Director Julie Taymor has bounced back after her Spider-Man troubles, writes Bryce Hallett
WHEN Julie Taymor emerged on stage for the curtain call of the 15th anniversary milestone performance of The Lion King in New York it was akin to watching the Queen of Broadway reclaim her throne.
With a commanding presence and elegant poise, the director stood proudly at the centre of the gloriously costumed cast at the Minskoff Theatre. The audience — many Disney employees and those with a long affiliation with the musical — applauded wildly and jumped to their feet.
It was a significant moment in Broadway history and recognition of a single-minded artist who gained worldwide notoriety when fired from the beleaguered Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark musical in 2011 after accidents, injuries and budget blow-outs.
‘‘ Julie Taymor is a genius,’’ says Disney Theatrical Group president Thomas Schumacher, who hired her. ‘‘ She is the most collaborative and engaging personality in the business.’’
It is a chilly late November night in New York. Although Hurricane Sandy had wreaked havoc two weeks earlier, there are few signs of damage in mid-town Manhattan, its billboards blazing.
The theatre district is swarming with tourists and The Book of Mormon remains the hottest musical in town, impossible to get tickets for. The show is one of only a handful of original works mounted on Broadway in recent years as producers put store in supposedly failsafe revivals or star-vehicle musicals and plays given limited seasons.
There are ample signs that the creation of new large-scale musicals has slowed, the industry’s dreams, struggles and dashed hopes mirroring America’s ailing economy.
Taymor says commerce and comfort, not art and risk, are the order of things on Broadway and that the odds of The Lion King being hatched today are next to none.
‘‘ There are musicals such as West Side Story which I consider great art, but many shows in recent years have done little that is genuinely innovative or which actually develops the art form,’’ says Taymor, 60.
‘‘ It’s become all about making a quick buck in a fiercely competitive world where there are a few producers with a capital P but many runof-the-mill producers who exhibit no great love for the theatre.’’
Taymor, whose credits include the 2002 film Frida with Salma Hayek and The Tempest (2010) starring Helen Mirren, is on a natural high from The Lion King’s anniversary celebrations. ‘‘ I knew with The Lion King we were breaking new ground,’’ she says.
‘‘ The puppetry and masks lend a rich theatrical vocabulary and the show’s staggering success owes much to its universality, unifying philosophical spirit and a quest that is as much about the journey as it is about authority, moral responsibility and humility. The choral singing and African music make it feel spiritual.’’
‘‘ Staggering success’’ is no exaggeration. In April last year, the stage production of The Lion King, based on Disney’s 1994 animated film, broke the record for the highest grossing Broadway show in history. Earning $US4.8 billion ($4.6bn), it has grossed more than all six Star Wars films combined, and it has taken more than $US5bn globally, including from productions in Europe, Australia and Asia. The musical opens in Brazil in March and returns to Sydney in December, due in large part to an increasingly aggressive Destination NSW, which wants to see the harbour city’s theatres thrive.
Ironically, some of the groundbreaking ideas in The Lion King informed the direction and design of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, but its much-publicised trials and tribulations eclipsed whatever the costly production’s merits might be. Despite its weekly running cost of more than $US1 million a week, SpiderMan is doing a brisk trade on 42nd Street. Many of its most striking visual features have Taymor’s signature all over them while the aerial work is fast, furious and effective. But the musical is burdened with an inferior script and mediocre music.
In the press, the Tony Award-winning director was blamed for all the disasters and delays in the $US75m musical adaptation of the Marvel comic-book series that had been developed across many years in collaboration with U2’s Bono and the Edge. The partnership was thought to be inspired at the outset but by the time the show’s producers dumped Taymor it was deemed ill-conceived.
The director’s pedigree, including her success in staging The Magic Flute for New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Grendel for the Los Angeles Opera counted for nothing; the same applied to her desire for experimentation and risk. Suddenly, one of the great Broadway directors of her generation was reduced to caricature and became the stuff of tabloid fodder. Most disheartening of all, Taymor insists, were the misogynist remarks levelled at her and being told that she didn’t have ‘‘ the balls’’ to play with the big boys on Broadway.
After many months of silence on the debacle, not least on the supersized dent to her reputation, she has begun to talk about the experience. Immediately after being fired, however, she retreated bewildered and hurt. ‘‘ I had to put things in perspective. I had to get out of the puny world of fear, back-stabbing, narcissism and nastiness. I was not sure if I could or would survive it,’’ she says. NOT unexpectedly, Taymor’s home, literally, is on Broadway, a sprawling apartment and studio at the top of a charming old New York building that wouldn’t look out of place in a Woody Allen movie. On arrival I’m met by
Taymor’s dog, a havanese called Luna, which stops yapping when patted and lies under the kitchen table while the director makes coffee.
It is an airy, open space, not especially salubrious but with sufficient theatrical adornments and personal treasures from her travels to India, Japan and Indonesia to make for an inviting sanctuary.
Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Taymor was entranced by the performing arts from a young age. Her nomadic spirit and quest for exotic adventure came into play early on. After finishing high school, the aspiring theatre-maker travelled to Paris where she studied at L’Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq. It introduced the ever-curious Taymor to mime and mask-making, an appreciation that deepened during the 1970s when she developed and ran the mask/dance company Teatr Loh in Indonesia.
‘‘ Living and working there was a profound experience and [aided] the fermentation of my ideas,’’ she says.
The director’s work is steeped in mythology and ancient ritual. The universality of her storytelling owes as much to the primal potency of the visual language communicated on stage as it does to her easy embrace of foreign cultures.
‘‘ Shakespeare is my master but my aesthetic comes from Asia,’’ Taymor says. ‘‘ It would be wonderful to have dancers from Indonesia in the Australian production. I would love to be able to go and cast out of Java and Bali . . . The depiction of the circle of life and death in The Lion King is simple yet powerful. There’s no artifice. The story is philosophical, truthful and sensitive.’’
The close-knit artistic team that made and continues to sustain a show that began in Minneapolis as an under-the-radar tryout before becoming a popular success in the knives-are-out glare of New York, is a near- impossible act to follow. Taymor argues audacious, brave, uncompromising ideas are being ambushed by audience focus groups and that bloggers, in a mad rush to pass judgment, are hurting the industry and are unnecessarily toxic.
Despite all the production’s woes, the director remains proud of Spider-Man and her involvement in it. Schumacher describes the musical’s most vivid and compelling sequences as ‘‘ pure Taymor’’.
‘‘ Spider-Man cascaded from crisis to crisis, then to uncertainty,’’ he says at Disney Theatrical headquarters in the historic New Amsterdam Theatre where Aladdin is set to open next year. ‘‘ There are moments of brilliance in Spider-Man and it’s all Julie’s doing. You can see [in the production] what could have been. The show emerged from a curse.’’
Demonised by Marvel comic diehards, commentators and reviewers, Taymor was portrayed as an Icarus-like figure who wielded too much power and deserved to be cut down. The New York Times’s critic Ben Brantley went so far as to label the musical ‘‘ a national joke’’.
The Icarus analogy doesn’t wash with the director. ‘‘ I didn’t fall,’’ she says flatly. ‘‘ I was made a scapegoat. The thing to remember and learn from is that you must have a group of people on the same page willing to commit for the long haul . . . You hire someone for their vision but then there are people who smell the money and cut away the art because they think it’s too smart. I still believe in the piece and I loved it before what happened. It [the collaboration] lacked the feeling of being part of a family and just when the work was taking shape our producer Tony Adams suffered a stroke and died.’’
The loss of what Taymor calls a capital-P producer in 2005 was a pivotal part of the Spider-Man curse. The ambitious venture never entirely recovered but it continued to be developed, albeit in a piecemeal fashion, with two new money-men at the helm, David Garfinkle, a former entertainment lawyer, and Michael Cohl, a former chairman of Live Nation Entertainment. ‘‘ They [the producers] wouldn’t allow me to do the original version. It was a tremendously moving story about the enemy and it was exciting. People were crying at the rehearsals. I was very proud to be part of something that was breaking the rules and striving to bridge art and commerce.’’
Taymor is intrigued to learn about the forthcoming Australian production of King Kong, the musical that ultimately is destined for Broadway. ‘‘ Does the ape sing?’’ she asks. ‘‘ Is it a big production?’’ Developed by Global Creatures across several years and opening in Melbourne next month, the $30m-plus musical is arguably the most ambitious stage production to be mounted in Australia. The centrepiece is a one-tonne, 6m tall animatronic silverback capable of running, climbing, blinking and making tiny, life-like gestures.
‘‘ We watched the progress of Spider-Man with great interest,’’ the director of Global Creatures, Carmen Pavlovic, said recently. ‘‘ There are lessons you can learn.’’
There had been talk of a pre-Broadway tryout for Spider-Man in Japan but Taymor suggests whimsically that ‘‘ you would had to have gone to the dark side of the moon to avoid attention . . . The thing is, my taste may be very different to the majority of people who go to see shows on Broadway but I try not to insult their intelligence. The theatre is like a tall building; you can get off at the top or you can get out at another floor for a different perspective and experience . . .’’
The director is undecided whether she will stage another Broadway musical but doesn’t rule it out. When we meet she is immersed in preparations for a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to open an intimate new playhouse in Brooklyn later this year. Also in development is a film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Transposed Heads, a retelling of a myth about two people who behead themselves, only for the heads to be restored to the wrong bodies.
Not short of ideas, Taymor is keen to realise her modern-day version of The Flying Dutchman, called Riders on the Storm, a story about a man who cannot love without dying, and who falls for a woman who is tough, single-minded and flawed.
As Taymor stands and ushers me to the door, Luna yaps playfully at my heels, as if to reinforce that my audience with the Queen of Broadway has gone on long enough.
The Lion King opens at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, in December. Bryce Hallett travelled to New York as a guest of Destination NSW.
Clockwise from below left, Julie Taymor at the Minskoff with the cast of The Lion King in November last year; scenes from Taymor’s The Lion King; Taymor and Bono at the opening of Spider-Man in June 2011; and aerial work in Spider-Man