A superhero, by definition, overcomes impossible odds to save the day. And if Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turns into a Broadway hit, it will indeed have accomplished a superhero-sized feat.
Certainly the ambitious musical, still in previews, could turn out to be a must-see spectacle capable of pulling in significantly more than $1 million a week for several years, as it must to turn a profit. But veteran theater producers say Spider-Man will have to do more than beat the usual long odds — the failure rate for Broadway shows is 80% — it will have to be an off-the-hook smash.
“You don’t normally plan to have to be a juggernaut blowout,” a leading theater executive says. “The margin of error here is almost nonexistent.”
If it does succeed, the show will have overcome a combination of issues that justify the use of that cliched expression, “a perfect storm”: producers with limited Broadway experience — but unlimited appetite for spectacle — and a director, Julie Taymor, who had the experience but seemingly little inclination to scale back her vision even as the cost burgeoned.
David Garfinkle, an original producer on the project, says all of Spider-Man’s troubles will be forgotten when it opens, finally, in the new year (a planned Jan. 11 date will likely be pushed again). “When you see the flying where Spider-Man is riding Goblin’s back over the audience and fighting with him in midair, it’s thrilling,” he says. “You’ve never seen anything like it.”
The clouds began to gather for the stage version of Spider-Man when Ireland-born film and stage producer Tony Adams, a longtime associate of director Blake Edwards with limited experience on Broadway musicals, made what many perceived to be a backbreaking deal with Marvel for the rights to the material in 2005.
Nothing about the deal has been made public, but sources believe that Marvel most likely took a sizable upfront payment, probably a license fee and an advance against royalties that must be paid every week that the show runs. Marvel did not invest in the show and bears no risk, and the company — known for driving tough deals — obviously had the upper hand in the negotiation. As a producer with experience on Broadway says, “What underlying rights have rivaled something like Spider-Man?” (Obviously not Cats.)
Adams then brought in U2’s Bono and the Edge to create music and lyrics, marking their Broadway debuts. Bono approached Taymor, and they set about creating a groundbreaking spectacle. They were prepared to break ground on the cost, as well.
With The Lion King to her credit, it’s hardly surprising that Taymor — who also co-wrote the show and conceived it — commands more than bargain rates. A source says a director of Taymor’s stature would expect to collect 6.5 percent of the weekly gross. Certainly Bono and the Edge wouldn’t lag in terms of compensation, either. “Everything about Spider-Man is big,” the insider says. “The U2 guys, Taymor, the Marvel licensing deal.”
By the time Adams died of a stroke in 2005 — literally as he was poised to sign the Edge’s deal after extended contract wrangling — the die largely had been cast. Taymor was working with playwright Glen Berger on a script, and according to Garfinkle, the show’s projected cost already was more than $40 million — far surpassing the $30 million record set by Shrek: The Musical.
With Adams’ passing, Garfinkle — an Illinois attorney with even less Broadway experience than Adams — found himself in charge. As Taymor continued to plan an extravaganza, the economy tanked. Garfinkle says a major investor, whom he declines to identify, pulled out. By August 2008, financial problems brought production to a halt.
Some observers have blamed Taymor, the most experienced Broadway hand on the team, for indulging her imagination as the budget burgeoned. But veteran producer Peter Schneider (Lion King), who is not involved with Spider-Man, doesn’t believe that’s fair. He says the producers’ critical mistake seems to have been letting Taymor pursue her vision when financing wasn’t secured.
“It would appear that not once was she challenged in the design or budget process,” Schneider says. “They kept saying, ‘We have the money.’ And then, one day, oops! Where is it? … Then everybody goes, ‘It’s too expensive.’ That’s not fair to Julie. That’s what’s being lost in all this.”
But another producer of a hugely successful Broadway musical says Taymor has another shortcoming that might be more serious: a lack of interest in story and emotion. “At the end of the day, it’s probably going to look spectacular,” this producer says. But he and others say they hear the Spider-Man plot is confusing, and previews during the week of Dec. 13 were closed to the press while the ending was retooled.
Schneider concurs that Taymor benefits from working with strong partners. In producing Lion King with Tom Schumacher, he battled through what he calls “an epic collaboration” with Taymor. The megahit that emerged has played for 13 years and grossed $4.2 billion worldwide.
“In Lion King, she put her brilliant stamp on a great story, and we kept her on track,” Schneider says. “We kept saying, ‘This is the story.’ What we looked for was not just the spectacle, it was the emotion.” For Spider-Man, Schneider says, he hopes Taymor is working “with people who are great storytellers. We can’t do everything alone. Theater is a collaborative team effort. Telling a story is the hardest thing to do.”
Garfinkle disputes that Taymor was allowed to run amok. “We spent a lot of time going through things and cutting and making it so it would be great,” he says. “The budget that we had, according to all the professionals and the best in the business, was enough to cover what she was creating.”
That might have been well enough if the financing hadn’t fallen apart. But the production was halted in 2009, and it still was on the hook for rent at the theater, where renovations had begun. The subsequent scramble to raise financing drew unwanted scrutiny. “The media frenzy was massive,” Garfinkle says.
There was talk that the show might be canceled. Instead, previews were postponed from February 2010 to mid-November. “Never have we had a postponement of this length before,” says Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, a key player in Broadway ticket sales. “When musicals or shows have postponements like this, typically they don’t end up coming.” (Previews eventually were delayed again till the end of November.)
Garfinkle was pushed aside, and Bono replaced him with then-Live Nation chairman and rock-concert promoter Michael Cohl, another newcomer to Broadway. (Live Nation has a 12-year pact with U2.)
Cohl, who declined to be interviewed, has complained publicly that he found the production in catastrophic financial shape. Garfinkle doesn’t dispute that. “He gets to have his own emotion,” he says. “I’m glad he came on and helped to bring the remaining capital to the production. I’m extremely proud of having overseen the creation. The book, the lyrics, the music were done; the set was designed and substantially built.”
Cohl did get the financing, though some producers who have worked on major Broadway shows say they aren’t quite sure where. A theater veteran says Cohl “went to all the established players” looking for money and experienced producing help but got turned down by many who saw no benefit in boarding such a costly project that was well along in the process and saddled with the onerous Marvel deal. “A lot of the money seemed to come from outside the usual scope of Broadway investors,” a top theater exec says.
Garfinkle says the cost continued to rise with Cohl at the helm, edging from about $50 million to past $65 million. Some observers have speculated that Cohl might have been too close to U2 to impose financial discipline on Spider-Man, though it also seems clear that by the time he got involved, his options were limited.
He also was locked in to holding previews in New York, without a run out of town where fixes can be made more quietly. (Such a preview period was key to the success of Wicked, for example.) Given the scope of Spider-Man, rehearsals and previews had to take place in a 1,928-seat Foxwoods Theatre configured to support it. “So you go into the bright lights of New York without knowing what you really have,” a veteran producer says.
Meanwhile, the postponement of the first preview to Nov. 28 meant that Bono and the Edge were on tour with U2 in Australia when the public got its first look at Spider-Man. Seasoned producers cite that as another problem because music changes can impact the pacing and emotion of a show. Garfinkle downplays the issue, saying, “People are making too much of it.”
Clearly their absence can be overcome; Elton John didn’t show up until opening night of Billy Elliot, and the show was hardly ruined. But a producer who was asked to back Spider-Man says he declined in part because Bono and the Edge were not committed to being present for rehearsals.
Spider-Man’s first preview was plagued with problems. Technical glitches left the audience sitting through a 3½-hour performance during which the action was halted five times, including once when Spider-Man (Reeve Carney) was left hanging above the audience while stagehands reached for his feet. Villainess Natalie Mendoza was struck in the head by equipment backstage and suffered a concussion. She had yet to return as of Dec. 14. That followed accidents during rehearsals in which a flying performer broke both wrists and another cast member broke a toe.
But news about the daring stunts has only fueled interest in Spider-Man. During its first week of previews, the show grossed $919,457 from five performances at the theater. That’s 98.2% capacity at an average ticket price of $97.11. Three previews were canceled; had the show played a full eight performances, it could have made nearly $1.5 million.
Spider-Man will open at a difficult time on Broadway, with more than 15 shows having closed around New Year’s. Three recent musicals — Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown — have failed and will be gone by the end of January.
Spider-Man likely will do better than that, though, given its cost, it could succeed and still fail. Veteran producer Manny Azenberg hopes Spider-Man succeeds because Broadway needs a smash on the order of Wicked and Lion King. None has emerged since Jersey Boys opened in 2005.
“The mega-musical propels the industry, both in New York and on the road,” Azenberg says. “We need one.”
Jeff Lunden contributed to this report.