Reviewed by David Spencer
We're not going to waste time here talking about how famous rock composers with no grounding in theatre should never be asked to write scores for musicals; because we all know that, right? We know they have little instinct for where the songs ought to go or what they should be about; we know that niceties of craft (rhyme, proper accent) and art (wit, fresh imagery) aren't even on the table; and we know it's not their fault, but rather the fault of the honchos at the Hollywood-owned theatrical offices who, time and again and foolishly always think name-branding means quality. So let's dispense with that discussion -- leave that to the amateurs who think they're discovering something new. You and I, we're savvier and seasoned and we have deeper, subtler things to discuss.
We're going to talk about series characters and origin stories. In the context of superheros.
For any who aren't into genre stuff, a series character is pretty much what the phrase implies: a character in a series of novels, short stories or comics: a guy or gal to whom you return again and again for continuing adventures. And everybody knows what a superhero is: Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider man, etc. But they're not always endowed with supernatural powers -- sometimes just human powers employed at their ultimate, hitherto untapped potential, strength and instinct honed to such a fine edge they might well be supernatural -- save for Batman, most of these tend to have been introduced in novels: by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, who created the Destroyer series, featuring secret US assassin Remo Williams and his ancient Korean mentor, Chiun. By Robert E. Howard, who gave the world its most famous mercenary warrior, Conan the Barbarian. And of course, by Edgar Rice Burroughs --
-- because he gave us Tarzan. The ape man. So called because after the shipwreck and subsequent death of his parents in the African wilderness, leaving him an abandoned, orphaned baby, he was discovered by a loving female ape, who raised him as her own. Living among the creatures, he learned of their ways, learned to speak their languages, learned how to fight the predators and tame the potential allies, learned how to move fast through the jungle, through the trees, swinging from vine to vine, his abilities maturing and sharpening until his first real adventure -- that first time where all he had learned and acquired, all he had become, was put to the test against an adversary. Until the first time he truly owned all he had become and defined for all time the hero known as Tarzan.
And that, in thumbnail, is an origin story. The story that tells how Tarzan got to be Tarzan.
Now there's something very interesting about origin stories and their superheroes. At the beginning of almost all of them, the hero is thrown helpless into a world not of his (or her) own making. He's an outsider who must revise his philosophy, his physicality, his very core humanity as he struggles mightily to find himself. But while he is thus unformed, he is, though not passive, nonetheless reactive. He isn't driving the story: forces out of his control are, forces that force him to make choices and decisions. Usually this maturation process takes place over a long period of time, often years, He only becomes active when he finally embraces his destiny and takes charge. And because that take-charge happens near the end, the circumstance in which it flowers tends to be new; it solidifies the rite of passage by raising resonant themes, but its villains, its plot specifics, etc. usually haven't been in play early on: rather, they get introduced late, often (though not exclusively) as a threat to our hero's universe (i.e. the exploitive human fortune hunter who endangers the lives of Tarzan's ape family).
Are you with so far?
Okay -- now the climax of that architecture is in the hero essentially becoming himself: owning the identity, the profile, that will trademark him for all time. Thereafter -- in all subsequent stories -- while he may mature and become more complicated, as continuity is added to lore -- he stays in essence THE SAME. As a series character, what makes him attractive is that he is a constant in a shifting universe. He provides a sense of stability. He never fundamentally changes; and in any "aberration story" (our hero gets knocked on the head and has amnesia; our hero suffers an emotional trauma that makes him abandon some core belief), the tension comes from our interest in how he'll find the road back home, to reclamation of his true self.
In brief now: In an origin story, the hero's quest is undefined until Act Three, as it were, when his disparate qualities coalesce, and he goes out to right a wrong -- nor is he a fully formed character until that happens. And after it happens he is an unchanging icon.
And that's why such characters are tricky, perilous, and thus far in musical theatre history, disastrous musical theatre heroes. If you're dramatizing their origin stories, you're holding off the very superhero-ness of them, the thing the audience wants to see, until too late to invest emotionally. Because the form implies and indeed promises a certain energy and compression, musicals with heroes work differently than novels and films with heroes in this regard: they require a hero whose objective must motor the evening clearly from thre start; without that central spine, a musical will tend to sprawl; unlike a gestalt or event musical (Pacific Overtures, Assassins, Baby, Titanic) in which the spine is provided by other linking components, the traditional hero-musical goes fuzzy when the focus is off the hero, when the hero isn't making things happen, because there's no center of gravity. Musicals are not interested in dramatizing a hero's backstory -- at least not chronologically, as a way of leading up. For example -- do we really need to have seen Sweeney Todd happily married? Do we have to sweat out his crooked trial? Do we need a montage of his years in that awful Australian prison? And what of Mama Rose: Do we need to see her try to make it as a young girl in showbiz? Do we even care to see her first marriage, the birth of her kids, the formation of the idea that they're her salvation? The answer to all these questions is, of course, no. When we meet both of these characters, they're in full steam, and they have a Thing to Do, bang, right at the top. As we progress, we learn just exactly as much as we need about what got them there as and when needed, brief blank fill-ins, but we never stop moving relentlessly forward.
So, for the sake of argument, let's say you don't musicalize the origin story of a superhero. Why not just jump to the point where he is who he is, and musicalize a "regular" story. Well, how, kids? Series characters don't change, remember? Whereas musicals are all about rites of passage. Musicals are about people who learn and grow and change. They're different at the end than at the beginning. But when Tarzan's done with an adventure, we want him returned the way he was found; not damaged, warped, psychoanalyzed or deciding that his work is done and it's time to grow up and stop all that jungle yelling. See, the thing about series characters is that, after the origin story, they get involved in OTHER people's problems and come to the rescue. It's the other people who change as a result of his intervention. He's the fixer. By comparison -- Sweeney changes, going through rage, madness, vengefulness and regret; Mama Rose finally has to make peace with her choices, and what her daughter has become. Choose your musical theatre hero -- this applies almost across the board.
Speaking as a musical dramatist, I find this to be a heartbreaking reality, because there are several series characters I adore, that I've yearned to musicalize but have never been able to -- because the very foundation of both origin myth and "regular" story resist being musicalized.
And THAT's what brings us to the musical Tarzan currently at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Taking its cue from the animated Disney film, it tells a version of the origin myth. In Act One, Tarzan is discovered as a baby by monkey mom Kala (Merle Dandridge) and raised as a boy (Alex Rutherford at the performance I saw; he alternates with Daniel Manche). He is rejected by Kala's husband, ape leader Kerchak (Shuler Hensley), who fears what will happen to the apes when Tarzan reaches human maturity. Kala goes into self-imposed exile to continue raising the boy, who soon becomes a man (Josh Strickland). Throughout this, a clever ape -- clever at avoiding work anyway -- named Terk (Chester Gregory II) is Tarzan's buddy, confidante and companion. Periodically throughout too, Tarzan wonders who he is really, being so different from the rest of his adoptive family. And then Jane Porter (Jenn Gambatese) arrives in the jungle, a pretty young woman and amateur naturalist, observing scientifically but falling in love with all she sees. She inadvertently falls into the web of a giant spider (that resembles nothing so much as a big ball of yarn with legs and lightbulb eyes, and seems roughly as threatening) and is rescued by Tarzan. Who for the first time comes face to face with another human.
And the act ends.
The first act of a musical tends to encompass what would be considered the first two acts of a three act structure: the first act being set up and exposition, the second being the plot machinations moving forward until our hero hits a point of no return. That's not what happens here, though. Here, we have a series of origin episodes followed by a chance meeting. One might argue that Tarzan's world will never again be the same, but the encounter doesn't stem from Tarzan's actions, nor does it yet have consequences. In other words, the act break comes, not when the story has reached a turning point -- but when it's just getting started.
In act two (there are spoilers in this paragraph, for those who care), we meet the others of the expedition, Jane's kindly scientist father (Timothy Jerome) and the mercenary hunter-protector Clayton (Donnie Keshawarz). Jane convinces dad that the apes are not to be exploited and captured, but Clayton has his own ideas. Tarzan and Jabe start to fall for each other while Clayton mildly schemes. Ultimately he winds up shooting daddy ape Kerchak, whereupon Tarzan jumps him, and is just prevented from throttling him by vProfessor Porter, who pleads, "Don't kill him. We'll deal with him in our own way." He is dragged off to be secured in the ship's brig. (One wonders what can possibly happen to him back in England? Will he be tried for taking the life of an ape? In the animated film, Clayton is much more formidable and meets an untimely end.) Comes time for the expedition to leave the next day, Tarzan and Jane bid each other a reluctant goodbye -- and at the last minute, Jane decides to stay, that all she needs is right here. The end.
So check this out: aside from whomping on the bigass spider, Tarzan hasn't done all that much heroic. He only jumps the bad guy after it's too late. And as dramatized by David Henry Hwang, he never truly has a moment in which to stand tall and claim his Tarzan-osity. So in effect, we have a musical about Tarzan's origins in which he doesn't go on a big adventure, doesn't prove himself a superhero and doesn't actually get to be Tarzan, Partly this is simply due to bad choices and unclear thinking all around. And rock composer-lyricist Phil Collins could certainly not have been a genuine collaborator in the adaptation. (Though one must say he fares better as a songwriter than Elton John and Bernie Taupin in the sucking vampire saga Lestat. Collins's songs are more attractive, less annoying and once in a while, mostly in the first act, land in the right places. And one, called "Who Better Than Me?" is actually admirable as a kickass character number. Though the second act is reprise- and ballad-heavy and the bad guy never sings, which is just odd.) But mostly the problems stem from the roadblocks inherent in the material to begin with.
The cast is lovely, trapped as they are by the matetrial, and the director, Bob Crowley, is also the set and costume designer. He favors big green cloth, ape regalia that don't obscure human faces, and bungee cords -- there's a lot of leaping around.
I won't say nobody could have conquered the challenges presented by adapting Tarzan...but I will suggest that novice musical theatre minds were not the way to go.
It was a job for a superhero...