Cohl Talks “Spider-Man”
The long-suffering lead producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” said they had no choice but to shake up the creative team after realizing sometime around Christmas that Broadway’s most expensive musical simply wasn’t working.
“We recognized from the early previews that we had a lot of work to do. We got as far as we could and we had to make more serious changes. And that’s what we did,” said Jeremiah “Jere” Harris.
In a joint interview with The Associated Press, Harris and his producing partner Michael Cohl revealed for the first time the behind-the-scenes struggle at the Foxwoods Theatre as the $65 million production got off to a bumpy start and then seemed to lurch from delay to delay, accident to accident, poor reviews and eventually late-night TV mockery.
“There’s nothing easy on this show. From the time he and I took over and got involved, this has been a constant battle from every perspective,” Harris said as the two men sat in his office at Production Resource Group on Ninth Avenue, just a few blocks from Broadway.
After months of fretting, Harris and Cohl in early March temporarily pulled the plug on the show, hiring a new creative team and saying goodbye to director and co-book writer Julie Taymor and choreographer Daniel Ezralow, among others. U2’s Bono and The Edge remain as songwriters, though the show’s music is also being changed.
“We _ Jere, Michael, Bono, Edge, Julie _ we set out to do something that’s neigh on impossible,” said Cohl. “It just didn’t quite hit the mark as well as it needed to. And so it needs to be fixed because it has to set that new standard. Otherwise, it will be a failure.”
A new creative team _ including director Philip William McKinley and playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, musical consultant Paul Bogaev and sound designer Peter Hylenski _ was put in place with a new opening day of June 14. Taymor is still billed as director and remains a part of the production. The show is currently on hiatus until previews begin again on May 12.
Harris and Cohl said the original story has been reworked but most of the songs remain, with Bono and The Edge “very involved” in adding a new tune and reworking music and lyrics. Much of the guitar-driven sound of the original has been changed so that audiences can hear more of the 18-musician orchestra.
“The reorganization makes it feel really good,” Cohl said. “The flying, the special effects, the beauty of the show, the Julie atmosphere and attitude _ it’s all staying.”
The so-called Geek Chorus _ four comic-book fans who frame the plot _ have been cut. The role of the villainous spider-woman Arachne, who had a central role in the original production, has been scaled back. Both producers say the musical’s story _ co-written by Taymor and Glen Berger _ was most in need of change.
“It was muddled. It was difficult to follow,” said Cohl, who added that a common complaint he heard from the audience was that few cared about the lead characters. “It lacked emotion. It lacked spirit and sincerity.”
The “Spider-Man” show is unusual in that it has been built specifically for the 1,928-seat theater, meaning a traditional out-of-town tryout to fix glitches and smooth out problems wasn’t easy to do. Eye-popping stunts, such as actors grabbling in mid-air over the audience, often went awry, leaving them simply dangling, helplessly.
All that combined to push the musical into the history books for having the most preview performances in Broadway history, even as it routinely took in more than $1 million a week at the box office. But the weekly costs _ also put at $1 million a week _ meant the show was not paying back investors.
Injuries to five cast members _ including a 35-foot (10.6-meter) fall by Christopher Tierney (who plays the main Spider-Man) that left him with a skull fracture and cracked vertebrae _ marred the production, as well as the defection of a lead actress after she suffered a concussion.
“I am not the least bit embarrassed by any of this,” said Cohl. “And I know Jere isn’t either. We tried to do something that’s ambitious to the third power.”
By early February, most theater critics from Variety to the Los Angeles Times had had enough and decided to weigh in, a violation of the established agreement by reviewers to wait for opening night. They unleashed mostly savage pans, with The New York Times saying the show may rank among the worst in Broadway history. The AP has not reviewed the show.
The reviews didn’t tell the producers anything they already didn’t know: The musical was in deep trouble. Harris and Cohl had watched audience reaction and realized that the script, which they say worked well in rehearsal, translated poorly on stage.
“I lived in denial the first couple of weeks of December,” said Cohl. “I kind of knew I was living in denial but I didn’t know how deep. And then around Christmas I started to go, `Wow. It’s not working.”’
When a five-week deadline to make changes came and went with little improvement, the producers felt they had no choice but to reshuffle the cards. Though the box-office numbers were strong, they were softening and the numbers indicated the show might be successful for only between nine to 12 months.
“It was only a matter of letting it play or fixing it,” said Cohl, who is the former chairman of Live Nation. “Fixing it isn’t mad, is it? There’s madness to walk away, don’t you think?”
Harris agreed, saying much of the show was working: “We just don’t think that we should leave and go home. We think that there are great elements to this show that we can bring out and make better,” he said.
Both men declined to talk about the musical’s current finances, although Harris said it will eventually inch toward the $70 million mark. They also declined to talk about Taymor or the negotiations that led to her departure, but Cohl said letting the old team go was personally wrenching for the producers.
“It was really difficult. It was horrible,” he said. “It’s about people _ it’s emotions and lives.”
Why it took them so long to act when audience members and journalists had already pointed out problems long before March seemed to come down to big respect for the team that had been assembled before Cohl and Harris came aboard.
Known for her singular vision, Taymor, whose “The Lion King” remains one of the most successful shows on Broadway, is also notorious for her single-minded determination and clearly had been given wide discretion and artistic license to make Spider-Man fly. She had strong allies in Bono and The Edge, some of rock’s most powerful figures, and longtime collaborator choreographer Daniel Ezralow.
“It’s a team of stalwarts that have Emmy Awards and Tony Awards and Grammy Awards and Oscar nominations,” said Cohl. “When do you stand up and go, `You don’t know what you’re doing! You’re wrong!”
For now, both men are optimistic as the reboot is readied. They’re even surprised to report that technical rehearsals are already a day ahead of schedule. And Tierney, the actor hurt after falling off the stage, is returning.
“It’s definitely not a normal musical. But we are back on track,” Cohl said.
Whether a whole new audience will see the new show _ and those who saw the first version will return _ is hard to say. Close to 250,000 tickets were sold for Taymor’s flawed version and yet producers are doubling down their bet in hope that at least some will want to see it again.