Spider-Man’s Real Villain

Given all the problems plaguing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, it was probably inevitable that someone besides the actors would fall. Since previews of the $65 million (and counting) Broadway musical began last November, four performers have been injured, including Spidey himself, who went tumbling 30 feet into the pit, breaking four ribs and sustaining a hairline fracture to his skull. OSHA descended on the Foxwoods Theatre to investigate, and fined the producers $12,600.

All might have been excused had audiences and critics actually liked the show. But with reviews like “‘Spider-Man’ is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst” in The New York Times, somebody had to be blamed. So it wasn’t much of a shock when the show’s celebrated director, Julie Taymor—whose Lion King has grossed $4.5 billion in its 14-year-run—finally got her walking papers last week. With much schadenfreude (Taymor isn’t the easiest director to work with, as anyone will tell you), Broadway wags are predicting she’ll never work in this town again.

But has justice been served to the real villain of Spider-Man?

The score, created by U2’s Bono and the Edge, isn’t made up of catchy, easily digestible pop songs in the “Hakuna Matata” vein. Even production sources admit to being mystified by what they describe as the joylessness of the music. “With the promise of U2, why they don’t have this big kick-ass, pulse-racing number that sends people out on a cloud is a big, big question,” one person involved with the show says. “And if Julie Taymor was standing in the way of that, she’s not anymore.”

When audiences walk out of Spider-Man, you don’t hear them singing show tunes. You hear their disapproval. “You just don’t leave with a song in your head,” Suzy Fink of Chicago says after a recent performance. “I’m a huge fan of U2, and I think my love affair just ended,” says a visibly angry JT Horenstein of New York. “Did they not spend the time to create something melodic or memorable?”

It’s a fair question to ask, given that Bono and the Edge were on tour for much of the production. “Back in December or January, Julie begged everyone to close the show temporarily so that they could make changes,” says a source close to the production who is sympathetic to Taymor. “The producers told her no. Bono and the Edge weren’t around. There was a clear breakdown in communication.” Neither Taymor, Bono, nor the Edge would comment for this story.

Rather inconveniently, by the time Bono and the Edge returned to work on the show about two weeks ago, Taymor was in California for a long-scheduled speaking commitment at the 2011 TED Conference. In her speech she explained that creating art regularly involves Sturm und Drang, and noted that Spider-Man’s theme song is “Rise Above.” Her good friend Norman Lear, who was at the conference, saw behind the upbeat mask. “She was suffering like crazy, she hated to be gone, Bono was seeing the show for the first time in months,” he says. “She’s been put through hell, and to see her taking the blame all by her frail and brilliant self, isn’t it ridiculous?”

Maybe so. What made her dismissal easy from a publicity standpoint was that she’s less famous than her collaborators and was coming off some major misfires in the film world. In 2007, Across the Universe, a musical created around the songs of the Beatles, tanked. And last fall her adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren, earned back just $277,000 of its estimated $20 million budget.

“Julie is a poet, an obsessive, a charismatic leader, and a visionary, with the ego and fragility of all great artists,” says Mirren. “Her commitment to work and collaborators is total.” Can the same be said of her Spider-Man collaborators?