BEVERLY, Mass. — Tarzan — born of man, raised by apes — is an iconic character with a fantastic yell, but his story was a critical flop on Broadway five years ago.
Now the big-budget Disney musical is enjoying a new, improved life at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly. It’s an interesting convergence because that venue also came back from the dead last summer after going dark in 2009.
But what does “Tarzan’s” resurrection mean for the reopened theater and the musical’s creators? Let’s go back to the beginning.
First came the wildly popular book about a feral man-ape, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914. More novels followed. And comic strips. Then the Tarzan movies, starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, captured America’s cultural imagination.
Half a century later, Disney animated the noble savage for its 1999 children’s movie. But then in an attempt to further capitalize on the Tarzan brand, Disney opened “Tarzan: the Musical” on Broadway in 2006. It featured orchestrations by Phil Collins and a libretto by Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang.
Looking back at that musical’s trajectory, Hwang evoked the famous screwball film director Preston Sturges.
“He titled his autobiography ‘Between Flops’ because most of the time you don’t get to have a big hit,” Hwang said. “And, by the way, a lot of the times you learn the most from the things that are considered ‘failures.’ ”
Critcs panned “Tarzan: the Musical.” Ben Brantley, theater critic for the New York Times, called it a “giant, writhing green blob with music.” It ran for about a year, not long for the Great White Way.
Hwang admits he’s long fantasized about fixing it.
“I would say most times you don’t have a chance to go back,” Hwang said.
But Disney granted Hwang the green light to revise “Tarzan” so the entertainment company can license a new, streamlined version to high schools and regional theaters. The North Shore Music Theatre is producing the show, but it’s also serving as a testing ground.
Now, if you know Hwang’s previous works, you might be wondering what drew him to “Tarzan.” He is best known for exploring issues of race in more serious plays such as “M. Butterfly,” “Yellowface” and “Chinglish.” But Hwang says Tarzan is also about culture clash and assimilation.
“It’s about a guy who’s adopted as a baby into another culture,” Hwang said. “In this case it’s a human baby who’s adopted by apes and grows up thinking he’s one of them. And then he sort of has an identity crisis, which actually relates to a lot of the things I’ve written about before.”
In the new re-write, Hwang expands the themes and relationships in Tarzan’s story, instead of relying on high-flying spectacle. On Broadway there was a lot of swinging, but elaborate harness systems are expensive.
“A couple of swings go a long way,” Hwang said with a laugh.
The playwright has been working with a creative team, including director Bill Castellino. Up from New York, Castellino showed off what the set designers did with the 1,500-seat theater-in-the-round.
“Welcome to our jungle!” he said on a recent trip through the theater. “I’ve been telling my friends that I’ve been swinging through the trees with Tarzan in Beverly.”
While there’s not a ton of swinging in the musical, there is a fair bit of action in the air. A few ropes dangle from the ceiling and an “ape nest” floats above the stage. This “Tarzan” is leaner than the Broadway show, with a smaller orchestra and cast.
A Theater’s Rebirth
While “Tarzan” is being revamped in Beverly, the theater is in the midst of its own rebirth. North Shore shut down in 2009 with more than $10 million in debt. Subscribers were disappointed — and angry, because they had pre-paid for tickets.
Castellino remembers when the theater went dark and he said it was big news in the national theater community. But now he’s thrilled to be a part of North Shore’s revival.
“We want as many hits and as many theaters open in this country as possible,” Castellino said. “In an economy where that’s very challenging, it’s thrilling to see a theater reopen, reinvent itself and give these opportunities to us.”
When Rhode Island investor Bill Hanney bought the theater and its surrounding property, he could have transformed the 28 acres into something else. “But it really wants to be a theater,” Hanney said, “and that’s why I bought it: to make it a theater, to keep it a theater.”
Hanney saved North Shore and now he’s producing “Tarzan.” He admits to having high hopes, and wants it to be the theater’s next “Memphis.” That musical won a Tony last year, but it was developed here in Beverly.
If Disney executives like what they see on stage and decide to license this version of “Tarzan” to other producers and schools, what do Hanney and the theater stand to gain?
“We don’t get any money. We didn’t really ask for any money — although we’ll take it,” Hanney said, laughing. “But I think it would be nice if you go to New York and you look at the ‘Memphis’ program the North Shore Music Theatre is mentioned in it as one of the bios. It would be nice if Disney did that — if they don’t we won’t hate ‘em — but just doing hopefully a great production is enough for me.”
In truth, regaining the trust of North Shore subscribers is part of the equation. Artistic director Arianna Knapp started working at the theater when she was 17 years old before moving on to become a Broadway producer. One of her recent successes is Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Knapp was heartbroken when the North Shore closed in 2009, so she returned to work here after Hanney bought it.
“(Hanney) can attest to the fact that I looked over his shoulder with a glaring eye to make sure that something was going to happen right,” Knapp said.
Things seem to be going well. Tickets sales are strong, although since “Tarzan” opened last week it has received mixed reviews.
But Hanney is optimistic, both for the production and for the North Shore Music Theatre. He and his team have been putting their best foot forward, because producers from regional theaters around the country have been swinging by Beverly to check out the new show.
“Tarzan” runs every night this week through Sunday, with matinees added over the weekend.