The Walt Disney company's Tarzan project has, from the beginning, borne obvious similarities to its earlier effort, The Lion King. Both began as animated films leaning heavily on issues of family and identity, but also featuring cute, talking animals as major characters. Both employed British pop/rock musicians to write song scores in their familiar styles. And both were then adapted into Broadway musicals. A major difference between the two, however, is that Elton John, who composed the music for the songs in the movie version of The Lion King (with lyrics by stage veteran Tim Rice), left others to expand the score for Broadway, while Phil Collins, who wrote music and lyrics for the five songs in the 1999 Tarzan movie, wrote an additional nine for the Broadway show. Collins enjoyed considerable success with the Tarzan soundtrack album (also featuring scoring by Mark Mancini), a multi-platinum seller that won a Grammy Award and produced a number-one Adult Contemporary hit in "You'll Be in My Heart." The expanded version Collins has written for Broadway is in the same vein as the earlier material. Unfortunately, the demands of a stage show are different from both what's needed for a children's movie and for the AC charts. Unquestionably, the Tarzan cast album will sound familiar to anyone who's followed Collins' recording career with Genesis and on his own, and not only because he turns up at the end for the obligatory "bonus" track, singing the new "Everything That I Am." The music is imbued with Collins' pop/rock style; the songs are catchy and rhythmic in a way that not only captures the ear on the radio, but should in the theater, too. The real problem lies in the lyrics. Collins seems to understand that theater lyrics, perhaps even more than pop-song lyrics, need to be concise to get dramatic points across quickly and clearly. What he doesn't seem to realize is that that doesn't mean they should be little more than a string of platitudes, clichés, and contemporary slang. Right from the start, when Tarzan is heard mouthing the simple-minded tautology "Put your faith in what you most believe in," the songwriter seems to be talking down to and attempting to spoon-feed his listeners. As in this example, however, the result can be gibberish. The circumstances may not have allowed for it, but clearly Collins needed a lyric collaborator of the caliber of Rice. It's a shame; his words are as bad as his music is good. (In fact, when he is freed of having to make sense, such as when Jenn Gambatese, as Jane, begins reciting the Latin names of flora and fauna in "Waiting for This Moment," or when Chester Gregory II, as Terk, leads the apes through the "Shoo be do" sounds of "Trashin' the Camp," the music seems liberated.) The cast members do the best they can with the songs, but they mostly settle for treating them like the bland AC power ballads they often are. A major exception is Shuler Hensley in the thankless role of Tarzan's adoptive gorilla father Kerchak. In "No Other Way" and even the mawkish duet "Sure as Sun Turns to Moon," sung with Merle Dandridge, Hensley invests his part with character and conviction. Of course, having the only part with even a suggestion of depth or complexity, he has more to work with than the others. Thus, as a musical work Tarzan represents a lost opportunity to make a good pop musical. Theater is a collaborative art; a little more collaboration on the songs for this theater piece might have improved the score enormously.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
|Tarzan, musical play|