Interview: Josh Strickland on Swinging Back into TARZAN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL at The Black Box

Concert version of Disney show will be in Franklin through March 17

By: Mar. 07, 2024
Interview: Josh Strickland on Swinging Back into TARZAN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL at The Black Box
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Interview: Josh Strickland on Swinging Back into TARZAN: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL at The Black Box

When Josh Strickland takes the stage in the current Franklin Performing Arts Company (FPAC) production of “Tarzan: The Broadway Musical,” he is in his familiar place in the center spotlight, playing the show’s title role which he originated on Broadway.

Anyone familiar with that 2006 Tony Award-nominated and Grammy Award-winning musical, with music and lyrics by eight-time Grammy Award winner Phil Collins and book by Tony Award winner David Henry Hwang (“M. Butterfly”) has something a bit new awaiting them at FPAC’s The Black Box, now through March 17, where directors Raye Lynn Mercer and Ali Funkhouser have reimagined the show as an immersive multi-stage rock concert featuring choreography by Broadway performer Clay Rice-Thomson (“Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” “King Kong”), and music direction by Hallie Wetzell.

The musical – based on Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 1999 adventure film “Tarzan,” which was in turn based on the 1912 story “Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs – tells the tale of Tarzan, who, as a newborn, survived a shipwreck on the coast of West Africa that took his parents’ lives, and went on to be raised by gorillas. Later, Tarzan meets Jane, a young English naturalist, and falls in love, before learning that Jane's entourage plans to kill the gorillas.

The animated film’s Phil Collins score, including the Academy Award-winning “You’ll Be in My Heart,” was expanded by Collins for the Broadway adaptation, which played 35 previews and 486 performances at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre before closing on July 8, 2007.

In addition to Strickland, the FPAC cast also includes Broadway performers Ruby Lewis (“Paramour”) as Jane, and Tyrick Wiltez Jones (“Hairspray,” “Finian’s Rainbow”) as Terk. Maria Sylvia Norris and P.T. Mahoney appear as Kala and Kerchak, with Nick Paone as Clayton and Liam Kerrigan as Young Tarzan. Katie Gray and Andrew Scott Holmes are featured vocalists with the show’s band.  The ensemble is comprised of local performers including apprentices from the Franklin School for the Performing Arts.

Strickland’s own career began early, too, when, in 5th grade, the South Carolina native joined the Charleston Youth Company with which he performed for the next eight years, receiving drama, voice, and dance training. After graduating from the Charleston County School for the Arts, and attending the College of Charleston, Strickland embarked on his professional career.

In 2003, he competed on the second season of Fox-TV’s “American Idol,” where he made it to Hollywood, and a year later was a contestant in the male vocalist category on CBS-TV’s “Star Search.” Following his success on Broadway, Strickland made his Las Vegas debut in “Peepshow” at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas Resort & Casino, while concurrently co-starring in the E! reality show “Holly’s World.” During this period, the performer released his first single, “Report to the Floor,” which debuted in the top-five on the iTunes Dance Charts, followed by “Last Dance.”

Strickland now makes his home in Las Vegas with his husband and fellow performer Todd DuBail (currently starring in “Magic Mike Live” at the Sahara Las Vegas). They marked their ninth wedding anniversary on March 7. By telephone recently, Strickland spoke about playing Tarzan again, and more.

You’ve reprised the role of Tarzan several times in the years since Broadway. What interested you in this FPAC production?

To be honest, when Raye Lynn first asked me to consider doing this, I had just done the show for Tuacahn Arts Center in Ivans, Utah, in their amazing 2,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, and I really thought that would be my Tarzan swan song. Then Rae Lynn explained that she wasn’t planning to do a full-scale version but instead a rock concert of the Phil Collins score, with some of the choreography but not the full-blown ape movement. With all that in mind, I thought, “I can do this.”

Having played this role so many different times, in the U.S. and abroad, do you feel a lasting connection to the character?

I do, actually. I feel like I have a special bond with him. I was adopted and so was Tarzan. Yes, in his case, we're talking about apes, but they loved him and he loved them just the same. The important part of that connection, and of any adoption really, is giving someone a home and love. That’s what my parents have given me from the moment we became a family. I met my birth mother when I was doing “Holly’s World.” It was a beautiful meeting and something I wanted to do, but my parents are my parents. They were supportive of that decision as they have been of all my decisions and I love them both very much.

When it comes to making professional connections, is this the first time you’ve worked with Raye Lynn Mercer, FPAC’s executive and artistic director?

This is actually my second time. In 2020, during the pandemic when we couldn’t work inside theaters, Raye Lynn staged an outdoor Disney-themed show and brought me in to star alongside my friends and fellow Broadway performers Ashley Brown (“Mary Poppins”) and Michael James Scott (“Aladdin”). It was a wonderful experience and it gave us all the opportunity to do the music we’re known for, as well as so many other great Disney songs which we continue to do in concert all around the country.

Speaking of great music, are you a Phil Collins fan?

You bet I am – 100 percent. I’m a 1980s baby, so I feel like I’ve listened to Genesis and Phil Collins my whole life. I’m a Broadway singer – with a pop sensibility to my voice – so it’s my kind of music.

Was Phil Collins directly involved with the New York production?

He was involved in the entire process. He built a recording studio in the Brooklyn rehearsal hall where we worked to get the show ready for Broadway. It was awesome to have Phil Collins right there with us, putting in new music and making changes as we went along. He was so warm and open. One particular day, I remember telling him, “I think I can sing that higher,” and he immediately responded, “Go for it.”

One last thing, FPAC is taking a new approach to “Tarzan: The Broadway Musical.” Does that mean new costumes?

It does. The loin cloth will stay in the closet for this one. Between this role and my work in Las Vegas, where everything has to be semi-clothed and sexy all the time, I’ve been almost naked for a while now. It feels good to perform with some clothes on for a change.


Photo caption: P.T. Mahoney, Maria Sylvia Norris, Josh Strickland, Ruby Lewis, and Tyrick Wiltez Jones in a scene the Franklin Performing Arts Company production of “Tarzan: The Broadway Musical.” Strickland plays the title role which he originated on Broadway. Photo by Paul Vicario. Josh Strickland head shot courtesy of FPAC.