Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Money and a New American Musical

As it has become something of a pop-cultural punchline, I imagine some of you have heard that somebody thought that it would be a good idea to have a Spider-Man musical on Broadway.  These people are named Julie Taymor,* Bono, and The Edge (yes, the latter two are of U2 fame).  This musical's development has intrigued me for the last couple of years, and I wanted to share a couple of thoughts.

What you may not have heard is just how much of a disaster the whole thing has turned out to be, particularly in regards to its (former) director and writer Julie Taymor.  Basically, it boils down to this: the show cost twice as much as any other Broadway show in history to mount (around $75 million), it started receiving horrible reviews, the producers told Julie Taymor to fix it, Taymor refused, Taymor was fired, and huge swatches of the musical were re-written.

Now, Taymor has brought suit against the producers claiming that she was only paid $125,000 five years ago for her work on the show.  She also alleges that she should be paid royalties for performances that continue to take place as she estimates that around 25% of the show as it stands now came directly from her ideas and input.  Considering how much the show cost to put on, this is a very low amount for the head writer/director to make.  Still, it's very surprising to me that whatever contract that she had didn't stipulate, you know, that she should be paid for her work.

From an outsider's perspective, one could argue that Taymor ran the production into the ground, and that, while she should be compensated for whatever work she did prior to her departure, it is odd to pay her for a production that was substantially changed after she left the show.  Still, if it's true that 25% of the show came from her artistic vision (though, one wonders just how such a percentage can be substantiated), one would think that her intellectual property ought to be worth something.

To top the whole thing off, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark** has been making buku bucks since it opened (pulling in as much as $1.6 million gross a week, which is HUGE by Broadway standards), but any optimism that the production could have in making that money is hindered by the fact that it costs well over a million dollars a week to put the show on (salaries and elaborate special effects are expensive, it turns out), which leaves the producers somewhat cash-strapped.

I guess what makes this interesting to me is that, for better or worse, Julie Taymor really had a vision for the show.  She wanted to create something new and exciting.  She invested several years of her life in putting it together, and, even so, this well-regarded and brilliant director still managed to created something that people thought was ridiculous and awful.  As an example, after seeing one of the preview performances, the main critic for the New York Times wrote in his review, "I’m not kidding. The sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from 'How can $65 million look so cheap?' to 'How long before I’m out of here?'"***

Look, I appreciate that Broadway is about making money.  In America, success is inextricably linked to how much money can be made.  That's fair enough.  The producers needed to put out a saleable product, and Taymor wasn't as interested in making money as she was in staying true to her vision. That is also fair enough.

But it continues to fascinate me that somebody so talented could spend so much money and be in cahoots with two of the biggest rock stars in the world, and still put out something that people seemed to only like for its camp value.  Having more money is not always the answer when it comes to creating great art, it seems.

While the motivational rallying cry for many nowadays is "Go big or go home," Julie Taymor is one of the few who got to "Go big and go home."  I'm curious what she'll come up with next.

*Julie Taymor is, perhaps, most famous for her work on the Broadway version of The Lion King.
**This is maybe the worst name for anything I've ever seen.  How exactly does one turn off the dark?  Is it the same as turning on a light?
***At the time he saw it, the production had "only" cost $65 million.

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