonymous with disaster, this malevolent hope reached new heights—or plumbed new depths, depending on whether you’re rooting for the passengers or the sharks.

I have had great experiences at many of the Disney shows. The national tour of Beauty and the Beast with Kim Huber as Belle was the second Broadway show I saw, and I was elated every moment. That gut reaction you get to at great Broadway show—from the emotional response to the awe and wonder that lasts in your memory forever—was there for me that evening.

For The Lion King, I got to see it with the original cast—Tsidii Le Loka, Heather Headley, the late Jason Raize, Samuel E. Wright, et. al—from front row, center. Yes, I was awed and inspired every moment, particularly from those thrilling performances.

I even saw On the Record with Emily Skinner and the future Mary Poppins herself, Ashley Brown. I walked in hoping for a smashing presentation of great Disney songs, and I was never disappointed, particularly with such an amazing cast and fun staging by Robert Longbottom.

The unrivaled Disney show for me has always been Aida. I don’t think I could fully express how thankful I am that I got to see that show with the original Broadway cast. I vividly remembered how powerful Heather Headley had been in The Lion King, so I could hardly wait to catch her in Aida. From the moment she opened her mouth, saying, “Release them,” I had chills. Then, if that wasn’t enough, there was Adam Pascal and Sherie RenĂ© Scott, plus Damian Perkins, John Hickok, and Schele Williams—You’d think God Himself cast the show. Everything about Aida was amazing, and I saw it twice on tour, once with Simone as Aida, then with understudy extraordinaire Merle Dandridge, and Kelly Fournier as Amneris and Patrick Cassidy as Radames.

Tarzan, which recently announced its closing, was a very unique experience for me. It’s been a show that has been an easy target for many people, and I think that just because its Disney, Tarzan has had too many people happily tap dancing on its red-inked grave, so I’d like to take a moment to recognize some great things.

First of all, I think it’s important to acknowledge Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatricals, for the daring steps he took with Tarzan. A big critique Michael John LaChiusa had of many recent shows in his Opera News article, which I discussed in my first blog entry, was that they didn’t step far enough away from the source material. With Tarzan, David Henry Hwang’s libretto immediately starts branching away from the film and with several gigantic steps, such as Kerchak sending Tarzan (and then by her own choice, Kala) away from the family. For Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, there were elements added—more gradual changes for the enchanted objects, songs to fill out scenes and characters—but with Tarzan (and later with Mary Poppins), the story takes off in different directions. This stems from an apparent and admirable desire to take the material deeper.

It’s also important to praise Disney for keeping the spectacle in check. I always admired the set for Aida because it looked so simple, yet it was stunning. I don’t think Tarzan’s set was all that simple, but it appeared to be that way. The creators could have thrown in a lot of do-dads and theatrical gadgets, but they risked it with the more simple set, which they altered periodically through the evening to (successfully, as far as I’m concerned) keep it from looking monotonous. For all the complaints about the tire in Cats and the engulfing costumes of Beauty and the Beast, under Thomas Schumacher’s guidance, Aida, On the Record, Mary Poppins, and Tarzan avoided excess to keep in touch with the human story.

Can we also take the time to give Disney a hand in discovering and casting such amazing talent? Look at people who got a big break in a Disney show—Susan Egan, Jason Raize, Heather Headley, Ashley Brown, Josh Strickland, and now someone new in The Little Mermaid. If that weren’t enough, admire the list of people who were either in original or replacement casts—Terrence Mann, Gary Beach, Beth Fowler, Burke Moses, Tom Bosley, Samuel E.Wright, Mary Stout, Chuck Wagner, Kerry Butler, Andrea McArdle, Matt Bogart, Idina Menzel, Maya Days, Mandy Gonzales, Rebecca Luker, Daniel Jenkins. They have not only selected established talents for their original casts, but they have sought out great people as replacements. And while they have pulled the stunt casting card (most sadly to the detriment of Aida), they’ve done it far less than other successful shows, like Chicago and Cabaret. Some of their stunt casting has even been respectful, such as pulling in Broadway vets Christy Carlson Romano and Donny Osmond for Beauty and the Beast, or giving a genuine talent like Anneliesa van der Pol her Broadway debut.

Look at the cast for Tarzan—Jenn Gambatese, Merle Dandridge, Tony-winner Shuler Hensley, Chester Gregory II, and newcomer Josh Strickland. They didn’t skimp.

They also deserve an ovation for the creative talent they’ve utilized. Disney has done first class Broadway shows using first class Broadway talent. The choice of Bob Crowley to direct Tarzan should be applauded. Whether it resulted as a wise choice or not, Thomas Schumacher did what should happen more on Broadway—He took a gamble with an extremely talented person and gave him the reigns to create. That doesn’t mean his work shouldn’t be evaluated just as stringently as a more experienced director, like a Hal Prince or a Susan Stroman, but we should at least applaud him for the guts for his choice.

And it happens. Yes, sometimes you have the recipe right, the oven temp right, the right-sized pan, and the angel food cake still overflows and gets encrusted on the oven’s heating coils. Creating a great show is an art, not a recipe. Even the greatest of producers and directors have those shows that somehow overflow and leave a charred mess, and they still need to go before the media to put on a happy face to protect the investors’ interests.

The Problems
(Please note: If you were somehow involved with the show, and you were kind enough to read my blog, I would encourage you to now scroll down and re-read my entry entitled “If They Could See You Now.” There is so much negativity on Broadway, as Peter Stone said, and I prefer to focus on the positives, except this time. Though I will endeavor to have a positive critique of the show, a critique in general implies that I could end up hurting your feelings, which is most definitely not my aim. I love Broadway and Broadway people. So, as Grover once so aptly said, there is a monster at the end of this blog entry, so please don’t turn the page.)

Everybody with a computer has a solution to every single show ever produced. If they had only been there, the libretto would have included this, the composer would have written that, and that actor would have gestured like this instead. And we all know that the number one (and most important) qualification to being able to create on Broadway is to have an opinion and a Broadway Mouth loud enough to get it out there, right? And nobody else could possibly be correct, obviously.

And if they had been there, that stupid show Guys and Dolls would have lasted much longer than it did. If only . . .

So I would like to take a moment to acknowledge that, firstly, it is easier to fix rather than to create one from the ground up. Secondly, hindsight is always perfect. Thirdly, these ideas are take it or leave it. I’m throwing them out there as a creative exercise for myself and nothing else.

Many people go into shows hating them, sitting there challenging the people involved to make them like the show. It’s like they have a checklist, and they’ll only leave the theatre happy if every item on that general checklist is marked off, no matter what the genre or goals of the show are.

I love theatre too much to do that. I go in and enjoy myself, and I only form critiques when I realize that I’m not enjoying myself or, after a show, when I try to figure out why I didn’t enjoy myself as much as I could have. As a writer, it is, for me a way, of learning and stretching my own skills.

For Tarzan, boredom set in pretty quickly. I have honestly never sat in a theatre with such an amazingly hard-working cast resulting in so little energy. Thirty minutes into the show, it was like a black hole had settled in at the back of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, sucking all energy into it.

The first symptom of Tarzan was that here was an amazing cast—Shuler Hensley won the Tony and is amazing on the Oklahoma! DVD, Merle Dandridge was an outstanding Aida, and I have heard so many great things about Jenn Gambatese—and they had so little with which to work that the performances never lifted. I walked away from Merle Dandridge’s Aida gaping, in awe of her talent, and here, I wouldn’t have left realizing her talent had I not already known. Josh Strickland, because he has an awesome rock voice, came off the strongest, but he still didn’t have enough to work with.

The next big problem was there was no humor. Poor Chester Gregory II tried so hard, but for a comedic character, he was given lines that held absolutely no humor, and he was forced to try to milk the humor with an Eddie Murphy dialect. Three cheers for him because he was out there trying the whole night I saw the show, and for the little response he got, he still kept going. It wasn’t his fault! Even Elaine Stritch couldn’t pull a laugh out of her script in Monster-in-Law. It’s impossible for a comedian to rise above laugh-less material.

I don’t ascribe to the philosophy that every Broadway musical needs to be another How to Success in Business Without Really Trying. Just like in movies and on television, there are theatrical stories that don’t require a ton of humor to be entertaining—Jekyll and Hyde, Jane Eyre, and The Civil War come to mind. But Tarzan needed it. The film was constructed for humorous characters, and since those characters were included on stage, the humor was needed as well.

Henry David Hwang is so very talented, as I have already gushed over in my mention of Aida, but just as he doctored Linda Woolverton’s book for that show, he really needed someone to come in on Tarzan. Besides his lack of humor, the show doesn’t skillfully accomplish all that he attempts to do. In the film, for example, Jane Porter sheds layers of clothing throughout the movie, indicating the shedding of her Victorian repression. In the stage version, Jane just arrives, blinks, and is experiencing a sexual awakening, which gets expressed in song, staging, and dialogue. There are a number of elements in the show that get handled that way—such as Kala’s separation from Kerchak.

The songs imported from the film work extremely well. While they are not inherently theatrical songs, they are great songs, and when blasted into the audience by voices like those of Josh Strickland and Merle Dandridge, they gave the show its only real energy. The songs written for the stage, however, only deserve an A for effort. I once made an ill-fated attempt at being my own lyricist, and I can honestly say my stuff was on par with “Sure as Sun Turns to Moon.”

My Fixes
I have always wished I was in New York while a show was previewing and the word was bad. I really wished I could have gone into the Richard Rodgers Theatre, then said, “Mr. Crowley, if you give me a copy of the libretto, I’d love to fix it up for you. If you like it, great. Use it. If not, you’ve wasted no money and no time.” Of course, if that fantasy ever actually happened, I would have really been shot down and put in my place.

If that had actually happened and if Bob Crowley hadn’t hung me by one of those vines, some of the changes I made would have been these. I do think that, while not necessarily the best choice for a Broadway show because animation was the best medium for the story, Tarzan does hold much potential because of the emotional core of the story.

I should also insert here that it has been almost a year since I saw the show, and I never bought the CD (the only Broadway show I’ve never bought the CD for—I will eventually, but I have the movie CD, and those were the best songs in the show), so I know I won’t be addressing all of the things I thought about after seeing it.

Before I touch on any changes I would have made to the libretto, I would have recommended Disney bringing in a lyricist to salvage Phil Collins’ new music. I remember thinking the lyrics for one or two songs worked, but that was it. Disney has had a successful relationship with David Zippel, who is very talented. I bet he would have been a great choice.

1. When the situation arises that Tarzan makes a spear and Kerchak kicks him out of the family, it seems so random. I’m a big believer in the need to foreshadow big plot twists. Face it, this is pretty big. Not only is he kicking a boy out, but it sends Kala away, which clearly disturbs him. I would have written into the stage directions that, during “Two Worlds,” Tarzan’s father attempts to spear a gorilla while Kerchak is watching. That way, when Kerchak sees the homemade spear, the audience would instantly sense his fears. It would feel integrated into the plot, unlike so many moments in the show. There wouldn’t even have to be any exposition worked into the dialogue; it would be in the visuals.

2. I remember the book trying to take the story a level deeper by creating a parallel between Kerchak and Kala’s relationship struggles and that of separated parents. It was a great idea, but I remember feeling like it never fully came together.

3. As mentioned above, Jane’s transformation happens way too quickly. Part of what works so well in the film is that Tarzan’s openness changes Jane. There is a change in each character as a result of knowing the other. Like I said before, here she blinks and is losing all her Victorian repressions.

4. The Ice Capades called and wants its spider back. Which is fine, because it’s not very threatening. But there’s actually a further problem beyond its appearance. On stage, directors can play with time and spacing. Dolly Levi can be eating in Harmonia Gardens, then stand up and address a judge in court. But in this case, none of it made sense; it was too severe of a leap. How did Jane look up and realize that she’s in the middle of a spider web, which was spun around her by a giant Day-Glo spider? If we were to stretch our imaginations, how did she fall into a web and not realize it had happened until she looked up from her notepad. Perhaps her sexual awakening distracted her, but I’m not buying it.

Here’s a case where it would be impossible to top the film, which has an exciting and hilarious baboon chase that is visually thrilling and emotionally involving.

However, there had to be something better than a large spider. Perhaps she is walking through thick foliage and finds herself falling over a cliff, a wire attached to Jenn Gambatese’s back, and, with strobe lights making for slow motion, Tarzan swings in and saves her. Perhaps Clayton is down below, and, hearing a scary sound, he shoots first and asks questions later, and right after Tarzan saves her, a non-purple bird falls from a very nearby branch to show how close she had been to death on several levels.

Maybe this isn’t the best idea, but there had to be something better than a large spider.

5. Clayton didn’t work as a Southerner. Kudos to the creative team for trying something different, but it didn’t work. The character in the film was very theatrical—just listen to that voice—but I also agree that it would have been a mistake to have re-created that in the Broadway show.

Perhaps they could have taken a page out of the Hercules handbook, and Clayton could have been a humorous, fast-talking, car salesman type with an edge. He’s could be a mercenary for a Most Dangerous Game-inspired nutcase who wants him to bring back to England some unusual prey for the hunt. Clayton first goes after Kerchak, then realizes that Tarzan would be the most challenging prey of all.

I honestly don’t remember the ending of the show—what led to the climax or how it all unfolded—but this would involve the apes, then his violence would become directed solely at Tarzan. Because of my lack of memory, I don’t know if this would solve the ending, but it would at least provide for a vivacious and more theatrical characterization.

A really daring move would have been to remove the villain altogether, and leave the story one about these two cultures coming together, perhaps a parable for inter-racial relationships.

6. Porter needed his personality back. Again, the character in the movie was distinctly animated. I doubt he could have been translated directly onto the stage, but the character needs a distinct personality and a distinctive character actor to play him. I’m unfamiliar with the man who originated the role on Broadway (I saw his understudy), but perhaps Robert Morse could have been brought in to make him into a joyous Santa Claus type character, boisterous and charming, delighted at everything he sees (like the in the film) but perhaps a little less child-like (because I think that would be hard to do on the stage).

7. What “Jungle Funk” was accomplishing was quite unclear. It came across as an inserted dance break and not an integral part of the story. I honestly don’t remember that part of the show well enough to make a strong recommendation, but I do know it needs to be more related to the events on stage.

8. Nothing kills a show like projecting a movie, which, when juxtaposed next to living, breathing actors, stops the show for all the wrong reasons. The song is supposed to illustrate Tarzan’s development from boy to animal-man, and there are enough specific ideas in the lyrics with which to work in staging humans. I would have recommended energetic vignettes that illustrate mini-conflicts that Tarzan rises above, with an actor or two taking on intermediate Tarzans between boy Tarzan and Josh Strickland.

9. “Trashin’ the Camp” opened the second act but, like “Jungle Funk,” seemed disconnected from everything, as if it was included because it had to be there rather than because it fit. Again, my remembrance of the show isn’t strong enough to recall what happened after, except that it seemed very disconnected.

10. Terk needs some great one-liners.

Obviously, a show is more than a list of ingredients, and a needy show is more than a list of fixes. As I’ve said, it’s been almost a year since I saw the show, so these are derived from fragments of my remembrances, though I’m sure if I had actually seriously attempted to doctor the show, a fresher experience would have yielded more thoughts.

It’s always a happy time when a show has a good run, even if it doesn’t break even, because it has employed great actors and other theatre folk, then leaves so another production can fill the theatre. Instead of taking malevolent delight in Disney’s first major failing, let’s learn from it for ourselves, then focus on the great things Disney has done and admire the honorable steps they took with Tarzan and all their shows.

Broadway Mouth
June 25, 2007

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