A classic movie has just come to life this season at The Muny. Tarzan is swinging in to town – literally – for what’s sure to be one of the most memorable character entrances in Muny history. A production of this scale dazzles audiences, but most spectators have no idea what goes on offstage.
I was lucky enough to get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes interview and tour with Muny publicity manager Larry Pry to find out.
The Muny is set up much differently from other theaters. With only two days between the first two shows (Billy Elliot ended June 22, Tarzan started the 25th), Tarzan actors and crew members put the production together during the day before Billy Elliot goes on at night.
“They literally learn the show in seven days,” said Pry.
There is a 10-day rehearsal process for every show, during which the actors practice on rehearsal stages out of direct sunlight. “The actors don’t rehearse on stage because it’s too hot. The crew needs to be able to be on stage to work. Plus, Billy’s set is on stage,” said Pry.
If a show opens on a Monday, the actors come in 11 days before on Thursday. Two days before opening night is the “tech rehearsal.” If you’re not familiar with theater lingo, the tech rehearsal is when the actors are on the stage with costumes and the full set for the first time ever. This is when the actors meet everyone involved in the production for the first time (including the crew, dressers and set team stage hands), and they rehearse with only the piano and the conductor. The next afternoon, the actors sing with the orchestra in The Muny’s indoor studio. The afternoon before opening night, they run the whole show on stage and with the set, but without costumes.
Opening night is the first time everything comes together. “Our opening night is like a final dress rehearsal. We call it ‘Muny Magic,’” said Pry, smiling proudly.
With such a quick turnaround time, both the actors and the crew need to be theater veterans to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Depending on the size of the production and its needs, there might extra hands or fewer, but it’s the same building, paint and running crew for each show.
For Tarzan, the crew has definitely had their work cut out for them. There is one big, central piece to this set: the jungle gym. The jungle gym is three stories tall and incorporates ladders, ropes and poles for Tarzan and the apes to dance around. The gym is bolted down on a turntable built into the stage, which rotates 360 degrees for the 12 different positions used in the production.
Although actors don’t normally practice with set pieces at The Muny, Pry said the circumstances for this show are different. The gym is central to many scenes and dance numbers, so the actors must have time to practice on it. With complicated structure of the gym, the timing needs to be just right to coincide with the turntable’s rotations.
For scenes not involving the gym, several different booms (giant walls that can be slid in and out) are painted with different backgrounds to cover the turntable.
The crew is also responsible for helping the actors get in and out of their costumes, which is quite the task this year.
“We built all the costumes for Tarzan ourselves,” said Pry, standing in a room backstage filled to the brim with seamstresses and designers bedecked with tape measures and handfuls of fabric. A designer from New York was hired for Tarzan (as well as for a few other shows this season), and has designed all costumes specifically for The Muny production. Dancing and singing outdoors in temperatures above 80 degrees is no small feat, and the costumes are designed with that in mind. The actors will be in breathable material — the apes especially: Each ape will wear a unitard underneath black shredded fabric, accented with a color that represents a certain “ape family.”
This season of The Muny brings back familiar faces from previous shows, and many more new to the St. Louis tradition.
For many of the actors, performing outdoors in such a large theater is a rarity.
“A large percentage of our actors this year are from out of town. We have several Broadway, Tony Award-nominated performers this year,” said Pry. Auditions took place for out-of-towners in January through March, in St. Louis, Los Angeles and New York City. Nicholas Rodriguez, who played Tarzan on Broadway, is reprising his role in The Muny’s production.
The Muny’s production of Tarzan is actually quite different from its Broadway version. Broadway stages are famous for being “tight.” Pry says executive producer Mike Isaacson and director John Tartaglia decided to start from scratch for the St. Louis debut.
“We don’t have to follow what [Broadway] did…it’s our production, and it’s Muny-unique. We are telling Tarzan’s story in our way. The choreography is all different, much more organic — like apes — instead of a simple step-ball-change, step-ball-change,” said Pry.
The Muny’s producer, production team, crew members and actors all work together as a seamless team with one goal: to put on an exceptional show for the 11,000 people who fill the house’s seats.
Tarzan runs from June 25 to July 2, and the show starts at 8:15 p.m. every night. See the “Muny Magic” of Tarzan for yourselves by swinging in for a night in the wild!