At a cocktail party in 2005, I ran into an old friend, producer Tony Adams. Tony had been through the wars. He produced the Broadway musical “Victor/Victoria,” directed by Blake Edwards and starring Edwards’ wife, Julie Andrews. The show was a disaster. The tabloids gleefully chronicled every bit of backstage drama. But through it all, Tony remained unflappable. His sense of humor was such that he framed seven vicious New York Post cover stories about “Victor/Victoria” and hung them on the wall behind his desk.
Tony took me aside at the party and said, “I have something I want to tell you, but don’t print it yet. I’ve got the rights to ‘Spider-Man,’ and Julie Taymor is going to direct it.” Big news there, I thought. “Spider-Man” was a billion-dollar franchise, and Taymor had directed “The Lion King,” the most successful Broadway show ever. But Tony wasn’t finished.
“And,” he added with a smile, “I’m about to sign Bono and the Edge to write the score.”
I couldn’t wait to run with the news, but I promised Tony I wouldn’t do anything until he called me. He never did. A few weeks later, as he was signing contracts in the Edge’s apartment in Tribeca, Tony had a stroke. He died two days later.
And so began, in a terrible way, the biggest story I covered in my 30 years as a theater columnist. “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” got to Broadway without Tony. It opened, after the longest preview period in Broadway history, on June 14, 2011, and went on to lose nearly $100 million. I wrote plenty of columns about it, and it brought me international attention. I owe much of my career, such as it is, to “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
And so, in celebration — if that’s the word — of its 10th anniversary, here are some of my memories of the Greatest Flop on Earth.
After Tony died, his lawyer, David Garfinkle, took over “Spider-Man.” No one on Broadway had ever heard of David Garfinkle, but suddenly he had clout — he had “Spider-Man,” he had Julie Taymor, he had U2! He also had a show that was budgeted, at the time, at $25 million.
I got a call from a friend who told me that Garfinkle was doing a presentation for group-sales ticket agents. It was closed to the press, but my friend said he could slip me in. I slipped in. Taymor hosted the event. The first thing she said was, “Do not call this a musical. Spider-Man is not going to sing and dance in tights.” Her vision for the show was a “rock ’n’ roll drama” with a “mythic story” and a “comic-book, pop-up sensibility.” Bono and the Edge came out. Bono had his sunglasses on.
Bono said he was at a dinner with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Andrew thanked him because rock musicians “have left me alone for 25 years, and I’ve had theater all to myself.” Bono lowered his sunglasses and said, “We’ve decided to give Andrew a little competition.”
Then the band and some singers performed a few songs from the show. They were moody, gritty and, frankly, pretentious. I thought, “Well, I don’t think Andrew Lloyd Webber has anything to worry about.” But one singer stood out. He was, as I wrote at the time, a “cute, skinny, soulful little slip of a thing.” A woman next to me said, “I could eat him up with a spoon!” He was Reeve Carney, and he would go on to play Peter Parker in the musical.
At the end of the presentation, Taymor introduced her new producer, David Garfinkle. A chubby little guy walked out and — I swear to God — I thought, “Julie is going to eat him for breakfast and spit him out for lunch.”
I bow to no one in my admiration for Julie Taymor as a theater artist. But when it comes to a budget, she’s never met one she didn’t blow past. Sure enough, I began hearing that “Spider-Man” was no longer a $25 million show. It was hitting $35 million. And then one day I got a call from a stagehand. “Just to let you know, we put down our tools today because the checks bounced,” he said. Garfinkle hadn’t raised a fraction of the budget. Taymor was furious. Bono and the Edge were embarrassed. I was delighted. It was a juicy story.
To save the show, Bono reached out to his friend Michael Cohl, a music producer who presented U2 concerts around the world. I’d never heard of Cohl, but a friend told me, “He’s a billionaire who dresses like a homeless person.” I put that in my column. A few days later, Rick Miramontez, the press agent for the show, set up a meeting. When I arrived at Bar Centrale, Cohl was in the back booth holding a tin cup and wearing a cardboard sign reading “Will produce for a quarter.” You couldn’t help but love the guy, and it seemed that “Spider-Man” was in good hands.
And then I got another call. “I hesitate to tell you this,” my source said, “because I know what you’re going to do with it. They flew one of the actors around today and when he landed I heard a crunch. I think he got hurt.” I made a few calls. The actor was Kevin Aubin, and he had broken both his wrists.
“‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ is the most expensive and technically complex show ever produced on a Broadway stage,” I wrote the next day. “It may also turn out to be the most dangerous.”
I guess I was onto something, as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” piled up so many injuries, I started calling it “Spider-Man: Call 911.”
As “Spider-Man” began previews — and kept delaying its opening night — I hammered away at it. I knew Taymor was a wreck, and I felt sorry for her because she had so little support. Her show was in trouble, but her co-creators — Bono and the Edge — were too busy scooping up millions on tour in New Zealand to help her fix it.
But I didn’t let up.
Miramontez, a master spinner if ever there was one, positioned me as the show’s gadfly. New York magazine bought the spin and wrote a flattering profile of Taymor, pointing out that I had “sensationalized” Kevin Aubin’s “minor injury.”
Kevin, with two broken wrists, could not feed himself, bathe himself or go to the bathroom by himself for nearly a year without the help of an aide.
“Minor,” indeed. Well done, New York.
“Spider-Man” played its first preview in November 2010. I was in the audience that night, and from the opening number, I knew it was doomed. The show was muddled and pretentious. The special effects weren’t nearly as magical as Mary Martin flying in “Peter Pan” back in 1960.
The saga of “Spider-Man” rolled on. More actors got injured. Cohl fired Taymor, she sued, and they settled out of court. A new director was brought in; the show closed down for a few months, and reopened to even more bad reviews. It played its final performance Jan. 4, 2014, by which time I had lost all interest in it.
But it popped up again in my life two years later. I was in St-Tropez as a guest of Clive Davis. We were having lunch at Nikki Beach when Bono and his entourage walked in. Clive brought Bono to our table and began introducing him to everyone. Clive came to me and I saw a flash of terror in his eyes. “And this is my friend … Michael Riedel,” he said.
Bono looked at me, put his hands on his cheeks and said, “You’re the motherf–ker!”