She’s not even being metaphorical. Among many other disasters of her Teatr Loh years—police interrogations, floods, hepatitis, malaria, a terrible bus accident on Java that killed the driver of the other vehicle and left her with a still-visible scar on her chin—she at one point almost fell into an active volcano. She injured her leg severely in the process and was, naturally, operated on by a Vietnam vet with no anesthesia on the front porch of a beach bungalow built by Coca-Cola on sacred cremation ground. When I ask Betty Taymor how she could stand that her baby was enduring all this, she says, “I didn’t know about the malaria.”
So the gnat bites of the press have to be put in context. Taymor knows what it is like to be different from the people who usually do what she does, whether because she is younger, or female, or American, or a primarily visual artist (her sketches are sensational) in a field that too often prioritizes other modes of storytelling. The canonical directors of Broadway musicals—Abbott, Robbins, Fosse, Bennett, Prince—were either choreographers, writers, or producers first. More recently, their heirs have most often come as transfer students from “serious” drama. And though visual artists like Robert Wilson have on occasion established themselves as major figures in the avant-garde, even there, the visionary is usually the one with the psychological, political, or academic agenda. Taymor is absolutely sui generis, and in trying to bring her whole-world theatricality to one of its most vulgar marketplaces, she may be asking more of Broadway than it can bear. But if your reference point is The Lion King, all bets are off. Mounted at a cost of about $25 million in 1997, it has so far grossed $4.2 billion worldwide.
Brilliant anomalies make for good standards but bad examples. “There’s a feeling on Broadway and in musical theater in general that we need to cast the net wider for talent,” says Bono, who “grew up with musicals” (his father sang in several) and especially admires The Music Man. “That means you’re going to have some naïfs like myself and Edge turning up and wanting to do some impossible things. It’s a real recipe for disaster to meet someone else, like Julie, who enjoys the impossible. But she is not some dizzy artist who doesn’t give a shit about the bottom line. We aren’t either. People walking through those doors, in this recession, are going to see that the money’s been spent, and spent on them. Do you know what you call a person who when putting doves up their sleeves or a rabbit in the hat is still surprised when they come out? A magician. That is what she is.”
Still, she is an odd fit with Broadway’s schmoozers and hondlers, which is part of the reason some distrust her. One usually judicious theater veteran, who has worked with Taymor and admires her talent, calls her “the most selfish rich kid” he’s ever met: “The lack of humility and compassion is stunning.” But in several months of snooping around her, I never see that, nor any of the hysteria Riedel suggests is rampant in her rehearsals. Rather, what I see, and often, is that she is utterly unconcerned with, and in a childlike way even unaware of, how she comes across. She heads for her vision like a bloodhound. “I totally get this and dig it as a writer,” says Berger, who “auditioned” to work with Taymor on the book by dashing off a sample scene and has subsequently felt “a bit like Zelig” as he finds himself in meetings at Bono’s villa in Èze-sur-Mer. “It’s not really a question of being a control freak or a perfectionist, or being on an ego trip or having OCD. It’s simply that her vision is so specific that if you don’t get it right, it’s wrong. In fact it’s really wrong. Nailing it might come easily or it might take a lot of twiddling and finessing. But when it is right, everyone feels it, and then you can move on.”
If that’s a somewhat mechanistic view of theater, Taymor is probably the greatest machinist working. Her art has sometimes struck me as most effective when it is least “human.” The Lion King has personalities but no people, and even in her Shakespeare productions, the story is conveyed more through imagery than psychology. She seems, at least in public, to be almost without psychology as well; when I ask about feelings, she answers with systems, communities, history, folklore. She puts forth an idea of herself that is no less genuine for being a mask. She might say it is more genuine: Masks, she has noted, are catalysts for getting at a part of the personality that is otherwise invisible. Some of her actors, including the beautifully chiseled Reeve Carney, even look like masks. Which is not to say they are wooden. Carney, whom she cast as Ferdinand in The Tempest after seeing his self-titled rock band perform, is naturally vulnerable; in a recent tweet, he told fans he “got a good night’s sleep, repainted my living room, and haven’t even been condescended to once yet today! :)” Taymor has drawn that quality out of him for Peter Parker; she seems to get the performances she wants by involving her actors in rituals rather than introspection. But when I attempt to find out more about her process, I am stymied by her vagueness and their reluctance. With press leaks springing every day, there have been many stern lectures about not pulling corks.