John Horn reports from New York where he went behind the scenes with Julie Taymor and her Spider-Man musical.
Jammed with computers, cables and technicians, the orchestra section inside the Foxwoods Theatre looked like the control room at a particle accelerator, yet it was a very different kind of physics experiment Julie Taymor was trying to manage.
Standing in front of rows of oversized monitors staffed by her creative team inside the darkened Broadway auditorium in mid-November, Taymor was running through one of the most elaborate, gravity-defying fight sequences in “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” her creatively and financially audacious musical The sequence called for the titular web slinger to battle the villainous Green Goblin as both characters zoomed around on wires anchored to the cavernous theater’s roof. The aerial system’s powerful motors, which can fly performers at speeds approaching 35 mph from the stage to the balcony, already had propelled one of the musical’s cast members into the hospital with two broken wrists. With little more than a week before the musical’s first preview, Taymor and her collaborators had never rehearsed the entire scene near the end of the show’s first act, and “Spider-Man’s” composers and lyricists, U2‘s Bono and the Edge, were about to drop by to see how the whole thing was progressing.
As Taymor, writer Glen Berger, choreographer Daniel Ezralow and several dozen designers, programmers, stage hands and cast members looked up from the orchestra, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin launched into the air for their dogfight, with the web slinger at one point riding atop the villain’s back as if he were an airborne skateboard.
“Oh my God! Whoa,” Taymor yelled as Christopher Tierney, who performs some stunts for lead Reeve Carney, zipped down on his wires to land in the middle of an aisle. Collin Baja, dressed for the fight as the Green Goblin (the part will be acted and sung by Patrick Page), spun into a high-speed roll, coming within a few feet of the theater’s walls. As both actors landed on their marks and the three-minute sequence ended, a visibly relieved Taymor applauded.
“As you can imagine,” she said as Tierney and Baja unclipped from their flying harnesses, “this takes more time than you’d think.”
About seven years, if you can in fact imagine — and some $65 million, easily the most expensive show in Broadway history. To break even, “Spider-Man” will have to play to sold-out houses for as many as four years, a feat pulled off by only a handful of shows like “Wicked” and Taymor’s own “The Lion King.” Taymor’s ambition hardly can be measured in time and dollars. As she has done in a fantastic mix of film, opera and theater productions, the 57-year-old director, writer and designer conforms to few artistic margins. She says she is often motivated by a project’s inherent unfeasibility, and labors to weld eclectic influences — masks, puppets and mime, myths and shamanism — to popular culture.
This month alone, Taymor will be represented on stage with “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” (now in previews, it opens Jan. 11), in movie theaters with this weekend’s gender-switching interpretation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and at the Metropolitan Opera with a holiday-season revival of her interpretation of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” a family-friendly production stuffed with Masonic, tantric, bunraku and cabala influences.
Taymor also directed the 2007 film “Across the Universe,” which foreshadowed “Glee” by using pop music (Beatles songs, in Taymor’s case) to drive a narrative. Along with her composer husband, Elliot Goldenthal, she staged 2006′s Los Angeles Opera world premiere “Grendel.”
“Along with great directors, she takes new and creative steps to expand the imagination of the audience,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “She has an extraordinary visual vocabulary — which is always growing. She thinks big, and not just in terms of budget, but also creatively.”
Though Taymor’s break-the-boundaries aspirations might put her “Tempest,” starring Helen Mirren in a role written for a man, beyond the grasp of some moviegoers, her recombinant style has yielded one of the most successful productions in the history of show business. Taymor’s musical adaptation of “The Lion King” is currently playing in seven cities around the globe and is nearing a global gross of $4 billion, dwarfing the combined worldwide ticket sales for all three “Spider-Man” movies.
The “Spider-Man” musical may never approach “The Lion King’s” grosses, but on that November afternoon inside the Foxwoods Theatre, that benchmark was far from Taymor’s thoughts. Rather, she had to make sure the whole thing would not be ensnared in its own complicated web.
Taymor likes to explain that her works are governed by an ideograph — a tangible distillation of a creative concept. The ideograph for “The Lion King” is the circle — “The Circle of Life,” as the song has it, the conical Pride Rock that spins up from the stage, the round gazelle wheel that is pushed to simulate running animals. In “The Tempest,” it’s nurture versus nature — a child’s mother trying to control Mother Earth. For “Spider-Man,” it’s the internal battle between the public and private self — that with great power comes great responsibility: Spider-Man has to learn that he can’t climb away from his destiny.
“I think I am drawn to outsiders — Grendel, Spider-Man, Frida Kahlo,” Taymor said, referring to her 2002 movie “Frida.” “They allow us to step out of our own lives and look at them from a different perspective. As artists, that’s what our job is. That’s what I believe we are here to do…”
THERE’S MORE, READ THE REST
– John Horn
RECENT AND RELATED
VIDEO: U2 debuts “Spider-Man” song
CULTURE MONSTER: Taymor’s spidery web