Long before Phil Collins wrote and recorded a string of '80s pop hits like "Sussudio" and "Against All Odds," before he spent 25 years in the rock group Genesis, before he played drums for Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin, he began his performing career as the Artful Dodger in the original London production of Oliver! "Barry Humphries [Dame Edna] was playing Fagin, and [producer] Cameron Mackintosh was my understudy," he recalls, noting that he returned to the show a few years later as Noah Claypool, the undertaker's assistant. Some 40 years later, Collins is making his Broadway debut as the composer of Disney's lavish new musical, Tarzan. He's added nine new songs to the five he wrote for the 1999 animated film (including the Oscar-winning "You'll Be In My Heart") and has worked closely with the cast during rehearsals and previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. Youthful and fit at 55, Collins seems delighted to be back in the theater for the latest phase of his prolific career.
You're a Broadway composer now—how are you feeling as opening night approaches?
It's fantastic to be at the point. We've been fine-tuning it since March 24, and I've been living with it since 1995, if you include the film. I've got a lot of emotion invested in it.
Are you happy with how Tarzan has turned out?
I'm thrilled. I've been involved the whole time, so anything I didn't like would be my own fault. It's not as if I've just given the music in and turned up a week before the show starts and said, "Hey! What happened?"
Sir Elton John took his lumps from the critics for Lestat. Are you worried about the reviews?
I get kicked around by critics all the time. I can count on one hand the amount of really good reviews I've had for anything I've done—in 25 years of Genesis, 30 years of my own career—people have dismissed it out of hand. They judge me on songs that they're heard to death. They're good songs, but there's a lot of stuff there that music critics just don't go for. To them, I'm some kind of landmark of middle-of-the-roadness, or I'm not edgy enough, or I've been around too long to be taken seriously. When it comes to theater, I realize it can be exactly the same, so I'm prepared for anything.
Have you had to rewrite or add anything during previews?
Not in previews, but since we started work in New York, I've had the chance to write three new songs that turned out to be quite important. [Tarzan's best friend] Terk has been a bit of a problem character through the whole process, just trying not to make him a clichéd buddy, and we've finally arrived at a point where's he truly original. His new song ["Who Better Than Me?"] is a bit of a showstopper. There's also a song for [Tarzan's ape parents] Kala and Kerchak; in the film, and until this song was there, you never really felt why they were together. If he didn't want a kid, why wouldn't she just leave the guy? I've written a song ["Sure as Sun Turns to Moon"] where you see that there actually is a love affair there. And there's another song for Kerchak ["No Other Way"] that's important because he's the one who has to dump the kid. Dumping kids is not necessarily something the audience admires [Laughs], so you have to try to convince them he's doing the best thing. They're all important songs that came at the eleventh hour.
Tarzan was an unusual Disney movie in that you sang all the songs yourself. When you added new songs for the musical, was it a different process to write for the characters?
When I came on board with the film, I thought I was writing for characters. It wasn't until [Disney] started falling in love with what I was giving them, and the way I was giving it to them, that they said, "We don't really want to hear anyone else sing this." I mean, Glenn Close [Kala], bless her heart, had a day in the studio with me, and she just didn't get it. They said to me, "You're going to have to sing it—we'll start with Glenn and then go to you." Rosie O'Donnell [Terk] did sing the fun song ["Trashin' the Camp"] but anybody could have sung that tune. You know, Disney has the reputation for being very corporate, but they're constantly trying to reinvent themselves. Tarzan was an opportunity for them to do an animated film a little differently. Because [I have] a distinctive voice, I was worried that it would take people out of the film. But it didn't work like that.
What challenges did you face in turning the movie into a stage musical?
Well, first of all, we didn't know how to do it without stepping on The Lion King's toes. You know: How do you do animals? [Lion King director] Julie Taymor did animals abstractly, and we all knew we didn't want to do gorilla suits, so how else do you do it? Then [director/designer] Bob Crowley came along. I got a call from Disney saying, "Go to London and meet Bob Crowley, and if you like each other, we've got a show." I felt a little intimidated because he's [puts on posh accent] in the theater crowd. Over a salad, he said, "So how did you start in this business?" And I said, "I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! when I was 14." He said, "My god, Sean Kenny's set for Oliver! is the reason I started designing." We had lots to talk about.
How did you solve the design problem of the apes?
Tarzan is not a superhero, he's a mountain climber, so there are a lot of ropes. In the same way that you buy into the masks in The Lion King, in this show you see the ropes. With the costumes, there's lots of flesh, but there's enough ape there; it's a blend of the two worlds. I buy into it, and I think most people do within five or ten minutes.
Tell me about your collaboration with David Henry Hwang, who wrote the book of the musical.
Everybody flew to Paris to meet, because I was living in Geneva and others were in various parts of America and Europe. I didn't know David's history, although I had heard of M. Butterfly. He'd written a first draft based on the movie, but Bob really wanted the movie out of the way. We weren't trying to put the movie on stage; whenever anyone said, "Well, in the movie…" he said, "I don't care." There are a couple of lines from the film because they're so good, but basically, it's almost a completely new story.
That seems like a big departure. Beauty and the Beast follows the movie scene for scene, and The Lion King is also quite similar to the film.
Things happen in this show that were never in the film. Kerchak's part was small in the movie; here, with Shuler Hensley, he's got a tremendous presence and two songs. Jane has a new song ["Waiting for this Moment"]. The five film songs have been extended to their original length, but the nine new songs are the jewels in the crown. All of the characters have been expanded to become real people.
I heard that at one point in the show's development there were two Tarzans, a swinging one and a singing one.
This show has been through many, many different versions, set-wise, concept-wise... We thought a Greek chorus idea might work because we didn't know if we wanted to hear Tarzan sing. So we had storytellers—instead of Tarzan singing, you'd have a person shadowing him as the narrator. We went with that idea for a long time, until eventually one day, someone said, "Let the guy sing!" [Laughs] And we all kind of breathed out a little bit. But you try everything, and it's great to be given the opportunity to do that. Amongst the workshops, it became apparent to me that Broadway voices can make a song sound vastly different. This is a pop vehicle, and I know what kind of voices I want—and what I don't want—singing them. So I went to the auditions when the casting was done.
How would you define the type of singing you were looking for?
I had a pivotal moment when I saw Idina Menzel in Wicked. I was just blown away with her voice, because she had a pop sensibility in a Broadway musical. For the first time, I said, "So you can do this"— there are people out there, the new breed, if you like, who grew up on pop. All you have to do is get rid of a little bit of the vibrato and sing it like a pop song. Some songs in the show have different qualities—I've written a song for Jane and her father that is English drawing room music ["Like No Man I've Ever Seen"] and they are both allowed to sing it that way, but broadly speaking, I've tried to get a pop sensibility.
Obviously you're an expert in rock and pop and jazz and big-band music, but did you have an expertise in musical theater before writing this show?
I had no expertise in musical theater, apart from my own experience in it, which had made me appreciate it. On my computer, I have the Beatles and the Foo Fighters, My Fair Lady and Wicked and West Side Story, Weather Report and Frank Sinatra. My musical taste is very wide. Some of the Broadway music I had in vinyl years ago, so I went out and bought all these CDs. I really listened to them and took my favorite songs and said, "Okay, that's the chalk mark you've got to live up to." I tried very hard, and I'm so glad that I've done both the music and the lyrics. Give me all of the responsibility—I'll take it! It's been a fantastic experience, one that started with the movie of Tarzan and then [the 2003 Disney animated film] Brother Bear, where they asked me to do some orchestrations and underscoring. That, in a weird way, prepared me for this, where you're thinking about which instruments typify an English drawing room and what's right for the jungle. Each aspect of the technical side is interesting to me, since I haven't done it before.
I read about you playing bongos in the rehearsal room. You really did get hands-on, didn't you?
Yeah, because having been involved in choosing the singers, I said to [Disney Theatrical Productions president] Tom Schumacher that I wanted to sit down and teach people the music as I wrote it. They did some demo recordings with people who aren't in the show now to wean everybody off the sound of my voice. The demos were coming back with quirks in the tunes and the lyrics. I said, "I can't control how this sounds in four years' time, but I can work with them now." The stuff is very rhythmic, and I was playing along to help. I also played on the cast album, which they recorded the other day. I went for fun and was playing bongos with the other two guys, not realizing they were taping. They said, "That's a take." I don't read music, and I was just playing by ear something I had written.
I'm amazed to hear that you don't read music.
I wish I did.
So, to ask a dumb question, when you're composing, do you start with the melodies?
I'm at the piano, and I just start playing and singing and recording. I have a computer, and the moment I get an idea, I record it, listen back to it and write the lyrics down. That's certainly the way I do all my pop stuff, but even these songs are kind of improvised. We were sitting around a table one day and I said, "Jane should have a song about falling in love for the first time." Then I'd go back and sit down and just start singing, "For the first time…"
Will your kids be here for opening night? I read that you were thinking of your daughter when you were working on the film.
Yeah, Lily is 17 now; she was 4 or 5 when I wrote it. My youngest child is 16 months old, and my oldest is 33. [Collins has five children from three marriages.] I'm just going through a third divorce, which is not good. My 5-year-old has grown up with this music; whenever he gets in the car, he says, "Daddy music! Daddy music!" so he knows this stuff backwards. He's going to come and see it later in the month, and my older kids are coming on opening night.
Could you see yourself writing another original musical?
That's what I'm here [in New York] for. I'm going to stay based in Switzerland to be near my kids, but I've bought an apartment here because I'd love to do more shows.
Not yet. It's early.
How about the story of a mild-mannered drummer who becomes an international superstar?
I don't know about "mild-mannered." [Laughs] Or "superstar" either. But I've met a lot of very bright people here who have become friends, like David Henry Hwang, Bob Crowley, [Jersey Boys book writer] Rick Elice, [Tarzan associate director] Jeff Lee, [Disney Theatrical senior vice president] Michele Steckler, [director] Susan Stroman… I'd love to do another one.
Are you done with performing? I read you lost your hearing in one ear.
I'm done with touring, but not performing. When [the hearing loss] first happened, I thought I'd be finished there and then. But the brain adjusts, and I thought it would be nice to go out [on tour] once more and know it was the last time. I did Europe and America in 2004, then we had a baby, and a year later I went out and did the rest of the world.
Do you miss the level of acclaim you had in the '80s, with one hit record after another?
No. It's like when people say, "Why did you leave Genesis?" I was with them 25 years—that's 24 years longer than most bands stay together! I had a good three or four hours of my 15 minutes of fame. I was truly philosophical when Both Sides [released in 1993], which I thought was my best record, came out and wasn't grabbed at. It was a sad album, kind of signaling the end of my second marriage. At that point, I said, "Okay, things are changing now," and resigned myself to looking for something else to do. That's why I did my big band record.
And if you weren't busy on Broadway, you could follow Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow as a special guest on American Idol. One of the contestants, Katharine McPhee, butchered "Against All Odds" the other night.
I heard she did. [Laughs] That kind of show is in every country, and the country's culture comes out in the way they present the program. I did a French version three or four times; you sing with the kids and say "well done." Some of them have become my friends. I don't go along with the Simon Cowell way: "You're crap! Get off!" I'd do it again in France, but not here.
© Broadway, by Kathy Henderson