Monday, January 07, 2008

Me Tarzan

Greetings from the Los Angeles, home to an exceptional amount of small theaters. Here the buzz all day was about Natasha Lyonne hitting off-Broadway. OK, not really.

I write to you today having just spoken to someone from American Musical Theatre of San Jose about their production of Tarzan. (Note: I ask him if I could write this post or else it would be too shady to do so. I say this to the people who do speak to me, so they know their opinions won't end up on the blog.) I don't know how many of you read about this--this is the one that was recently announced that is debuting next year at Theater of the Stars in Atlanta and then going to like 5 other theaters. Now, when I first spoke to this person about this production, he said "It's a whole new Tarzan," which meant to me it was actually a new musical version of Tarzan. Like The Wild Party duo or the two Tale of Two Cities. But, no. It's the Broadway score and book with a new production tailored around it. (Direction and choreography is by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, who I think is an odd choice, but I won't delve into that aspect of it now.) This guy said they'd make it "a great show."

Now, as I've said here before, I didn't hate Tarzan. It was exactly what I thought it would be. That being said, it of course was not good. Some of what was wrong was Bob Crowley's fault, sure. But I think you really have to ask yourself--how much of it was his fault? If the characters had done more than stand facing straight at the audience when they sang, the show would have been helped. On the other hand, it still wouldn't have been a great show.

So the question you always have to ask yourself is--is it worth spending the time to change it? Is there only one element that is ruining the show? And often there are pieces that I see that I think, "Well, this had potential and then..." Bright Lights Big City would have been problematic originally no matter what, but the NYTW production really killed it. That was a musical you could see something in somewhere. Tarzan isn't that kind of musical. There is just not that much there the way it was written.

If Lynne Taylor-Corbett did the most genius job in the world, some of the show's problems would go away, but no way all of them would. This guy I was talking to was blaming the failure of the show on Bob Crowley and, um, it's important to realize that Bob Crowley wasn't the only problem. The new songs weren't effective, the book wasn't near good enough. Which doesn't mean it shouldn't be produced anywhere--it's Tarzan, of course it is going to run places. But it's a common mistake to look at a show with potential back in the conception stage and then put the majority of blame on one failed show element. There are some shows that can't be saved exactly as they are on the page. (And, actually, before someone posts this, yes, I am aware Bright Lights wouldn't have been amazing as it was written at the NYTW time, but, that is something that could have been a tremendous amount better had an original director really shaped it. That was a project that would have benefited from collaborative shaping during the inception period.) And I really have to say I'm not sure Theater Under the Stars is going to come up with a much better Tarzan than what we saw. So is it worth the effort of trying? Couldn't you just do our Tarzan without some/all of the flying? (And I only say without flying because the flying took so long to learn and was so set specific.) That's pretty much what I would do. Now, again, it's important to make every show as good as it can be, so I admire them spending the time and effort to really create a new production. I just worry, based on what this guy was saying, that they are expecting too much from this show. There could have been a great show based on Tarzan, it's true. But using this score and book, you're never going to get one. No matter how many of the Phil Collins songs the audience members can sing.


Seth Christenfeld said...

To say that the book of Tarzan "wasn't good enough" is something of the understatement of the decade--it is, quite plausibly, the very worst book ever written for a major musical (only slightly edging out that of Mamma Mia!).

Also, BLBC was pretty terrific in the revised version seen in a staged concert at the Guggenheim a couple of years ago under the direction of Kurt Deutsch. Yes, it still had a lot of stupid lyrics, but Paul Scott Goodman (who, whatever his problems with words, is an extraordinary composer) had at least written himself back out of the show.

carajoy said...


You're extremely quick! I revised to "wasn't near good enough" before I read this comment. Though that's still not what you are saying... it's somewhat less of an understatement :)

There have been worse books than Mamma Mia, sadly. I mean, some are humorously bad, like my beloved In My Life. Some just sad--Urban Cowboy comes to mind.

I agree with you about Bright Lights, which was my point. There was so a good show there. NYTW murdered it. That was a show that, in another production, could have been good (as we've seen). I think no matter how genius you stage Tarzan, you still have major problems. Of course, if someone else threw Disney money at it, they could have made a MUCH better show. But the regionals will not have that much money--so they won't be able to dazzle us with lights, it will be just the show with different staging.

The Director said...

We once did a production in college of Marvin's Room. I was cast as one of the minor roles. I walked into the first night of rehearsal, and our crazy, crazy director said "I once saw a production of this. It was the worst show I'd ever seen."

I thought to myself "Then did you choose to direct this?"

Then she said "I think we can do it better."

Incidentally, I had to drop out due to some other conflicts.

I saw the performances later, and I can honestly say it was the worst play I'd ever seen performed at our school.

Which leaves that question hanging in my mind... "Why try and re-do a production if you thought the original was that bad?"

I've got a couple of scripts on my shelf that I've developed portfolios for, plays that I didn't think were that good when I saw them produced, but plays that I saw obvious flaws that were overlooked by the production crew. Things that I think I could correct, should I attempt to produce it elsewhere.

But I'd have to make damn sure that I fixed those mistakes, or there's no sense in trying it again.

Good post. Keep up the good work.

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Anonymous said...

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Overheard some co-workers talking about it all week but didn't have time to ask so I thought I would post it here to see if someone could help me out.

Seems to be getting alot of buzz right now.