The only seat in the cluttered room off the gilded 42nd Street theatre lobby is a wheelchair. “It’s bad luck. Don’t do that,” says lead producer Michael Cohl, as I suggest one of us should sit in it. Cohl, 62, has stepped away from rehearsals for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and, given the bad luck besetting the most ambitious and costly production in the history of Broadway musicals, I am guessing the wheelchair is not a prop.
In the past few weeks, one performer injured both feet being catapulted across the stage of the Foxwoods Theatre, and another fractured his wrists trying the same stunt. As we talk, a group of young men is shown in to the theatre. “Stuntman try-outs. Hey, the cast keeps shrinking every week,” Cohl smiles from underneath a giant beard. “More victims,” jokes Julie Taymor, Spider-Man’s director, as she goes off to audition the would-be fliers.
The accidents, says Taymor, have been “much less aggressively horrifying” than press coverage would suggest but they cap a series of setbacks that has sent the project’s cost soaring to $55m-$60m, a Broadway record, and left doubters wondering whether a musical Spider-Man will ever fly.
After years of delays, previews were due to begin on November 14, with the official opening night on December 21, but Cohl recently announced he was moving these dates, to November 28 and January 11 respectively, effectively missing the most lucrative period of New York’s tourist year.
The Marvel comic book empire first licensed the musical rights to Peter Parker’s web-slinging alter-ego eight years ago, soon after the first of what has become a franchise worth of Spider-Man films. The rights were bought by Tony Adams, an Irish-born producer who had worked with the director Blake Edwards on the Pink Panther films and brought Edwards’ film Victor Victoria (1982) to the New York stage.
Adams, a friend of U2 manager Paul McGuinness from his Dublin days, approached the band to see if its members would write the music and lyrics. Two of them – Bono and The Edge – agreed, in part to pick up a gauntlet thrown (improbably) by the composer of Cats and Phantom of the Opera some time before. “There was an incident once at a songwriters’ awards show where Andrew Lloyd Webber was receiving an award and said, ‘I want to thank the pop people for staying off my patch.’ Bono took that as a bit of a challenge,” McGuinness recalls.
The Irish singer then pulled in Julie Taymor, a director of visually arresting operas, Shakespeare plays and films such as Frida (2002), whose stylised masks and puppets had made The Lion King, Disney’s 1997 musical, Broadway’s biggest commercial hit since Phantom and turned her into one of the industry’s most revered creative figures.
By late 2005, she had picked a writer, Glen Berger, a playwright whose main claim to fame was a minimalist off-Broadway monologue, Underneath the Lintel. The script and music were under way when Adams dropped dead, aged 52, during a meeting in Edge’s New York apartment.
His sudden stroke proved to be just the start of the production’s problems. David Garfinkle, an Illinois entertainment lawyer who had been Adams’ producing partner, took over. Readings began in mid-2007 but the money ran out in summer 2009 after the financial crisis, a long hunt for a New York venue large enough for aerial acrobatics, and unexpected expenses in refitting Foxwoods, a landmark theatre.
“There was nothing. It was [running on] fumes, it was bankrupt, it was horrible,” says Cohl, who had to raise two-thirds of the show’s budget after being asked by U2’s members to step up and take over from Garfinkle as lead producer. The Canadian promoter, who had worked on everything from Spamalot, the Monty Python musical, to U2’s famously lavish rock concerts, had invested in Spider-Man while chairman of Live Nation, the tour promoters and venue owner, and had taken the investment with him when he left the group the year before (the two sides remain in dispute over the terms of his exit).
Cohl says it took months “to figure out what in God’s name was going on”. It was not until this February, after dozens of calls to new investors from Canada to Mexico, that Cohl could confirm the show would go ahead. Within weeks, two of the lead actors, Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming, had dropped out because of clashes with other commitments and an accompanying press release’s references to Peter Parker (“maligned by the media, buffeted by financial woes and stretched thin by the expectations of the world at large”) seemed laden with double meanings.
Asked now – with “tweaks” still being made to the script, music and choreography – whether investors will recoup their investment, Taymor says: “Sure, we can make it back.” Cohl shrugs: “I sure hope so, but it’s showbiz. Who knows?”
Looking at the stage of the Foxwoods Theatre, it is hard to grasp the scale of what Cohl and Taymor have planned. The flying scenes, involving aerial battles with six super-villains, are being rehearsed in the middle of the night, when fewer people are in the way. Nobody has yet seen the full show rehearsed from start to finish.
What stands out are the exaggerated perspective lines of a set meant to look like a 3D pop-up book version of New York, and the fact that where the audience’s seats should be, I can see only rows of desks, each with a bank of computer screens, making it look more like a Nasa control room than a theatre.
When I walk in, Reeve Carney, the star of the show, is pacing the stage, playing an angsty teenage Peter Parker in a school setting. “Pow!!”, “Bammm!!!”, “Krrraak” and other comic book exclamations are splashed across the canvas behind him as a cut-out cartoon car speeds across the stage. A few minutes later, a garish oversized figure, looking like a masked Mexican wrestler, pops up from the middle of the stage.
“What’s different about Spider-Man from Superman or Batman is he’s not coming from a place of privilege or specialness,” Taymor says. “The idea that a small, unimpressive, self-effacing smart kid could be a superhero is such an incredibly inspiring story for many people.”
Spider-Man, she argues, is a New York precursor to Harry Potter, a mythic story of our age akin to the Greek myths or the Mahabharata. Cohl puts it more simply: “At the end of the day it’s a spectacle with a very basic love story at its heart, and the conflict between great power and responsibility and your loved one. What do you do? Do you go to work or stay home with your girlfriend?”
Both agree, however, that the Spider-Man story can’t be done on the cheap. “Nobody wants to see the $25m Spider-Man,” Cohl says. “The only thing about this budget that should feel right or wrong is, ‘Are we getting the right show?’ We’re making the show we want to make and, therefore, it’s the right budget.”
What costs $60m, though? “It’s everything. You’ve got to take seven years and kill the first producer,” he says, with grim humour.
Broadway itself is a big part of the cost. New York’s unions sharply increase the budget compared to other cities but Taymor says there was no way that Spider-Man could have followed time-honoured tradition and ironed out its production problems in a smaller city first. She opened Lion King in Minneapolis in 1997, and was still writing scenes in its first week. It moved to New York after eight weeks for another five weeks of rehearsals before New York’s critics could see the show.
“Nobody starts out of town any more because of the internet,” she says. It’s now as easy for a blogger to write off a show from Minneapolis as from Manhattan.
Taymor is clearly stung by the relentless press focus on the production’s ballooning cost. “The constant obsession about money is a sickness in our society,” she complains. “Whose money is that [$60m]? Millionaires’ money. Who gets hurt by the cost? The people who invest. Why would you be outraged when it keeps an enormous number of actors, designers and technicians employed?”
Theatre was originally part of a religious experience, she says, and she wants Spider-Man to “transcend the meanness” of everyday life, with its bitchy bloggers and base reality television shows. “Reality TV isn’t reality, at least not my reality. My reality is more like Spider-Man.”
Taymor and Cohl both describe what they are about to unveil as part drama, part rock show and part circus. The designer of their ambitious aerial rigging comes from Cirque du Soleil, and Taymor points to the Canadian acrobats as a different benchmark by which to judge Spider-Man’s budget. “It’s out of the limelight because it’s in Vegas or Canada but everybody knows they cost $150m or $200m.”
The Cirque du Soleil approach, though, is close to a Broadway and West End model pioneered in the era of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The return on that initial investment comes not just from one show but from transporting the show to several other cities.
Lion King, for example, has taken more than $735m on Broadway but Taymor says its global ticket sales now add up to more than $3.8bn. While the original New York production cost about $28m 13 years ago, its Las Vegas production cost half that sum. Cohl says he is focused on getting the first show right but hopes that productions in London, Tokyo and beyond will follow.
At first glance, “$60m is an extraordinary sum of money to spend but, in the context of building a global brand, maybe it has some commercial merit,” says Patrick McKenna, a former chief executive of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, who now runs a UK media investment group called Ingenious and chairs the board of London’s Young Vic theatre. “Even if the payback takes a year and a half instead of a year, if it runs for 10 years that’s still a very nice return on your money.”
Shrek the Musical, which previously claimed the tag of Broadway’s most expensive show, reportedly cost $25m-$40m and grossed just $46m before closing in January after just 14 months. Estimating Spider-Man’s likely returns is difficult but some rough calculations suggest it is plausible that its backers will make their money back, albeit not overnight.
The average ticket is likely to be about $100. Foxwoods seats 1,900 people and there will be eight shows a week. A full house for every show would bring in about $1.5m a week, more than covering the production’s $1m weekly running costs. Even at full capacity, though, it would take at least two years to recoup the upfront investment from the New York production alone.
Spider-Man has other trends in its favour. As spending on other media forms has lost ground to digital technologies, consumers have continued to spend on live experiences, be they concerts, comedy shows, sporting events, or musicals. New York’s theatres took a combined $1bn in the year to May 2010, according to Broadway League estimates, holding steady with the previous year on a slight dip in audience numbers to 11.9m people.
As McKenna notes, there has been a flight to bigger, more proven brands at the expense of smaller shows: “The hits are even bigger but something that might have once classified as a hit is now a miss.”
Jeffrey Hecktman, chief executive of Hilco Trading and one of Spider-Man’s earliest investors, says he is “as confident today as the day I made my original investment,” because of the strength of the Spider-Man brand and the names associated with the production. Having seen a rehearsal, he says: “I walked out very excited. I think this will be the most spectacular production ever to hit Broadway.”
Paul McGuinness adds: “I’ve seen some of the flying and it’s mind-blowing. This is a show unlike any other. I just want to see it all at the same time from a comfortable seat.” The first audiences will have that chance soon.
Between now and then, though, there is much to be done. “It’s a bit like trying to land Apollo 11 at this very last stage,” Glen Berger says. “We’re orbiting the moon: we just need to land the thing.”
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor
‘Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark’ is due to begin previews at the Foxwoods Theatre on November 28
Bono and The Edge on ‘Spider-Man’ The Musical
“In the digital age, live art is where it’s at,” says Bono, the rock showman who with U2 guitarist The Edge is about to make his Broadway songwriting debut. “The music fan is placing the value they once put on owning a recorded moment to, instead, having a moment that can’t be recorded.”
Since their Zoo TV shows in the 1990s, U2 have led a music industry arms race in ever-more lavish arena performances, incorporating elaborate staging and vast video screens. Spider-Man’s high-budget ambitions are part of the same trend, the two men say, but they are taking on a very different stage.
As blockbuster films rely more heavily on computer graphics, Edge says: “People have lost their trust in what they are seeing and feeling. There is something very visceral about theatre, and there is nowhere to hide.”
The two men, answering questions by e-mail, are not known for self-doubt but confess that with Spider-Man they were not sure what they had taken on. “U2’s better work ... has always come from a place where we feel out of our depth,” says Bono. “After you’ve been around for a few years, craft becomes more of an enemy than a friend. It gets you to the ‘very good’. But what gets you a shot at ‘great’ often comes from not knowing what you are doing.”
Bono says he found himself sprinting the 200 yards between his house and the studio in Edge’s Dublin home while they were writing, “to discover these characters and unlock the songs that might be in their head”.
But the need to put lyrics in other people’s mouths and “push the story along” required a more “Tin Pan Alley” approach than U2’s four band members would usually take, Edge says.
Bono describes director Julie Taymor as a magician and a perfectionist. “With Julie, God and the Devil are in the details. Everything has to be right.” This can make life tough on the show’s producers, he admits, “but, in recessionary times, we want this to be the richest of experiences for the punter.”
Bono says the project has been harder than anyone thought it would be but also better than anyone imagined. “If it’s a hit, the costs will be forgotten,” he says. And if not? “Edge and I will be available for weddings, bar mitzvahs [and] funerals.”