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A Web and a Prayer

The Complex Vision: A projection from Spider-Man.   

Often is right. Much has transpired in the eight and a half years since Tony Adams, the original producer, having struck what some insiders say was a crippling deal with Marvel for the stage rights, approached Bono and the Edge, of the rock group U2, about writing the songs. They in turn approached Taymor, then finishing her movie Frida, to direct. (“We were only going to do it if we could do it with Julie,” says Bono, who had loved The Lion King.) After reading through the original comic books and realizing that they offered “a mythology as authentic as any other,” she agreed. “Every age has its own myth that becomes more potent than others,” she says. “And this is ours.”

As it turned out, there was something aptly mythic about the ensuing saga as well. In 2005, after wrangling the complicated contracts for three years, Adams dropped dead of a stroke in the Edge’s New York apartment just as the guitarist was getting his pen to sign. Adams’s business partner, David Garfinkle, a lawyer with virtually no previous producing experience, took over and gradually ran the show into the ground. Funds he felt sure he’d secured would prove not to be so secure after all. In the meantime, Taymor and the others kept working; designers were hired, sets were built, expensive flying workshops were held in Los Angeles. Predictably, the budget, originally projected to be $25 million, kept expanding as the bank account drained.

Still, when Young Frankenstein announced it would close in January 2009, Garfinkle booked the Hilton and began massive renovations to accommodate the new show. No one blinked; many movies costing much more have gone on to recoup. That movies have studios behind them, while Spider-Man had only Garfinkle and a lot of promises, was something no one worried about until the press began reporting, that fall, that the show could no longer pay its bills. Bono, blindsided, asked Cohl, who as the head of Live Nation had produced some of U2’s biggest and most successful tours, to take over. In part because he was already an investor and wanted to make good on his investment, and in part because Bono assured him he could do it “as a side job,” Cohl said yes.

Then he had a look at the books.

How did he find the show’s finances? “That I can summarize in one word,” he says. “Bankrupt.”

Thus began a mad scramble to reorganize, renegotiate, and recapitalize—a process made more difficult by the collapse of the economy and the project’s reputation. Some potential saviors didn’t like the story; some didn’t like the deal. (Garfinkle, shoved aside, retains a producer credit.) By then, too, lead actors including Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood had dropped out, citing scheduling problems. For six months, while the theater stood empty and rent kept coming due, Cohl and his general managers hammered out budget after budget, only to find that in the time it took to do so, their original assumptions had gone stale. Set pieces they thought were in storage turned out to have been dismantled for scrap. “We were chasing our own tails,” he says.

Finally, having secured “tens of millions” in additional funds, Cohl stabilized the production enough to restart the renovations in February. Rehearsals began in August, and in September the company moved into the Foxwoods. Soon Taymor began to see (and immediately start rejiggering) the amazing stage pictures she’d been sitting on for years. But as jaw-dropping as the show looked in the theater—and the effects are miles beyond any use of flying, LED screens, and animation I’ve ever seen on a Broadway stage—doubters say it’s not enough to compensate for the third of the capitalization that got “flushed” along the way.

Still, forget all that. Taymor would certainly like to. Money doesn’t interest her except as a means to an end. When a lighting designer shows her the difference between the red achievable with one kind of fixture versus the far richer red achievable with a more expensive one, what a surprise, she picks the latter. “That’s all I need to hear,” says the designer, scurrying off. No, Taymor would rather talk about the meaning of spider myths, the function of theater in society, and the role of the shaman in theater. (Bono calls her a “sha-woman.”) She’d even rather talk about the hush-hush Arachne, whom she invented after having a dream in 2002 about a “boy being torn between his mundane, everyday, but important life” and the gift of his supernatural power. “Our theme,” she realized then, “is ‘Rise Above’ ”—which Bono and the Edge soon fashioned into a classic Broadway ballad that sounds like what the Beatles might have written if they’d studied with Irving Berlin. “If you could be anything, what would you be?” Taymor says, summarizing the message. “Understanding, of course, the potential to fail or go overboard.”