April 24, 2006

Hollywood Battle on Broadway: Tarzan vs Vampire

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK -- The lines are drawn for a classic Broadway musical showdown -- Disney, Tarzan and Phil Collins on one side, Warner Brothers, the vampire Lestat and Elton John on the other.

The reigning champion of Broadway with long-running hits such as "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," Disney's latest mega-musical about the jungle man Tarzan is one of the most expensive shows ever mounted.

Rival Hollywood studio Warner Bros. is challenging Disney with its first foray into musicals, "Lestat," which opens on Tuesday and is based on Anne Rice's vampire novels and featuring songs by Elton John and his writing partner, Bernie Taupin.

Walt Disney Co. and Warner, part of Time Warner Inc., both refused to discuss their budgets. But with "Lestat" reported to be costing some $10 million to $12 million and "Tarzan" said to have a budget of $15 million to $20 million, both are among the most expensive shows on the block.

After dismal reviews at a San Francisco run at the end of last year, "Lestat" is fighting an uphill battle.

The show grossed $4.3 million in its pre-Broadway run but The San Francisco Chronicle called it "didactic, disjointed, oddly miscast, confusingly designed and floundering in an almost unrelenting saccharine score by Elton John."

Taupin said 65 percent to 70 percent of the show had been changed and producer Gregg Maday told Sunday's New York Times he was still trying new versions of the first 20 minutes in previews.

"We may have limped onto Broadway as the underdogs, but underdogs bite back occasionally," Taupin told Newsday.

"Lestat" needs to overcome the curse that has dogged previous vampire musicals on Broadway, such as "Dance of the Vampires," which lasted just a month in 2003, and "Dracula, the Musical," which survived only five months in 2004.

Then the challenge is to make a coherent show out of Rice's "The Vampire Chronicles" which The New York Times described as "highly detailed, graphically violent and narratively complex, full of morally ambiguous, pansexual characters."


"Tarzan," based on the 1999 animated film and the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, should be a safer bet for Disney in a business where family shows often prevail.

The music by Phil Collins will be familiar to many from the movie.

But with no out-of-town trial run and with producers doing their best to keep critics away until just days before the May 10 opening night, "Tarzan" remains an unknown quantity.

Argentine Pichon Baldinu, creator of the successful aerial acrobatic troupe De La Guarda, was brought in to train the cast to use harnesses and bungee cords to climb walls, swing, run and jump around the set.

The cast has no big-name stars. The lead is being played by Josh Strickland, whose main claim to fame is a stint as a competitor on "American Idol" in 2003.

Previews of "Tarzan" have been completely sold out while "Lestat" has been playing to around 80 percent capacity.

A hit musical can gross around $1 million a week on Broadway, which can be multiplied many times if it tours and spawns other productions around the world.

William Wolf, president of the Drama Desk critics group, said both shows could prove highly marketable -- "Tarzan" as a family show, "Lestat" due to Rice's popularity. She has sold more than 50 million books.

"Anne Rice has a big following ... and there's not too much around for families," he said. "Sometimes these shows can be critic-proof."