PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Tarzan, Lord of the Bungee-Jumping Apes

By Harry Haun
11 May 2006

Among the Tarzan creative team getting a lot of snap, flash and pop were choreographer Meryl Tankard (to apes what Gillian Lynne was to Cats), lighting designer Katz, Pichon Baldinu (recruited from De La Guarda to give Tarzan proper swing and sway) and the oft-forgotten book writer (a Tony-winning one for M. Butterfly), David Henry Hwang.

“I’m excited, and I’m relieved,” Hwang sighed at journey’s end—in the press line just outside the Marriott’s party-in-loud-progress. “I really started developing the project four years ago, and then, of course, there are people like Phil Collins and Tom Schumacher, who worked on the animated movie. I certainly used the movie as a jumping-off point, and there are lines from the movie, but Bob Crowley really encouraged me to depart from the movie when I wanted to in order to explore the themes more deeply."

His next move will be non-musical. “I have a play, which is great because I haven’t done a new play in a while. We’ll start it at the Mark Taper Forum out in L.A. next spring and then bring it to The Public the following fall. It’s called Yellow Face, and it has something to do with Face Value [a Hwang work that closed right before its Broadway opening], but I can’t exactly say what right now.”

You’d not suspect vertigo of Chester Gregory II from the way he now glides through the air with the greatest of ease—upside down, in fact, at the top of the second act. “I like to try to do different things, unique things, so I asked them in the rehearsal process if I could do it,” said the actor who plays Tarzan’s best ape-friend, Terk (voiced in the movie version by Rosie O’Donnell). “They said, ‘You sure you wanna do this eight times a week?’ I said, ‘Sure. Let’s try it.’ So I tried it. It was hard at first because they gave us two months of just training with the ape language and the flying. Now it’s second nature.”

Then there was the vertigo. “It took me the entire two months because, when I started, I had a fear of heights. So that was crazy. Getting over that, and learning to find my balance took time. The key was just learning to relax, and that only took time.”

Gregory also spends his time profitably on terra firma, particularly when prancing out a jaunty equivalent of “Bosom Buddies” to Tarzan. The song even rates a reprise and wears especially well on his voice—and no wonder: “Phil Collins wrote it for me after he heard me do the role. We had a different song called ‘I Believe in You,’ but we scratched that one, and he wrote ‘Who Better Than Me?’ I like singing it, and it’s fresh. It’s the newest song in the show. We got it, I would say, about a week or two before previews started.”

“Who Better Than Me?” was written the day of Collins’ Playbill interview. “When we did that chat,” it was just being written,” the composer recalled. “I was leaving to go back to Switzerland, and I wrote it in about half an hour. I went home and wrote it, and, on the way back, I wrote the words.”

Collins began his career as a performer, doing The Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver!—and, if you listen carefully, you’ll find a little doff of the hat to that show. “I Need to Know,” sung by Young Tarzan (Daniel Manche/Alex Rutherford), is a wispy ballad about finding one’s place in the world. “Yep, that’s my ‘Where Is Love?'”

His Oscar-winning carryover from the movie is “You’ll Be in My Heart,” and it’s done to a faretheewell by a grateful Merle Dandridge, who plays the gorilla mother who protects Tarzan as an orphaned infant and raises him as her own over the roaring objections of her male mate (Shuler Hensley). “It’s absolutely an honor to sing that song, and Phil Collins has been an absolute angel to me, so encouraging and kind every step of the way.”

Hensley, who has done quite well for himself limning dark holes in the center of the stage (his Tony-winning Jud Fy of Oklahoma!, just for instance), plays Tarzan’s hot-tempered and unloving father. “The interesting thing in my Broadway career is that I tend to take characters that aren’t really truly defined and be able to do the what-if game that actors do to make them work,” he said. “My role wasn’t in the animated movie very much at all, maybe two scenes, so we went back to the book. In the movie, we just saw him as the mean old whatever, and we’ve tried to bring more layers to that for the musical.”

Strickland and Gambatese met the press together as The Josh and Jen Show, giving the smart-ass reporter a chance to extend his hand tentatively and say ‘You would be . . .Tarzan’ and ‘You would be . . . Jane.’”

The high-flying scenes they insisted are safe. “What’s really good,” said Strickland, “is that we have all these special climbers who are on set with us, hidden in places that you can’t see, and they’re actually double-checking and making sure everything is okay.”

Gambatese agreed. “I think, when we first started, it wasn’t that it was dangerous—it was just that it was foreign to us. But Disney has always made sure that there are so many safety measures in place. I might have felt nervous, but I’ve never felt it was dangerous.”

Still, their skill does give actors something new to crow about: “I Sing! I Dance! I Fly!” Yes, dears, Mary Martin started this way. Now, off to your high-flying happy ending . . .

In conclusion, let me just say “AAAAAHHHHH-ah-a-AAAAAAAAHHHHHHH-ah-a-AAAAHHHH!”