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A Web and a Prayer


The Villain: Swiss Miss, one of the new characters Taymor invented, played by Sean Samuels.   

Marvel, though fiercely protective of its brand, approved many of Taymor’s inventions, not just Arachne but also a “geek chorus” of comic-book fans, a living switchblade of a villain called Swiss Miss, and, indeed, the whole structure of the drama. The bright-colored, plot-heavy first act basically tells a version of the familiar origin story: Bullied boy acquires special skills as the result of a mutated-spider bite; he gets revenge and confronts Green Goblin while bashfully courting the beautiful (and, in Taymor’s version, abused) Mary Jane. But Act Two consists almost entirely of new material. It takes Peter on a more symbolic moral journey, like the ones Taymor came to love in her studies of world theater, in which, as she describes them, enemies are both external and internal, and the gravest danger is hubris.

When she talks this way, with the redoubled fervor of an anthropologist and an autobiographer, she’s spellbinding—which is how she gets some fairly imposing people to part with their money or subordinate their vision to hers. Bono, who admits he has sharp elbows too, says she wasn’t shy about telling him and the Edge what she wanted. “Oh God, no. And I say that with relief. If you were looking for a partner you could placate or enjoy easy criticism from, you would be looking in the wrong place. Myself and Edge have never worked with anyone more intense than us—until Julie. But here’s the thing: That combative, punchy style in conversation is why I’m in a band. You’re as good as the arguments you get.”

The score is rich in angsty ballads and nervous riffs, with impressionistic lyrics like “There’s no time for sorrow when there’s no such thing as time.” Taymor says, “You don’t even know what that means exactly, but you know it’s right.” A song called “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” for the eight-stilettoed Arachne and her Furies to sing near the end of the show, was apparently less right. “I thought, and still do, that it would be a hit,” says Bono. “A percussive eighties Paradise Garage dance piece with a fantastic hook. Julie was like, ‘No … ’ And I said, ‘Julie, isn’t this what you call a ten o’clock number?’ And she goes, ‘Who cares what time it is?’ ”

“A Freak Like Me” was replaced by a “post-Pixies Seattle backbeat” tune called “Deeply Furious,” which Bono says serves the story better, even if it has little hit potential. But hit potential is another thing Taymor doesn’t talk about. “Have we all become accountants?” she asks. Unfortunately, in a theatrical world of diminishing content and increasing opportunity to discuss it, many people have. They point out that with a running cost of perhaps $1 million a week, it would take two years at full capacity and Wicked-like average ticket prices for Spider-Man to earn back its investment. Cohl isn’t worried: People will come if the “vision is strong enough,” he says. In any case, he insists he wouldn’t want to be part of a “$28 million Spider-Man”—or any version, no matter how recoupable, that was not “Julie’s creation, something beyond the beyond. If it cost $100 million, I would do it.”

Which would seem to put an end to irrelevant speculation about anything other than the work itself. But like her beleaguered hero, Taymor finds herself having to face down a new menace each time the production seems to escape from the last one. Sometimes the difficulties are of her own creation; a ten-page Annie Leibovitz photo essay for Vogue nearly foundered over Taymor’s restrictions on how the show should be shot. Taymor admits she’s a very controlling director—“Controlling is what I do”—and while not everyone I spoke to saw that as a bad thing, no one disagreed. “She doesn’t want to know how hard it is to do it; she just wants you to do it,” says someone who has worked with her. “She does not come across in that situation as especially warm, but is that a requirement?”

And she is no more sparing, her colleagues point out, of herself. She lives, breathes, and dreams the show; her weight has dwindled to the point that an assistant sometimes gives her a Baggie of nuts and dried apples to bring to the theater. (At their daily dinner meetings, Cohl watches to make sure she eats.) But these symptoms of stress are not unique to the difficulties of Spider-Man, even though it is, she says, “the most complicated show I’ve ever done.” Thomas Schumacher, who as president of the Disney Theatrical Group had the odd but brilliant idea of hiring Taymor for The Lion King, recalls her collapsing with a gallbladder attack on the day the show arrived in Minneapolis for tryouts. Immediately after surgery she returned to the theater, where several seats were replaced with a Barcalounger for her recuperation. “She thought it was called a Bark-a-Lounger,” Schumacher says. “The place where she could bark.”

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