Interview: Josh Strickland on His Final Time in TARZAN

An in-depth interview about the show on Broadway and at Tuacahn

By: Jul. 15, 2023
Interview: Josh Strickland on His Final Time in TARZAN
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Josh Strickland originated the title role in Disney’s TARZAN on Broadway in 2006 and has since been the iconic voice of the character as the musical has lived on through the fan favorite cast album and licensing around the world. 

Now the star returns to TARZAN through October 21, 2023 at Tuacahn.  For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-746-9882 or www.tuacahn.org.

Josh Strickland happily sat down with BroadwayWorld near the Tuacahn Amphitheatre to discuss his long association with the show from audition to Broadway to Germany, and now in what he calls his “last hurrah” at Tuacahn.

1. To get started, I want to talk about Tuacahn a little bit. Tell me about when you first came here as an audience member, how you felt, and then what it's been like as a performer and why you've kept coming back.

Absolutely. So my first time here was in 2010, and they were doing the first regional production of TARZAN. My husband actually was in the production (not at that time—we were dating), but I came up to see him, and it was actually a kind of full circle moment because I hadn't seen any other production since we did it on Broadway. And so I was super excited to see this place that I'd heard things of. I was in Vegas doing PEEP SHOW, and I just drove up and totally fell in love with the place because it's one of those places that can do more things that no other theatre can. Special things to Tuacahn, which I think makes it even that much better. No theatre can build a water feature in the back to flood the stage. I'm sure they could, but it would be $20 million to do. But this is something that this particular theatre was built to have. And so when I saw that water coming over the stage and flooding, it was so incredible. And then the fireworks after every single bow—it's almost like Disneyland in a sense. You know, you don't find this in every theatre. I don't think every theatre should have it. I think every theatre should have something very special for their own, and that's what makes Tuacahn that special.

My first time working here was actually in 2019 doing the production of THE LITTLE MERMAID. My husband had been working here for I think seven seasons at that time, and so they knew him, and getting to know me and having the chance to work here for the first time was just really, really exciting. If you look up Tuacahn, you can see the pictures of this place, and to be honest, driving in here every single time for work and to say that you get to work here is that much more special because it never gets old. It's just so awe inspiring every time you drive in here.

It's like a movie set. It's almost like it's fake—you're on a backlot of something, a Western movie that they're making, and it just doesn't seem real, but it is. The history of this place is when they built it, they only had to move just a few inches of land to actually build the theatre. It was already a natural amphitheatre, so to know that history and to know that the audience is looking into this incredible canyon—there's nothing behind it—like you are literally just looking at nature when you're in these shows, and I think that just makes it so incredible.

2. Especially a show like TARZAN. How did this all come about with you doing TARZAN here?

So the productions I've done: Broadway and then they asked me to do Germany five years ago. And then to be honest, I was like, okay, I think that was my full circle with the character. I got to, you know, after Tarzan on Broadway, go back to the Germany production that had been running for over a decade. And so it was kind of special for me to go back to the show but also in a whole other language. So I was like, okay, I'm good with that.

And then last year, we were doing WONDERLAND and MARY POPPINS and JOSEPH, and they were kind of figuring what they wanted to do this year and TARZAN came up. They didn't choose to do TARZAN just because of me. But when that was chosen, they kind of came up to me and said, would you be interested, would you want to? And I said, you know I actually would because I have history with this place. I love this place. I obviously met my husband here. So I think that would be such a cool kind of end of the road story. I mean, I turn 40 this year, so I'm definitely feeling like this is probably the last time I'm going to be playing him. I'd love to be a part of the production in a different way, directing it or doing something else, later. But I think that the realistic way of looking at it is, you know, this is a kind of a last hurrah and a big bang to go out with because, again, Tuacahn can do so many things that other theatres can't, and if it's not going to be Broadway or done by Disney Theatricals in another country, I would absolutely feel like this is the next best place.

It's so funny because I was young when I did TARZAN on Broadway. You know, I love, I love our younger generation. I love when people are coming up and love musical theatre and into the arts. It's just funny, it really does put things in perspective when you have these people that you're working with come up and say, ah, when I was in middle school, I loved the soundtrack of TARZAN. I'm like, okay, that is definitely telling my age. But it's still fun because at least it resonates still with a lot of people that may not have gotten to see it on Broadway because it didn't last very long, a year and a half or so on Broadway. But the music and the cast album still live on, and to be honest, it's done regionally so many times in so many places. Schools are even starting to do it, and so it's just neat to see kind of the legs that TARZAN has had 17 years ago into what it is today.

3. Can you tell me a little bit about Broadway? What was the audition process like for that?

So being a young 21-year-old (I think is when I started auditioning for it), I had just finished the tour of RENT and was like, okay, let's move to New York City. Let's make this happen. I was working at Abercrombie and Fitch and spraying Fierce everywhere. And I got a call from my manager, and he said they're doing TARZAN the musical, and I said okay, I love the music. I love Phil Collins. My voice is more pop-oriented anyway, so it's like, that's perfect for me.

So we went to the audition. Okay, got a callback. Okay, then you start to get to the new music. Okay, then I think it was like the fourth callback where we had to go to a different location. And then they had scaffolding set up. And then there was this box of hard hats. We knew, obviously, with TARZAN you're gonna have some flying, but we didn't know that this process was going to include any of that stuff. So literally it was kind of, you know, process of elimination. If you have people that can't go up high or are afraid of heights, then obviously that's probably not the show for you. So that's just what happened. You got in a hard hat, they made you climb up, clicked in, all safe and everything, but then you just had to let go. You had to be okay with doing that. And so that was kind of the process. Then once that was done, you had another flying callback, then you started to fly with other people.

So all in all, at the end of the day, I think it was about 15 callbacks that I had to go through. You started to have Disney executives come in and then you started to have Phil Collins come in and so on and so forth. And it was just, I mean, a rigorous process. I think just because of all the elements that were involved with the show, hooking up Foy, obviously, which we use here at Tuacahn, too. The rigorous process of getting the harnesses and making sure that you feel comfortable and all of that, so it was interesting, I have to say.

I'll never forget, I was already hired for the show. They said, we want you in the show, we want you to definitely understudy Tarzan, but you’re in the running for Tarzan, so I was like okay, cool. Then they asked me to sing at the group sales event. And that was with Jenn Gambatese, and Phil was there and a bunch of other people, and so I was like, okay, well, this might be a good sign, but you never know. I still wasn't given the job. I was like, you know, this is still just a great opportunity. And then in between that, because of all the executives that had come into town for that particular event, it was kind of like the last thing that they needed to see. And so it was either in between or before the group sales event, I went in and I did my last audition, and then I think it was like either the next day or the next two days that I got the call.

You know, when you're that young and just starting out in this business to even be given a chance is just that much more exciting. I mean, I'm very lucky. I know it doesn't happen to a lot of people, that people have worked their whole lives to originate a Broadway role and to be a lead title character, and I do not take that for granted. And that's the thing is that in that moment, of course, I was excited for myself, but then through the process you definitely grow up very quickly because you're the lead title character and you have a cast to lead, and being 21-22 years old, that's a big thing on your shoulders. And it was just thrilling and exciting. Looking back on it, there's so many incredible, incredible memories that I have, and I wouldn't have changed anything for the world.

4. What are some of those memories?

We had such an odd rehearsal process because they didn't do an out-of-town because of the massiveness of the show and how you had to build the rig for us to fly. They instead did this whole—it was in Brooklyn, and they built the entire stage in a soundstage where they would film movies. And so we rehearsed in that soundstage for, I think it was two months. And so that was kind of our out-of-town tryout in a sense. We didn't have an audience, but then we moved in. I think that was probably the oddest thing because we had Broadway veterans—Shuler Hensley was in the show, Merle Dandridge, people who have been doing this process for a minute—and they had never seen anything like that before. So it was just something that we were all kind of in it together.

And the coolest part is that Phil moved his entire studio into where we were rehearsing, and would just pop up, write new songs, pop down, and I mean, this is Phil Collins, you know, this is a pop icon. And just to see how collaborative he was and how incredibly kind and gracious he was, was so cool. Moments that speak to me are, me and Chester Gregory were in the room doing “Who Better Than Me (Reprise),” and he's just like, plunking along with the keys. And then we're like, oh, we think we can do this higher. Both Chester and I have really high voices, and so because he has a high voice, he's like, I like the sound of that. So then he would transpose it up and we’d just be wailing in the room, and it was just such a fun experience. You know, we're creating something together. And I think that's what was so thrilling.

And, of course, the moment that Tom Schumacher showed me what was going to happen on the Sunday Times right before we opened, and it's me flying across the arts and leisure page, which is Wild Town, USA. Anybody on Broadway, when your show’s in the paper or you get a full page ad, those are such amazing memories and moments that you just never forget, and it's friendships that last a lifetime.

You know, no matter how long a show runs, even if it's for a year and a half to 20 years to a six-month run, you build friendships and you build a community. I think that's what's so beautiful about musical theatre in general. And it's not just Broadway. We have theatre across the country, across the world. And so I think that, specifically a place like Tuacahn, there's so many people who have been on Broadway who are looking for that next gig, and this place can produce an amazing show. And so people want to be a part of this, too. Not to take away from Broadway. Broadway is our top of the pyramid that we want to accomplish. But, you know, it's still so cool to be able to go to these different theatres, all these regional theatres across the country, and truly just create art because we're creating that family. This is a part of our family, no matter where you are.

5. What are some of the changes that happened during the development process? What was it like working with Phil on that kind of thing?

Specifically I remember him going up and writing “Sun and Moon,” which is the duet between Kala and Kerchak, and that was something that was added because, you know, it was hard to figure out what their relationship is. She's living away from the tribe, and then they come together, like what is that about? And I think it's so cool because it is a kitschy, little fun moment that you get to see them be playful and get to know them as characters. I remember that specifically that he came down and he's like, I think I have a song, I think I have a song. And that was really cool. And again, Chester Gregory and I at the piano with him just wailing our brains out was just such a great moment.

6. I will say, I always loved the music from the movie, but I think it’s even better as a musical.

There's some great stuff, and I mean, Phil Collins can really write some music, you know, and I think that to me, he didn't get enough love. But I think that's hard. It's always hard for a pop artist, especially as big as somebody like Phil Collins to write new music for—and this is his very first musical. I think everybody is always going to have a little, hmm, what is this about? What does that sound like? And it might not be what you're used to, but it still is good music. And I think that's the thing—maybe back then, 17 years ago, more people were wanting Phil, but he was writing for Broadway. Some people are like, the duet of you and Jane is one of my favorites, and that to me is a fantastic love duet. It's beautiful. It's just—it tells a story. It helps develop the characters, and I think that it's one of his best. And “Two Worlds” and everything from the movie is just ridiculous.

7. I know that the show was really well received in Europe. What was it about that new production that people really enjoyed?

I think that there's so many great productions that just are wrong place, wrong time. And I believe that was kind of what happened with TARZAN. I mean, yes, it was a green box. But if Broadway wasn't in the right mindset to see something like that at the time, it's hard to be perceived. And so, could we have done things differently? Of course, every show can. That's just the creative process. But I think it was hard because of the flying. Not everybody in that particular theatre, the Richard Rodgers, could see what was going on up top because the balcony just comes over so much of the orchestra. And I think that what was so cool is that in Europe, they ended up being in more of these theatres that are amphitheatre type, so every seat could see something and that made it that much more thrilling. They could do a lot more with the flying, because in a Broadway house, you can throw lines up everywhere, but they're not that large of spaces. And so you're put into this box, and we could only do so much. I think that's why in Europe it was so cool to see what originally they wanted to do. They could actually do the ideas they originally thought about, and that's what I think elevated the whole production.

Musical theatre’s hard because, again, it's somebody else's vision, it's somebody else's taste. And that's what this world is, though, you know. We have so many different tastes and values and people, and I just think that it depends on what clicks and what doesn't with a majority of people because Broadway is expensive. You know, you can't run a show just on a select few that liked the show. It has to be something that has a much bigger, I guess, likeability.

8. What is it about this production that’s special?

I always believe casts are put together for a reason, and I love every single person that's in this cast. They are working their hardest to create an environment that is not normal. We are being animals. We are being apes, and we're creating this jungle for the audience to feel a part of. To me, obviously I have such a close relationship with the show, but what I think people have taken away from either doing it or seeing it: TARZAN truly is so much about heart and so much about, not to put a pun in, but “you'll be in my heart.” There is truly a human aspect to it, which sometimes is hard to see when you're looking at a cartoon that's full of animals, but then when you actually dive deep into it, which is kind of nice when you're watching a Broadway show with humans actually emulating these animals, it doesn't matter what you look like, where you came from. We are all in some way connected. And especially with the way that apes are so similar to humans, I just think it's so beautiful how they took Tarzan in and created this bond with him.

I was adopted, so I honestly connect with Tarzan on such a deeper level. I didn't know where I came from, I didn't know what my parents looked like. There's that aspect to it, but yet, I wasn't birthed by my parents, but they love me nonetheless, you know. I am their family in their mind. And so I think that's just what's so beautiful to watch about this show. Is it a Disney cartoon? Sure, but we're going back to the depths of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book and finding those things and small little details that hopefully people can catch on. In reality it's more about friendships, it's more about family. It's more about love. It's more about finding who you are. And I think that just really connects with a lot of people.

9. So when you have a cast of people who have been listening to you since middle school, what has that been like to create that family to help them feel like, okay, yeah, I'm just one of you guys?

I mean, it's weird, but in the back of my mind, I always remember, every time I went to a Broadway show and went to the stage door, I remember me as a kid, and being in awe of everyone who came out and signed and spoke to us. And not to say that these people are like “fansies” or anything like that. It's just more like when somebody tells you that, I want to make sure they know that I am the exact same way. I am in awe of your talent. It doesn't really matter who's been on Broadway and who hasn't, because to be honest, whatever you're bringing to the table and what your gift has been, you're using it, and that's the most important to me. I'm in awe of everyone here. Everyone has a story, everyone has a talent, everyone has something to bring. And there's not one more important than the other. And I think that sometimes it does take some life lessons, you know, to learn that, but I mean that wholeheartedly. From the backstage crew to the front of house, it doesn't take just one person. It doesn't matter what role you're playing. You may think that you're important, but it really, to be honest, doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. We're all telling the same story, and without those people, we can't tell the story. So I just think that it's so nice to hear those words and to hear that they listened to it, but I always try to bring it back or remind people of how important they are to the story, to every story that we're telling just as much as mine.

10. What do you have to do physically to get ready for the role? And has it changed as you've gotten older?

Of course it has! I have to put a little bit more oil on the knees. It's funny because I have to say, looking back, I feel like I'm in better shape now than I even was then, because 22 years old, like you've got still baby fat. So I mean, I was just learning how to work out and use my body in those types of ways. But now I kind of know what works for me. It's hard. I will say I wake up, I try to do at least four to five miles on the treadmill. And then I have a personal trainer that I'll do on TARZAN days just to get pumped right before the show to kind of, you know, mentally prepare to being naked on stage, because that's never easy. And I think that it's been a lesson and a journey for myself to figure out what I'm supposed to eat and what I'm supposed to not eat and figure that out for what this particular role is. To be honest, it's exhausting to try and just be in shape for anything. I mean it's a full-time job. And so to do it is rewarding because you feel good, but then like sometimes you're kind of like, I actually really don't feel like going to the gym today. You know, I just want to be me. I just want to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. But I know it's part of my job, and so there's a certain reward at the end of it for that. But that's why I'm saying getting 40 I feel like this is my last hurrah. I can still sing him later in my 50s, but I don't think anybody needs to see that flying through the trees. Hey, it's a 2,000-seat amphitheatre, so, you know, whatever they see is from far back.

11. How do you feel the way you've approached the role has changed? Has it stayed the same over the years?

Such a good question, because it's changed completely. When I was 22 years old on Broadway, an adopted kid, had not met his birth mother, still had all these questions, still really had this open-endedness to myself, and then also to the character. And when I went back to do Germany, at that time, I had already met my birth mother. And so those chapters of the book that I hadn't written yet on Broadway were written. In the song “Everything That I Am,” all those questions at the front end, well, he answers them, he says, “Now I know who I am, where I came from.” I couldn't answer those back on Broadway. In Germany after I had met my birth mother, feeling that in my brain and having those emotions attach, were finally there. I sure as heck did not have them on Broadway, because I was still emotionally just going through those questions. But now, having those answered, it feels great. It's nice to be able to fulfill a character. Yes, as actors do, we try to fulfill what's happening as a whole. There's a beginning and an end. You know, that's how the show goes on. There's only so much you can do. You can't just leave it open ended. So it was nice to be able to at least for myself, feel like I have completed that journey for not only me but for him, for the character, and to this day it's just nice to be able to do.

12. Do you have anything else you wanted to add?

Just thankful that 17 years later, I can still play it and still be asked to play it. You know, that's what I think is just so kind of cool. And it's such a special, special, special piece for me, but to be able to still share the story, even if it's not me in the title character, that it's still being told is the most important.

This conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Photo Credit: Ben Braten




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