Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tarzan Not Swinging So Well

The newest Disney Broadway musical Tarzan is being ripped to shreads by critics. Not only that, but the only Tony nomination it received was for the lighting design. I thought with Bob Crowley designing, it would be a visual feast, but from what I've read his directing can't come close to mediocre. It is interesting how some creative people can only function in one form of creativity and find it difficult to branch out into a different medium, but yet the same creative form. I just read an interesting article titled "What Went Wrong with Tarzan?" I posted it below. It suggests that the material is what went sour, but rather the creative team. I remember seeing a production of The Scarlett Pimpernel and thinking how great it was. That production, however, was the third rendition with a third director of the same material. The first two directors never found their vision, but the last had finally created a fun, fast paced interesting show. The bad part is, by the time the third good version arived on Broadway, the public was so disgrunted by the other two bad shows which proceeded it, that they automatically dismissed it before giving it a chance. You can have a million perfect notes in a show, but if you squeak once- the audience will remember that squeak more than those million perfect notes- audiences are very ready to have a good time, but they are not very forgiving. That is why I surround my self with capable people. One of my acting professors told me once I was very shrewd in the sense that I knew who to hang around with and who to get involved. I also like to think I know who is fun- that's the most important. Below is the Tarzan article.

The fact that Disney's Tarzan opened on Broadway to largely terrible reviews last week can't have been a huge surprise to anyone who'd been listening to word of mouth (not to mention word of internet) about the show. But what really made me despair about the production even before I saw it was an article by Robert Feldberg that appeared in the Bergen Record on Sunday, May 7.
According to Feldberg, a major question for director Bob Crowley, composer-lyricist Phil Collins, and librettist David Henry Hwang in putting Tarzan together was "how to present the title character, whose image as a primal macho man is so deeply embedded in our culture. Would he, for example, sing? 'We discussed it for a long time,' said [Crowley], who is staging his first Broadway show -- one of a number of risks Disney is taking. 'A singing Tarzan -- it seemed rather weird. He doesn't sing in the [Disney cartoon] film." But "Crowley and his colleagues realized it would be hard not to have the lead character in a musical express himself in song, and they finally hit on what seemed a good solution. 'He sings about his feelings, what he isn't able to say,' said Crowley. 'I think the character gains real emotional depth.' "
Of course, this brainstorm is no brainstorm at all; the vast majority of all the songs ever written for musicals are about the characters' feelings. Confusion on this matter, not to mention everything else that's wrong with Tarzan, might well have been avoided if Disney had chosen a different creative team. Crowley has made a great name for himself as a set and costume designer but has never before directed a show. Hwang's play M. Butterfly is excellent, but his musical theater work thus far -- the libretto for Aida and that rewrite of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song -- has been, shall we say, less than excellent.
As for Phil Collins, his credentials as a pop singer-songwriter are beyond reproach but his knowledge of musical theater is spotty at best, as proven by a comment he made about his Tarzan score in the Bergen Record interview: "I didn't want to do the heavy vibrato, Ethel Merman kind of song. That's the cliché of Broadway. I saw Idina Menzel in Wicked singing 'The Wizard and I.' That had a kind of pop sensibility, and it showed me that it could be done." Note to Collins: The kind of sound you're talking about has been a part of Broadway at least since Hair in the late 1960s and has become more and more prevalent in the intervening 40 years. Further note to Collins: Denigrate Ethel Merman and the traditional Broadway sound at your own risk! Who do you think you are? Simon Cowell?
That Crowley and Collins have stumbled in their Tarzan assignments is certainly not to say that talented people shouldn't be allowed to grow and challenge themselves; but when artists branch out into different fields, they need strong support. I've often criticized the most recent Broadway production of Cabaret, but at least the Roundabout Theatre Company had the wisdom to tap musical theater veteran Rob Marshall as co-director and choreographer of the show, which would surely have been far less successful if Marshall hadn't lent a helping hand to out-of-his-element director Sam Mendes. There's a lesson to be learned here, and it's really too bad that it wasn't applied to Tarzan.

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