“Tarzan,” advance publicity will tell you, is a risk.
The latest Broadway tuner from Disney Theatrical Prods., the company behind global juggernauts “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” certainly cost a bundle: between $15 million-$20 million, if you believe the reports. (Disney, as always, is tightlipped about specific numbers.)
But the show exploits an instantly recognizable property, namely Edgar Rice Burroughs’ enduring pulp creation of a man raised by apes, which has already received the Mouse House treatment in a 1999 animated pic that grossed $448 million worldwide in cinema ticket sales.
The score is by pop veteran Phil Collins, who provides new songs to augment his original tunes from the movie — including “You’ll Be in My Heart,” which won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
The Broadway tuner is already selling like hotcakes, even before its May 10 opening. The show, starring former “American Idol” contestant Josh Strickland, has played to capacity crowds since starting previews March 24, and its advance has reportedly reached around $20 million, outpacing its capitalization.
How exactly does all that add up to being a risk?
“It’s tracking ahead of where ‘Lion King’ and ‘Aida’ were at this point,” allows David Schrader, managing director and chief financial officer of Disney Theatrical.
But no one is calling “Tarzan” a hit yet. “If we were to sell out completely, it would still take a year to pay out,” Schrader says.
Still, in a world where four out of five Broadway productions lose money, any Disney tuner seems to have a leg up. Maybe even two or three.
First, Disney is working with a library of properties that have already cultivated a high profile in the realm of family entertainment.
And biz based on the family unit — Mom, Pop, 2.5 kids — means that more everyday ticketbuyers are shelling out for more than just a standard date-night pair of seats.
It doesn’t hurt, either, that Disney shows have proven mostly immune to critical scorn and Tony snubs.
“Beauty and the Beast” won a single Tony, for costume design, in 1994, when Stephen Sondheim’s “Passion” was named best musical.
“Passion” closed in less than a year, while “Beauty” recently celebrated its 12th birthday on the Rialto.
Elton John and Tim Rice’s “Aida” is the closest thing Disney has had to a Broadway flop — and it ran for 4½ years.
“If you did the math, you would have been thrilled to have invested in ‘Aida,’ ” says Thomas Schumacher, producer and guiding force of Disney Theatrical. (The show, which closed on Broadway in 2004, still survives in productions in Germany and Japan, and recently closed an eight-month run in Korea.)
“Did the reviews make a difference? No. Did the fact it was openly snubbed at the Tonys matter? No,” Schumacher says. “As much as I admire and respect the Tonys, I can’t make my world about trying to achieve that.”
Which is to say that Broadway’s typical benchmarks of success, glowing quotes from critics and a handful of statues, just don’t play much of a role in the Disney equation.
Not to imply that they don’t welcome Tonys when they come. (“The Lion King” scored six in 1998, including best musical.)
Schumacher is quick to refute the notion that free-flowing cash from the theatrical division’s corporate parent makes them invincible.
“It’s true, I only have one investor, but my investor is supervised by the SEC,” he says. “No one paid a dime into ‘Aida’ after opening night. I’m a closed economy.”
“They don’t just throw money around,” seconds Bob Crowley, the director-designer of “Tarzan,” who also designed “Aida” and “Mary Poppins” for Disney.
“And not all of the money is up onstage. They spend quite a bit of it to do all this research, the whole making-of event,” he says. For instance, the aerial work in “Tarzan,” designed by De La Guarda co-founder Pichon Baldinu, was developed in Buenos Aires and at SUNY, Purchase, before the show went into rehearsal this winter.
“So when they finally press the green button, they know mostly what they’re getting,” Crowley says.
Risk for Disney is calculated differently than for most Broadway producers. One potential hazard: saturation of the market.
The company already has two more Rialto offerings lined up for the next two seasons: a U.S. incarnation of “Mary Poppins,” already running in London, set for the fall; and the stage version of “The Little Mermaid,” aiming for the 2007-08 season.
“By November, if everything goes well, we’ll have ‘Beauty,’ ‘Lion King,’ ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Poppins’ running,” Schumacher says. “That’s four. How many shows can you have in one city?”
“Tarzan” also is taking a risk with its unusual preview schedule. Forgoing an out-of-town tryout, Disney decided to give the show an extended, staggered preview sked in Gotham, performing for a few nights a week and making significant changes to the show on nonperf days.
And because preview perfs are openly acknowledged as works-in-progress, ticket prices are discounted. (Top pricetag is $75.)
The sked allowed Disney to get the show into New York this season, ahead of “Poppins” and “Mermaid.” And it ended up eliminating the expense of moving a technically complicated production from an out-of-town theater to a Gotham house.
“In the course of previews, we added an entirely new scene between Tarzan and Jane,” Schumacher says. “We’ve combined a number of scenes, rewritten scenes a couple of times, blended transitions, made adjustments for pacing. Changes like that are totally normal. What’s not normal is doing it right here in Manhattan, working our show in full view of everybody.”
Early previews were plagued with reports that audiences in the back few rows of the orchestra missed a sizeable chunk of the aerial action because of the overhang of the balcony.
Schumacher downplays any fuss, saying he has always been upfront about sightline issues — tickets for the last four rows (of the 24 on the floor of the Richard Rodgers Theater) are permanently discounted and marked obstructed view — and adds that one six-minute aerial sequence, played too high in early previews, has been lowered.
“You certainly see the entire story now,” he says. “Do you see everything as if you were in eighth row center, or at the front of the mezzanine? No.”
Similar chatter likely would have surfaced in an out-of-town tryout, where denizens of the Internet would have kept legiters posted.
“There’s no such thing as hiding from anyone anymore,” Crowley says. “The advantage was these staggered weeks. We had more oxygen. I highly recommend it.”
In other words, a Disney musical is in a fishbowl no matter where it tries out.
“I think the toughest thing for us is the expectation,” Schrader says. “The perception is we can just crank these musicals out. The reality is, it actually takes time and work.”