Without playing even a single performance, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is already the stuff of Broadway infamy. It's poised -- should it ever open -- to be the most expensive flop in theater history. Yet if anyone could have managed the turmoil, egos and massive budget overruns that have plagued the show, it was Tony Adams.
In a long career, Adams had learned how to survive a showbiz crisis. As Blake Edwards' right-hand man, he produced six Pink Panther movies, spending a good chunk of his time hunting down volatile star Peter Sellers, who was partial to fleeing European locations for London and the comfort of his own bed.
On Broadway, Adams produced the fiasco Victor/Victoria, directed by Edwards and starring his wife, Julie Andrews. During her run, she missed shows due to vocal ailments that would end her singing career. After she left, Tony Roberts refused to perform with stand-in Liza Minnelli because she improvised lines. After Liza, Raquel Welch was prone to throwing things at the crew.
Adams handled each melee with candor and humor. On the wall behind his desk, he hung seven framed New York Post front pages chronicling the Victor/Victoria saga.
In September 2005, Adams was excited about his next show, Spider-Man, which had just become one of the highest-grossing movie franchises in history. He'd acquired the stage rights from Marvel Entertainment and hired director Julie Taymor, who created the stage version of The Lion King. The big news, which he was about to announce, was that U2's Bono and The Edge would write the score.
Spider-Man was a Broadway blockbuster waiting to happen.
But in October, while signing contracts with The Edge, Adams suffered a stroke. Two days later, he was dead at age 52.
Suddenly, Spidey senses everywhere were tingling. The sure thing was under siege, as if the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus and Venom had all joined forces against the production.
After Adams' death, control of Spider-Man fell to his lawyer and business partner, David Garfinkle, who had never put together a Broadway musical. Investors urged him to hire an experienced producer, but the attorney harbored ambitions of conquering the Great White Way. Like a high school benchwarmer sent to the free-throw line with no time on the clock and his team down by one point, his moment had arrived.
Then Garfinkle tossed an air ball. Followed by another.
When he took over, Garfinkle was warned that his biggest challenge would be controlling Taymor. Her theatrical imagination is astonishing, and her productions, from The Lion King to the Met's The Magic Flute, are dazzling. But she's never met a budget she hasn't blown through.
Taymor's Spider-Man was going to be huge. At one point there was talk of building a Broadway theater especially for the show. In the end, she decided to open at the Hilton Theatre on 42nd Street, home to the smash revival of 42nd Street, but better known for hosting high-tech, big-budget debacles such as Ragtime, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Pirate Queen and Young Frankenstein.
Taymor hired renowned designers such as Oscar-winner Eiko Ishioka (costumes). She met with David Rockwell, noted architect and set designer (Hairspray). He thought she wanted him to design the show; she asked him to remake the Hilton's façade. (He declined.) George Tsypin, who designed The Little Mermaid, was tapped to do sets.
It didn't take long for the ambitious $30 million show to become a $45 million monster -- the most expensive in Broadway history.
"You've got to be on top of [Julie] all the time," says a person who worked with her on The Lion King. "She'll spend days and days on one minute of stage time. It will be a brilliant minute, but you'll be bankrupt."
If Garfinkle was worried about the money, he didn't let on. "Whatever Julie wanted, she got," says a source.
In addition to creating the production, Taymor wrote the script with playwright Glen Berger. A Groucho Marx look-alike but with Woody Allen's delivery, the fidgety, eccentric Berger had never written a Broadway musical before, let alone one costing $45 million. He and Taymor let their imaginations run wild.
The show starts off with Mary Jane, Peter Parker's girlfriend, dangling from the Brooklyn Bridge, according to several people who've read the script. As Spider-Man tries to save her, a female villain called Arachne, created by Taymor and Berger, flies in and weaves a web throughout the theater with the help of a dozen other flying creatures.
Arachne is just one of Spidey's Broadway baddies. He also battles, atop the Chrysler Building and various iconic NYC settings, the Green Goblin, Carnage, Electro, Rhino, Swarm, Lizard and Swiss Miss, another villain created by Taymor and Berger. Swiss Miss has rotating knives and corkscrews for limbs.
While the script is full of exciting action scenes, the plot is "pretty incomprehensible," said one reader.
In March 2009, Taymor hosted a sneak peek of Spider-Man for group sales ticket agents. She admonished them not to call the show a "musical." Spider-Man, she said, "is not going to sing and dance in tights." Instead, she was creating "a circus rock 'n' roll drama" with a "mythic story" and a "comic-book, pop-up sensibility."
The rock 'n' roll part of the equation, Bono and The Edge, were there. Bono said he decided to write the music for Spider-Man after attending a dinner honoring his friend, Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had said, "I'd like to thank rock musicians for leaving me alone for 25 years -- I've had the theater all to myself."
"We've decided to give Andrew a little competition," Bono quipped.
A group of young singers performed songs, including "Boy Falls From the Sky," from the show. The songs were moody, gritty, introspective. One of the singers, Reeve Carney, a cute, skinny, soulful little slip of a thing, fluttered the hearts of the lady ticket agents. He also impressed Bono. A few weeks later, he was cast as Peter Parker, joining Alan Cumming (Green Goblin) and Evan Rachel Wood (Mary Jane).
During the presentation, Taymor introduced lawyer-turned-producer Garfinkle. A short, sweet-looking guy in a suit waddled onstage. He looked awkward and nervous.
Five months later, Broadway found out why. In the first week of August, stagehands gutting the Hilton were ordered to stop working. So, too, was the crew building gigantic sets.
Garfinkle had no money to pay them. Spider-Man was $25 million in the hole, sources said.
"We ran out of the building to cash our checks," one person recalled. "We were afraid they'd bounce."
All work on Spider-Man -- construction, casting, marketing, ticket sales -- was suspended. The Hilton stood empty but for the stage doorman. He was instructed to tell anyone who asked about the show, "Spider-Man will begin previews Feb. 25, as previously announced."
Garfinkle, deep in hock to production companies, was ducking calls. Bono was said to be "furious" and embarrassed," Taymor "shocked."
Some investors reached out to experienced Broadway producers, offering a big stake if they'd sort out the mess. But when the veterans examined the books, they balked. Just to break even, Spider-Man would have to sell every seat at the Hilton every night for five years.
"The numbers made no sense at all," one producer says. Another was tempted to jump in "just for the hell of it." He met with Taymor to discuss scaling back the production, but she wouldn't compromise.
"She was impossible," the producer said. "There was no way I could work with her."
Late last year, Bono prevailed upon his friend Michael Cohl to take over the show. A rock promoter who mounted hugely successful tours for U2 and the Rolling Stones, Cohl has some theatrical experience, although he doesn't talk about it much.
He was one of the producers of a stage version of The Lord of the Rings in Toronto. At $30 million it was, until Spider-Man, the most expensive musical in history. And it was a bomb.
For the past six months, Cohl has traveled the world raising cash for Spider-Man, which now has a $52 million budget. He's said to have most of it in hand. A chunk came from Jeremiah J. Harris, who's billed as a producer. Harris owns the scene shop where Spider-Man is being built. He invested in the show because he's owed so much money that his company might be ruined if the show doesn't open, sources say.
"Producing a show so you can get paid -- that is what's called putting the cart before the horse," says a top Broadway producer.
Garfinkle, whose name once proudly led the list of producers, has been sent back to the bench. He's now No. 3 (after Harris) and has virtually no control over the show, sources say.
Word around Broadway is that Spider-Man will begin previews in October and open in late November, although many close to the show remain skeptical.
Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood have left the production due to scheduling conflicts. The new Green Goblin is Patrick Page, who played the title role in the Broadway show Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Taymor has been auditioning actresses to play Mary Jane.
Reeve Carney is still Peter Parker. Two weeks ago, at an event honoring Taymor, he performed "Boy Falls From the Sky." The audience was full of theater insiders, eager to get a sample of a musical that, although yet to play a Broadway stage, has generated more gossip than any number of shows that have run for years.
As one wag said of the song, "If you miss it now, you may never hear it again."
© New York Post, 2010.