Phil Collins — internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter, and drummer — wasn't planning to write a Broadway show. But then, the paths that lead to glory are not necessarily those we plan to take. So when Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Productions, asked the multi-platinum recording artist if he was interested in scoring a stage musical Tarzan, based on the award-winning 1999 animated film and the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Collins readily agreed.
After all, the singer had written (and performed) the songs in the film, winning a "Best Song" Oscar and a Golden Globe for "You'll Be in My Heart" and a Grammy for the movie's sound track recording. The longer Broadway version, though, would need a lot of new music.
A wise man learns from his own lyrics, however. "Trust your heart," Collins wrote for the animated "Tarzan"'s "Two Worlds." "Let fate decide to guide these lives we see." Collins may not have needed another adventure in life, but the jungle road was open before him. He only had to say yes.
"Whether it's a control issue or artistic commitment," says Collins, "I'm just not the kind of person to let someone else take over." So a new leg of his journey began. In fact, Collins is no stranger to theater. He was born into a theatrical family in London and once aspired to an actor's life. As a teenager, he sang and danced as the Artful Dodger in the original West End production of Oliver! But his heart belonged to percussion, and so followed his stellar career.
By the time the animated "Tarzan" came around, Collins was known the world over for his stints as the singing, songwriting drummer for Genesis and Brand X and for his solo albums, as well as for his performances with a diverse group of other artists in idioms that ranged from big band to rock 'n' roll.
It was their work together on the "Tarzan" film, when Schumacher was president of Disney Feature Animation, that prompted him to invite his musical colleague to join the Broadway creative team. Still, the producer could only have guessed that the hard-working Collins would be such a full-time collaborator.
"Phil was instrumental in shaping this show," says Schumacher. "He was with us during the readings and workshops, through auditions and callbacks and the whole rehearsal process."
"Phil functioned exactly the way a Broadway composer like Richard Rodgers functioned back in the day," says music director Jim Abbott. "He would sit at the drum set during rehearsals, and help teach the songs to the ensemble. He was there working all the time."
As for attending auditions, Collins says, "I wanted to make sure that the voices were right for the music. I mean, there's quite a range of singing on Broadway. And as much as I love Ethel Merman, that is not the kind of voice these songs wanted."
In fact, Collins didn't just attend auditions; he shaped them. When Jenn Gambatese came in to audition for Jane, she was already a veteran of numerous Broadway shows, including Hairspray, Footloose, and All Shook Up. Collins was sure she was right, despite some misgivings on the part of his colleagues. So he set up a tutorial for the two of them to work on the music.
"I was walking into the rehearsal hall for a private class with Phil Collins," recounts the upbeat actress, "and I thought, ‘If this process doesn't go any further than this for me, it will still be one of the highlights of my career.'"
"Our voices are different," says Broadway's Tarzan, Josh Strickland, "but because we both have such high singing voices, I could always sing Phil Collins's songs." Strickland appeared on television on both "American Idol" and "Star Search," for which he sang Collins's "Against All Odds."
Everyone in the Tarzan cast, in fact, seemed to have some special real-life association with Collins's music. Shuler Hensley, who plays Kerchak, Tarzan's silverback foster father, remembers that the first time he ever went to a concert it was to see Phil Collins. Now they were working together, and Collins was writing for his character and his voice.
Collins had an easy rapport with both Bob Crowley, the director and designer of Tarzan, and with book writer David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Aida). Collins and Hwang were continually on hand to rewrite scenes at a moment's notice, and to negotiate whether the plot point under discussion should be carried by words, music, or both. Collins credits his facility in the collaborative process with his band experience. Crowley attributes it to humility.
"Phil Collins is a great musician," says the first-time director and multiple Tony Award–winning set and costume designer (Carousel, Aida, The History Boys), "but his attitude right from the beginning was, ‘You know more about theater than I do, let me learn from you.'"
The Broadway Tarzan score includes the original five songs from the film, nine additional songs, and considerable new underscoring. The stage version gives the composer the opportunity to air his songs at the length he wrote them. Before the "Tarzan" film, Collins jokes, he was unfamiliar with the "efficiency" of an animated film song. "Ninety seconds and you're in and out," he says.
On the other hand, "Phil wrote a lot of music that does not appear in the show," reports Schumacher. He jettisoned one particularly favorite ballad he had written for Tarzan and his best simian pal, Terk, and replaced it with the up-tempo "Who Better Than Me," which is now one of the show's highlights.
Friends of Collins thought he would be bored during the months of rehearsals. "They don't know that the score you finish before the first rehearsal is just the beginning of the work," Collins says. "Besides, I love hearing these kids sing. I hear something new every time I see the show."
"The kids" got to hear Collins, too. The composer/lyricist of Tarzan sings a bonus track on the cast album, "Everything That I Am." The first time the album was played for the cast and crew (over a picnic supper at the Richard Rodgers Theatre), the haunting notes of that track packed a doubly powerful emotional punch. The version of the song that appears on the CD is Collins's original demo track. His journey with Tarzan had come full circle.
And would Phil Collins ever consider doing another Broadway musical now that he knows what it takes? "I'd do it again gladly," he says, "and start tomorrow."
Michael Lassell is the author of "Elton John & Tim Rice's Aida: The Making of the Broadway Musical" (Disney Editions) and the forthcoming "Tarzan: The Broadway Adventure."