Thirteen years ago, when she was a critically acclaimed but commercially untested director doing an ambitious new Broadway musical, Julie Taymor spent a grueling summer in Minneapolis, trying to fix The Lion King. A gigantic Pride Rock wasn't rising the way it was supposed to; the wildebeest stampede didn't look right, and actors were fighting off back problems thanks to the oversize headgear and life-size puppets they were lugging around. A few months later, however, the show had worked out its kinks, opened on Broadway to rave reviews and changed theater history.
Those, as the devil in Damn Yankees might have put it, were the good old days. Taymor is back on Broadway, wrestling again with balky scenery, injured actors and a raft of big-budget expectations. But what she's dealing with now makes The Lion King look like, well, a Disney cartoon. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark isn't just the most expensive musical in Broadway history, with a price tag of $65 million; it's the juiciest backstage drama in recent memory. The show has also become a kind of crucible for the future of a flagging Broadway: Can a hugely successful superhero franchise be turned into a satisfying stage spectacle, complete with flying webslingers soaring on wires over the audience? Can a band of outsiders the show's lead producer is a rock impresario, and the score was written by U2's Bono and the Edge show the clubby world of Broadway some new tricks? Will this be musical theater's next breakthrough hit or a flop for the record books?
Padding around her capacious lower Manhattan apartment in mid-December, Taymor appears surprisingly calm, confident and animated. Co-writer Glen Berger is due for dinner (linguine with clam sauce, cooked by her companion, composer Elliot Goldenthal) to go over script changes in the second act, which she admits has "clarity" issues. And she's waiting for a new web special effect to be inserted into the show's climactic final scene, which has left audiences underwhelmed. All of which is being done under the brutal glare of New York City's press and its theater community: since so much of Spider-Man's expensive technical wizardry was custom built for its theater, a traditional out-of-town tryout was not an option.
"I have said from Day One, this is not a normal musical," says Taymor, 58. "This is a circus-rock-'n'-roll-drama. We took a gamble. What we're doing with flying just isn't done. Where I'm stressed is, obviously we want to make changes. And the technical demands of the show are such that it takes a lot of time to fix those things." Indeed, four days later the show announced that it was delaying its official opening for a second time, to Feb. 7. A few days after that, cast member Christopher Tierney (one of several who perform Spider-Man's flying stunts) fell more than 20 feet into the orchestra pit after an improperly attached harness gave way, and he was rushed to the hospital with back injuries, broken ribs and internal bleeding. Two performances were canceled so new safety procedures could be adopted, and the show has resumed without further incident. So far.