Brits over Broadway

Hotly awaited Phil 'Tarzan' Collins and Elton 'Lestat' John musicals kick off in New York
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The Independent US

It is the battle of the musicals on Broadway this weekend as the curtains go up on previews of the two most anticipated new shows of the season, Tarzan and Lestat, each vying for box-office treasure. It also marks an unusual duel between two of Britain's best song-writing talents, Phil Collins and Sir Elton John.

The early buzz belongs to Tarzan, the latest Disney stage production to reach the Great White Way, with audiences promised a dizzying spectacle of acrobatic feats set to the tunes of Collins. It went into previews on Friday, although the first critical reviews come only after its official 10 May opening. Expectations are almost as high, however, for Lestat, inspired by The Vampire Chronicles of Anne Rice. Its first preview came to Broadway last night and the show opens formally in late April. Sir Elton's long-time collaborator, Bernie Taupin, is providing the lyrics.

The clash of Collins and John kicks off a New York theatre season that will be marked more than ever by British imports, most notably with the transfer from the West End next month of Alan Bennett's History Boys with the original National Theatre cast, including Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour.

Tarzan is the fourth Disney musical to hit Broadway. Ironically, two of its predecessors, The Lion King and Aida, were set to music by Sir Elton. Both have been monumental financial successes. Collins was chosen this time around for a natural reason: the former Genesis front-man wrote the score for the Disney Studio's animated film version of the classic jungle story.

Indeed, while Collins has composed eight new songs for the stage version, five others belted out by the cast in the Richard Rogers Theater on Friday were taken from the animated film. Collins won an Oscar for the song "You'll Be in My Heart" in the 1999 movie.

The show follows the well-worn tale of an infant orphaned in a shipwreck and raised among gorillas in the African jungle before having his first encounter with humans. Tarzan, played by Josh Strickland, and apes alike wear visible harnesses on the stage, and are frequently hoisted aloft.

Thomas Schumacher, the president of Disney Theatricals, paid tribute to Collins, nowadays resident in Switzerland, for attending every audition and rehearsal in the run-up to Friday's first preview. "It's the classic model of the composer in residence while you work," he said.

Lestat, meanwhile, has had a trial run with a world premiere in San Francisco last December. Sir Elton, who also wrote songs for the musical of Billy Elliot in the West End, conceded that he has been updating the music since the close of the California run. By the Saturday preview on Broadway, he had added two new songs and excised others.

"Like with Billy Elliot, I wrote an extra song quite late in the day, and we left some songs out," he told Playbill News. "And that's par for the course when you're a composer for a musical. You have to leave your ego at the door and see some songs you really like bite the dust and you have to write some other ones, because the story changes." Sir Elton also hinted that he took on more than he expected with Lestat, the story of a young man turned vampire struggling between his quest for love and his instinct to drink human blood.

The process was "particularly draining, because the songs are much longer, more complex than anything else I've ever written."

But then, he added, writing about a vampire is out of the normal run of things for a composer.