Julie Taymor Likely Leaving Broadway's 'Spider-Man'

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More radical changes are in store for the troubled $65 million musical, a production source tells THR.

In what looks to be the most stunning upset to date for the troubled $65 million musical, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark is now facing the likely departure of its chief creative force, Julie Taymor.

Other radical changes also are in store for the show, which has made history by chalking up the longest preview period in the Broadway record books and has taken a hammering from major theater critics.

A production source told THR that when an official announcement comes, it will be “dramatic.” That update -- expected to contain details of Taymor’s exit, as well as the names of new members to the show’s creative team and a revised schedule for its much-delayed official opening -- could come as early as today.

The New York Times reported that the show, co-authored and directed by Taymor, with a score by U2’s Bono and the Edge, will shut down for a number of weeks in late April/early May for an overhaul. It would then open some time in June, after the April 29 cut-off point for this year’s Tony Awards eligibility.

Some outlets reported Tuesday night that Taymor already was out. But news developing Wednesday morning suggests that situation remains in flux while producers and lawyers thrash out contractual terms. The situation is made more complicated by Taymor’s co-authorship of the property, as well as her mask designs used in the production, giving her a financial stake in any profits.

Reports emerged in recent days suggesting that solidarity between Taymor and the U2 and producerial camps had broken down. However, a New York Times story on Wednesday said the producing team, led by Michael Cohl, is eager to reach an amicable exit agreement.

Sources close to Spider-Man said that despite all the extremely negative criticism hurled at the show, the director has been resistant to the idea of a significant rethink. She has nurtured the musical since Bono and the Edge approached her to work on it in 2002.

If Taymor steps aside as expected, the very public misfire will represent a stinging reversal of fortune for the visionary creative artist who shepherded Disney’s 1997 stage version of The Lion King to multiple Tony wins and stratospheric profits on Broadway and around the world.

Suspending previews on Spider-Man can be interpreted as a step in the right direction toward addressing the show’s problems. But it also will represent a further financial drain on a production that most observers suspect already has inched higher than the acknowledged $65 million price tag.

Names circulating among show doctors called in to join the production team include directors Christopher Ashley (Memphis, Xanadu) and Philip McKinley (The Boy from Oz), and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. A staff writer on HBO’s Big Love, he wrote a revised book for a production of superhero musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane… It’s Superman in Dallas and has written Spider-Man comic books. 

The New York Post claimed Wednesday that an offer had even been made to The Social Network Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin, who reportedly declined.

The role of Taymor’s oft-overlooked co-author, Glen Berger, has been privately dismissed by insiders on the show as “the typist.” But the playwright also is said to be “coming up with a plan” to help clarify the dramatic problems with the book. 

Cosmetic changes to the production have already been under way. U2 producer Steve Lillywhite was enlisted in January to fix sound-mix problems. And the following month, long-time Broadway music supervisor Paul Bogaev (Tarzan, Aida) was brought in to help reshape the score. According to sources, he has made the songs “more theatrical” – adding “buttons,” a Broadway term for strong musical endings, to make them land better.

While the harshest criticism directed at the show has focused on Taymor, indicating that she will be its principal scapegoat, reviews were equally damning about Bono and the Edge’s score.

After being absent through most of the preview period, the U2 frontmen have been observing the show since the band’s tour wrapped in South Africa in mid-February. They reportedly are working on new songs, something ruled out in earlier discussions. They have also been in the studio, recording numbers from Spider-Man, with the cast.

On March 6, Spider-Man played its 98th preview, overtaking Jackie Mason’s 1969 bomb, A Teaspoon Every Four Hours, for Broadway’s longest preview period.  And that record will continue to grow in the coming months. 

Even before the latest news, the March 15 opening – the fifth announced opening night for the musical – was already a source of gallows humor in the Broadway community, who dubbed it the “nopening” or the “hopening.” Even Spider-Man’scast got into the game, calling it the “fauxpening.” 

The delays, injuries and negative press surrounding the production haven’t altered Spider-Man’s position as one of Broadway’s three top-grossing musicals. (Wicked still rules the box office, with The Lion King rounding out the trio.) But last week, it showed signs of vulnerability: the show grossed $1,281,776 and played at 84.5% of capacity, offering 30% discounts at the TKTS booth in Times Square for the first time since previews began. 

Compared to other Broadway blockbusters such as The Lion King and The Producers, which were near-impossible tickets to get during their first six months, that development no doubt has producers worried. And while weekends remain heavily sold, tickets to weekday performance have become more freely available, often at discounts.

With its record-high budget and a weekly break-even of somewhere between $1 and $1.2 million, Spider-Man has very little wiggle room – it’s going to need to run at, or near capacity, for several years, to make its investment back.

Many Broadway musicals have been rescued from disaster through last-minute retooling. But theater-industry pundits privately are questioning the wisdom of producers and investors in continuing to pour money into a show beset by so many challenges, internal strife and possibly irreversible stigma.

And with Charlie Sheen having replaced Spider-Man as the media’s favorite trainwreck, how long the show will hang onto its must-see status is anyone’s guess.