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Tarzan swings onto the Great White Way in the new Disney musical from composer Phil Collins.

Phil Collins
Phil Collins Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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"Aaahhh-ah-a-Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh-Aaahhh-ah-a-Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!" The Tarzan of Tarzans, as per his last request, went to his grave to an ear-shattering battle cry. As Johnny Weissmuller's coffin was lowered into the Acapulco earth, it was accompanied by a recording of his classic ape-call. "The Tarzan yell" (if MGM's publicity department is to be believed) was created by studio technicians in their little labs, boiling and bubbling and blending "a camel's bleat, a dog's growl, a hyena's howl played backward, the pluck of a violin's G-string, a soprano's high C and Weissmuller's own full-lunged bellowing."

Happily, such questionable complexities were lost on Phil Collins, who laid his own primitive sounds and touches on Edgar Rice Burroughs's vine-swinging lord of the jungle, first as a 1999 animated film and now (at the Richard Rodgers Theatre) as a stage musical.

Going the way of all Disney animal acts, apparently - to Broadway - Tarzan has grown in song. The original score featured five songs (the Oscar-winning "You'll Be in My Heart" included), all by Collins; now the score is steady and holding with 14 numbers parceled out among Josh Strickland in the title role, Jenn Gambatese as his Jane, Merle Dandridge and Shuler Hensley as his ape parents and Timothy Jerome as Jane's father.

Unlike Elton John, who backed onto Broadway in a similar two-step - by augmenting his five-song score to Disney's "The Lion King" (Oscar winner, again, included: "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?") - Collins comes from the legitimate theatre. Forty or so years ago, you would have found him scampering across the London stage as The Artful Dodger in Oliver! A few years later, he was Noah Claypole, the undertaker's assistant, in the same show. "My acting career was kinda bookended - as a teenager - by Oliver!" he says. When he was Dodgering about, his Charlie Bates was the late Jack Wild (who became the movie version's Oscar-nominated Dodger, via a deal agented by Collins's mother), and his Claypole understudy was the assistant stage manager, one Cameron Mackintosh, who crossed paths with Collins for the first time since only a year ago when both got honored at a Buckingham Palace music salute. "Barry Humphries did our Fagin," Collins recalls.

"I loved that show, and my love for the live stage stayed with me, so it's nice, after all these years, to come home to this. I wanted to be involved because I'm learning the process and the process is interesting to me. I'm interested in widening my horizons. It's songwriting, really, and I'm supposed to know about songwriting. I think you should know as much about what you do as you can."

In November 2005, "the road" finally came to an end for Collins. "We called it The First Final Farewell Tour - as a joke - but, nevertheless, it was the final farewell tour," he says. "I've lived out [of] a suitcase for 30 years, and I've just had enough. I have five kids - two very young - and I figured, with the theatre world now possibly opening up to me, I can work at home. I had to do what I had to do with the older kids because I had to earn money. Now, I've got a lot of money, and I want to use the time to be with my kids."

Collins' own working childhood blinded him to the joys of Weissmuller's Tarzan. "I was never really a Tarzan guy. It's more American than English. I spent most of my early life learning to play the drums."

That may be one of the reasons he pounced when Disney pitched the idea of an animated "Tarzan." There is nothing like jungle drums to raise the heat and sweat of African exotica, and there are three on board here for his heavy-on-percussion score. Another reason: "I've always been one to look for new things to do, and this qualified."

When it became a hit, Disney wanted to take it to Broadway, a la Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, but it was no slam dunk. "We had to wait till someone came up with an original way of presenting it," Collins points out. "Most people think the easiest way to go is another Lion King - when, in fact, that's the first thing you try not to do. It's a Disney movie, but at the same time, it'll be unlike anything anybody expects."

Bob Crowley, the brilliant mind behind the sets of Carousel, The Capeman and Aida, was anointed a hyphenate as the show's director-designer by Disney producer Thomas Schumacher. "I was asked to go to London to meet him, and if I got on with him, I was told the show would move on," says Collins.

They realized they were on the same page immediately. "Tarzan isn't like a superhero - he actually employs mountaineering techniques - so you have to buy into the idea that you're going to see ropes and bungees and things like that. We saw a lot of Tarzans who came in looking like the archetype. Bob's idea is that we should always be fighting that caricature. Josh Strickland, our choice, is one of the least experienced actors in the show. He's a great singer, and his simplicity as an actor is actually beneficial."

Innocence helps more than brawn with their Tarzan, who's basic Burroughs - an orphaned infant raised by apes to manhood, when he meets and falls in love with one of his own species, forcing him to choose between the home he has known and the heart he desires.

"The book is very dark," Collins says. "And, of course, the Disney version of Tarzan is totally different from the Weissmuller films. It's much more of a story of a man finding himself. In some respects, it's closer to Greystoke than Weissmuller. It's also a great love story, and that's caused me to write some new songs which I'm really, really proud of."

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