Julie Tay­mor

Di­rec­tor Julie Tay­mor has bounced back af­ter her Spi­der-Man trou­bles, writes Bryce Hal­lett

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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