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Tarzan

Last chance to see this high-flying Disney musical! Performances end July 8, 2007.

Josh Strickland

Smeared with stage dirt, weighed down by pounds of dreadlocked hair and strapped into a harness, Josh Strickland may not, at first glance, seem like the definition of grace in Disney's Tarzan. But a winning combination of charisma, talent and a soaring pop tenor has quietly—and, yes, gracefully—made the 23-year-old actor one of Broadway's most well-liked young stars and incidentally, Broadway.com's most-visited Star File of the past year. Strickland, who started performing musical theater in high school at South Carolina's Charleston County School of the Arts, went on to the national tour of Rent and made a blip on the pop culture radar with appearances on American Idol's second season and Star Search. But his big break came when he made his Broadway debut in the title role of Tarzan, where the charming actor has been swinging on vines, singing Phil Collins' tunes and anchoring the show's story of family and first love. Strickland chatted with Broadway.com about his amazing journey.

It's been a year since you started working on Tarzan, right? So, a lot changed for you in 2006...
It's crazy! We started rehearsals on December 27 of 2005. It's been a whirlwind. And not only did I go through a lot of changes as an actor, but also physically. I'm in the best shape of my life!

Has it been a stressful year?
I have to say it was stressful at the beginning. It is for any show that starts from scratch. You're trying to figure out what you're doing and who the character is and what story you're trying to tell. But you know what? It's gotten so much easier. I don't want to say that it's totally easy because we always have to find new things to keep it fresh and to make sure that the audience is getting the same thing they did on opening night, but mentally, it's gotten a lot easier for us all! [Laughs.]

It seems like a demanding show in many ways.
A lot of people in the cast hadn't been though this type of thing before. Jenn [Gambatese, who plays Jane] has been in four or five Broadway shows now and she was like, "This is like nothing I've ever done," because even she has to be in a harness singing songs. We all had to get used to that—how to control our breath and the way our bodies move to make sure the sound comes out as pretty as the audience wants to hear.

What's been the biggest surprise about getting your first Broadway show—as the lead, no less?
You know, I think that was it. Coming here, I thought I'd get an ensemble part in a show that's been running for 10 years—you know, just something to get my feet in the water. But being thrown into such a huge role…even for people who do star in musicals, to have the title role is a dream. It's crazy that I got both in one package. And to be with such great producers like Disney—I don't think I could have asked for better. It's kind of hard to think where you can go from here. [Laughs.]

I recently talked to Ashley Brown [of Mary Poppins] about the audition process for getting into a Disney show…
Ooh! Grueling. Mine spanned three months. I had 15 callbacks. A lot of people don't know that. But that's just the way the business is. Producers are looking for something specific. It was nerve-wracking because you're like, "I don't know if I have anything new to show them. I don't know how different I can sing the song for the 16th time!" And also with this, you would walk into an audition and there was a hard hat and a harness and a rope. You're like, "OK. What the heck have I gotten myself into?" But if you want it that badly, you step into that harness and get hoisted up, and there you go.

Are you too young to have grown up a Phil Collins/Genesis fan?
No way. I did Star Search and I actually sang a Phil Collins song: "Against All Odds." So he's also been a fan of mine for a long time. It's crazy that I did a stupid reality show and sang one of his songs, and there I am auditioning for him and now he's a buddy. We just spent New Year's together.

Wow! What did you do?
He threw a nice little party for some of us. We did that last year, as well. It wasn't like a work-related event; it was all of us who have become friends and family through this entire thing getting together and having a good time.

The cast must have gotten pretty close during the intense rehearsal process for Tarzan.
We rehearsed at Steiner Studios, which is a huge movie studio over in Brooklyn, and we were there…well, it seems like we were there forever! We had a grueling two months in that space because we actually put up the entire stage, which most shows don't get to do. We had a room we called the Jungle Room and we got in there and did a warm-up every morning for about two hours. It was the same size as the stage, so we worked out all of our directorial things in there, and we had a music room in a totally different part of the studio. There was also a smaller rig we called Rig Junior. Rig Senior was the main stage; Rig Junior was a version we would swing and fly around in just to practice.

So I imagine it was pretty spectacular when you finally saw all of the design elements come together in the Richard Rodgers Theatre.
Natasha [Katz] did such an amazing job with the lighting. It's a box, but that's what's cool about it. You have to step out of your idea of what something might be and step into the minds of the creators to see what they meant for it to be. We definitely did that after coming back from Steiner. After seeing nothing but an ugly blue carpet, you go into where all the magic happens—the stage—and see what [the designers] have been working hard on and creating. That was probably the coolest part: when all the lights lit up and made that jungle as green and vibrant as it looks.

Tarzan has a very specific way of moving, having been brought up by apes. How did you find your way into his physicality?
About four months before we started rehearsals, I was already in yoga training for the show, and that helped me a lot. Yoga is such a mind-crunching thing. It's really cool how things can happen by stretching yourself, deeper and deeper inside your muscles. But I can tap into a lot of other things for the character too, because he's adopted and so am I. I knew that part of the story was going to help me find who he is and where he came from. Now, granted, my parents aren't apes, or animals of any sort…[laughs]. But it's very lucky that I grew up in a wonderful household where I was adopted, so I can understand the feelings he would have about finding out where he came from and what he is all about.

Did you have to get over feeling self-conscious about the way you move?
I have to say it's intimidating being up there pretty much naked. You don't know what to do with yourself! But after about two or three months of the rehearsal process, it just becomes your skin. I eat and eat and eat everything I can, but it's difficult because you're in a two-and-a-half-hour cardio workout eight times a week. My metabolism has totally changed. I try to gain weight—muscle anyway—but my goodness!

It's a tough problem to have, huh?
A little bit, right? [Laughs.] A lot of people would die for that problem. I know. But I'm so blessed to have a show that keeps me physical and also keeps my singing up. I certainly don't want to say it's the most challenging role on Broadway, but somebody once told me that it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "triple threat." You've gotta do all of it!

After putting so much into the show physically and emotionally, were you upset about the negative reaction from some critics?
As hard as we worked? Yes. All of us were. But you know what? We got over that really, really quickly, because as soon as we opened, the audiences were coming and that's what's important. When people come out of the show, it's always, "Wow." They come to us and make comments like, "What were [the critics] thinking? I don't know what show they saw." Things are kind of changing nowadays—there are a lot of shows that don't get all rave reviews, but they're still staying because they have the audience power. These are stories people relate to and want to see. Of course we were disappointed, but the people we care about are the ones who pay money to see our show each and every night. We've been breaking records for ticket sales in our theater. I think people should just go see for themselves.

Some people are going to like it…
…and some people aren't. Exactly. I know that a lot of people have things to say about Disney, and that's fine, but to me—and not just because I work for them—they're a wonderful company. They're smart and they know what people want. There are guys 13 and 14 who have never seen a show and might not ever see one if there weren't things like Tarzan out there for them. We have fighting leopards and a girl being saved off a spider web —it's cool stuff! And it's so neat to see their faces afterward. We had a kid last night who was with his parents and he came up to me and was like, "Man, that was so cool." That's what's important to me about what we do.

What do you think about theater chatters on Internet message boards?
Oh man, you know…[laughs]…that's a whole other shebang right there. At first I didn't really know much about it. Jenn [Gambatese] talked to me about it and said, "Don't go." But of course I did. Honestly, I think that it kills a lot of things, because people on there are very hateful. Not just to me, but I also see what they say about other actors and other shows, and it's kind of sad. They don't know us. They start making up ideas about what the producers were thinking and it's a lot of lies. It really is. If they're supposed to be fans of Broadway, then let's be positive about what everybody's doing. People coming to New York for the first time to see a show will go online to decide which shows are good, and being negative is not something I feel needs to be happening. I don't know these people, so I can't pass judgment on anyone, but I wonder what they're going through in their lives. I hope something great comes for them so that they don't have to be so negative. We're all working for the same team here, and it's the team of just trying to make it. Let's all be positive for each other.

Agreed. Despite this being your first major show, you've been performing for a long time. Was Broadway always your goal?
You know, I always wanted to do it, but I have to say I wanted to be a recording artist first. I feel like my voice isn't so "Broadway," so I went toward the idea that I was a white Brian McKnight. I wanted to go out there and do an album and sing pop and R&B songs.

That's what I would have guessed based on your TV credits.
Right. But I gotta tell you, this is a much better gig than those little reality shows! [Laughs.] I don't hate on them because they are making stars out of people who deserve it. Like Jennifer Hudson. I'm so proud of her doing what she's supposed to be doing in life—turning around that American Idol experience and making it her own in this new Dreamgirls film, which I think she's amazing in.

I heard you say once that you don't think it's necessarily the most talented people who make it through on American Idol.
It's definitely not. Well…I don't want to say that, because everyone on the show really is talented. But being on a reality show, I see what they're doing. It's a TV show. And I'm not saying that because I didn't make it, because I will be the first to say that those people are more talented than I am. There's always somebody out there who is more talented than you. But just seeing the process and seeing who was getting booted off, you were like, "What are they doing? These people are amazing." It was an eye-opening experience. You live and you learn and then you just move on. I'll know not to ever audition for one again. [Laughs.]

Do you get tired of being asked about being on American Idol?
It's fine. It's a phenomenon, so everybody loves it. People are like [whiny voice], "Oh, I don't even remember you," and I'm like, "Listen. I put it on my resume because I made it on TV." Why not? I didn't make top 32, but I did get on some TV time because they thought I looked like Ryan [Seacrest]. Whoop dee do. I tried. I didn't make it. Now I'm doing this!

So, has starring on Broadway changed your career goals?
Definitely. I see how hard it is for recording artists to break through, because they're recycling a lot of things right now. There are not too many new people coming out. It is tough. I'd love to do some TV or movies, but I'd also love to produce. In this process [with Tarzan], we didn't have the executive say over things because that's what producers are for, but Phil would ask our opinions on how notes should be sung. That process opened up a lot of new things for me. I definitely love that gritty, grinding, getting together in a group and figuring out how things are going to work and what the audiences might like. I think that's what's important. I also want to keep doing the Broadway thing and keep singing for whoever I can. As long as I'm singing and doing what I'm doing, I'm perfectly happy!

See Josh Strickland in Tarzan at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

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