BROADWAY BOUND: Seven years ago, a little-known Chicago producer acquired the stage rights to Spider-Man and brought along a number of local investors. Now, after a tumultuous journey to Broadway, the $60 million musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is finally ready to fly or flop
Spider-Man is “certainly the biggest thing Broadway has seen,” says David Garfinkle, photographed in front of the Foxwoods Theatre in New York.
“Look,” said David Garfinkle, showing me the screen of his BlackBerry. “It’s a text from Bono.”
We were standing in the middle of Soldier Field, not far from the 160-foot-high stage, shaped like an alien spacecraft, that had been set up for the first North American stop of U2’s 360 Degree tour in September 2009. Garfinkle is an entertainment lawyer from Highland Park. At 49, he has a boyish grin and a buttoned-down appearance that suits his Midwestern geniality, but he also bristles with nervous energy, checking his BlackBerry practically every waking minute. In fairness, the little device constantly buzzes with e-mails, phone calls, and text messages, such as the one from Bono.
Bono? It turns out that Garfinkle is an aspiring Broadway impresario and one of the top producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the megamusical that has become the talk of Broadway, for better or worse. Bono, U2’s main songwriter and lead singer, and the Edge, the group’s lead guitarist, wrote the music for the show, which Garfinkle describes as “part circus, part rock ’n’ roll extravaganza.”
The musical opens this December (UPDATE: Now postponed until January), but on that night just over a year ago, Garfinkle had brought a group of seven or eight Spider-Man investors and their families to the concert at Soldier Field, giving them full rock-star treatment: cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the wine cellar at NoMI in the Park Hyatt; a stretch limo ride; some of the best seats in the stadium; and maybe, just maybe, some special face time with Bono and the Edge before the concert.
Garfinkle hoped to impress his guests as well as reassure them. He needed to. A month earlier, construction on Spider-Man’s stage sets and on its Broadway theatre had ground to a halt because of cash flow problems. Speculation had swirled for weeks that the production’s days might be numbered, and even if the show did go on, its female lead, Evan Rachel Wood, would leave because of the delays. Alan Cumming, another star, was said to be on his way out, too. Though construction had resumed, thanks to an emergency influx of cash, Spider-Man still wasn’t fully capitalized and remained in a perilous state of limbo. If the show folded, its investors—many of them Chicagoans—stood to lose thousands, even millions, of dollars.
For at least one night, however, all that seemed forgotten. Handlers led Garfinkle and company into the stadium’s bowels, where black pipe, drape, and carpeting had turned the cavernous space into a private area. Garfinkle was as giddy as a schoolboy. Bono, in head-to-toe black and sporting wraparound sunglasses, and the Edge, wearing his trademark black ski cap, posed for pictures. More important—at least from Garfinkle’s point of view—the musicians discussed how excited they were about Spider-Man. They assured the group not only that the show would go on but that it would be a fantastic, even revolutionary, production. Bono went so far as to say that the songs in the musical were some of the best he’d ever written. The Edge nodded in agreement.
Garfinkle looked relieved. Somehow, someway, this long, arduous, star-crossed venture was going to work out.
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(UPDATE: After this story went to press, some of the bugaboos that have haunted Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and are described herein, struck the show again, and the producers have pushed back the opening. The first preview is now scheduled for November 28th, two weeks later than previously announced, while opening night has been moved to January 11, 2011, not December 21st. Recently, a Spider-Man actor broke his wrists while demonstrating one of the show’s flying sequences—a daring maneuver in which the actor gets catapulted from the rear of the stage to the front. A month earlier, another performer broke both feet performing the same stunt. State safety inspectors are reportedly looking into whether the acrobatic sequences are safe enough to perform, something that they do for all productions with special effects, says David Garfinkle. "The department of labor sign-off is not related to the injuries. It’s just part of the process."
Show insiders have complained to the press that Spider-Man‘s director, Julie Taymor, has fallen way behind schedule. Key chunks of the show have yet to be completely worked out, including numerous flying stunts and the scene-to-scene transitions. "We’re less than two weeks away, and we have no idea what the running time is going to be," one Spider-Man insider told the New York Post on November 3rd.
Garfinkle downplayed the latest delay. "Everybody wants to get [the show] perfect," he says. "It’s really about tweaking the nuts and bolts. That’s what happens in the last part of rehearsals."
From the sound of things, it wouldn’t be shocking if Spider-Man opens even later than January 11th, especially now that the show will miss the big money-making Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season.)
The only sure thing about Broadway is that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. For every Phantom of the Opera—the top-grossing musical of all time—there’s a flop. Or ten. A $7 million musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel Carrie, for example, closed after just five performances in 1988. A 2005 musical based on the life and songs of John Lennon lasted only 49 performances. Similarly, The Pirate Queen, the much-hyped production from the creator of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, reportedly lost $18 million and played just 85 performances in 2007.
The superhero genre has rarely been tried onstage. The last Broadway-caliber musical featuring a superhero, It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman, opened in 1966 to favorable reviews—but closed faster than a speeding bullet, running for fewer than four months. In the late nineties, Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to Batman, had superhero-size plans to bring the caped crusader to a Gotham City main stage. But the musical stalled before ever getting out of the Batcave.
Initially, the prospects for Spider-Man seemed as bright as the neon lights on Broadway. After successfully negotiating with Spidey’s corporate owner, Marvel Entertainment, to get the stage rights, Garfinkle and Tony Adams, his producing partner at the time, put together the theatre equivalent of a dream team: They got two of the world’s biggest rock stars, Bono and the Edge, to write the show’s score and tapped Julie Taymor, the Tony Award–winning creator of the Broadway megahit The Lion King, as the director.
But a series of financial setbacks, ballooning budgets, and casting changes—not to mention an unnervingly uncertain period following Adams’s sudden death in October 2005—delayed the production for nearly two years. The musical is now scheduled to begin previews on November 14th and open on December 21st. When the curtain does finally rise, Spider-Man will be the most expensive show in Broadway history.
Garfinkle won’t divulge Spider-Man’s budget. Estimates have ranged from $45 million to upward of $60 million. In addition, the fixed weekly running costs of the show are projected to be around $1 million, meaning that it needs to be a blockbuster on the scale of The Lion King or Wicked—a mighty tall order, say Broadway observers—to cover its costs and turn a profit.
For Garfinkle, this first trip to Broadway has been a harrowing ride. Fairly or unfairly, the media has blamed him for much of the trouble on Spider-Man’s journey to the stage—and even some involved in the show quietly fault him. Last November, he was replaced as the lead producer. Michael Cohl, the former chairman of Live Nation—the giant concert and theatrical promoter with close ties to U2—who had previously been only a lower-level investor, took over for Garfinkle at the behest of Bono and other concerned parties. Garfinkle has been all but sidelined from the project he has nurtured from the very beginning.
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Photograph: Mark Heithoff
Just as Peter Parker got transformed into a web-slinging superhero by a bite from a radioactive spider, David Garfinkle became a show business fan after being bitten hard by the theatre bug when he was a boy. He grew up in Glencoe, where his parents regularly exposed their three children to the arts. The family went to the children’s theatre at the Goodman and to touring Broadway shows. “I loved it—so much that when I turned 16, I asked my parents for a subscription to all of the shows at the old Shubert and Blackstone theatres,” recalls Garfinkle.
After graduating from Duke, he attended law school at Boston University, concentrating on entertainment law. In 1994, following stints at a couple of Loop law firms, he set up his own practice, the Entertainment & Intellectual Property Group, attracting clients such as Paramount Pictures, E! Entertainment Television, and Harpo Productions. Over the years, Garfinkle worked on a host of television, film, and theatre deals in Chicago and beyond, and he built up a Rolodex of contacts. His law practice provided a good segue into producing, having taught him the ins and outs of show business dealmaking.
In 2000, Garfinkle was in Sag Harbor, New York, attending the opening-night performance of Love, Janis, the Off Broadway biographical musical about Janis Joplin. One of his clients at the time, the Chicago singer Cathy Richardson, was starring. At intermission, he happened to meet Tony Adams, a theatre producer and longtime collaborator with the movie director Blake Edwards on Victor/Victoria and the Pink Panther comedies. Garfinkle and Adams hit it off and soon teamed up. “We started Hello Entertainment together with the idea of bringing popular culture to the stage,” says Garfinkle.
In 2002, out of the blue, an executive at Marvel Entertainment contacted them. Would they be interested in bidding for the stage rights to Spider-Man? Back then, Marvel was riding high after its first
Spider-Man movie, released by Sony Pictures, smashed box-office records. Marvel’s top brass wanted to build on the franchise while it was hot. The executive, who had briefly worked with Adams years earlier, said the company was putting out feelers to a group of producers to gauge their interest, but he hinted that he was leaning toward working with Garfinkle and Adams, if their price was right.
The two began dialing for dollars, tapping their wealthy friends. Garfinkle found fertile ground in Chicago. His father became the first investor. Before long, he lined up others around the city. Richard Weinberg, a private financier who had dabbled in Hollywood and Broadway (investing, for instance, in The Producers and Hairspray), quickly bought in. Weinberg’s good friend, Jeffrey Hecktman, the founder and chief executive of Hilco Trading, a financial services firm in Northbrook, followed suit. Later on, so did Patricia Lambrecht, the Joliet construction company and casino heiress, who was recruited by Sugar Rautbord, the author and socialite, who is herself a small-scale investor.
The production bears a strong Chicago stamp. Of the 16 producers with top billing credits (not including the entertainment conglomerates Marvel and Sony Pictures), four are Chicagoans: Weinberg, Hecktman, Lambrecht, and Garfinkle. Make that five if you count Jam Theatricals, the Chicago-based theatre powerhouse, which also came on board early. (Other local investors include Bruce Freud, a former Highland Parker who now lives in Beverly Hills and runs the humor website Liquid Generation; the venture capitalist Bruce Rauner; and Pamela Weston, the North Shore arts patron who helped underwrite the newly revamped Japanese art wing at the Art Institute.)
To the initial investors, the prospects of bringing Spidey to the stage, even if Taymor, Bono, and the Edge weren’t yet locked in, seemed like a can’t-miss. “Spider-Man at the time was very, very hot,” says Hecktman. “I don’t make investments idly. I invest in brands, and I bought into this brand Spider-Man.” A later round of investors were wooed by both the title character and the show’s creative star power.
Meanwhile, Garfinkle and Marvel’s lawyers continued to hash out a deal, and after settling on a price in August 2002, Garfinkle and Adams signed a tentative agreement with Marvel that gave Hello Entertainment the provisional stage rights until a final contract could be reached. Garfinkle won’t reveal how much his company paid for the license, saying only, “It’s a lot of money, but it’s a fraction of what the movie rights were.”
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In September 2002, Garfinkle and Adams flew to Dublin to pitch the idea of writing the songs for the musical to the Irish rockers U2. “We thought the soaring ballads and anthems of U2 were perfect,” says Garfinkle. “We were willing to go to Ireland and get shot down.”
As it happened, Bono and the Edge had batted around the idea of doing something on Broadway for years. (U2’s other members, the bassist Adam Clayton and the drummer Larry Mullen Jr., aren’t involved in the project.) For the two road-weary bandmates, the idea of recording an album’s worth of material without having to go on tour to promote it was a big selling point. A show could play for years and even travel across the globe—the workhorse Phantom of the Opera, for example, opened in 1988 and is still selling out houses today.
Adams, a transplanted Irishman, met with Paul McGuinness, U2’s business manager. McGuinness seemed interested. “It was a good sign, because Paul knows how to say no,” recalls Garfinkle.
A few months later, over the Christmas holiday, Bono was vacationing with his friend Julie Taymor and her longtime partner, the composer Elliot Goldenthal. Somebody suggested that Taymor and U2 should do something creatively together, and Bono replied, “I have just the project.”
Shortly after New Year’s Day 2003, Adams got a call from McGuinness: What would he and Garfinkle think about Taymor directing Spider-Man? “Julie had always been our number one person,” says Garfinkle. “But we felt, Oh, it’s a long shot to get Julie—she’s sort of the Steven Spielberg of the stage.”
Indeed, getting Taymor was nothing short of a coup. Best known for her 1997 stage version of the Disney animated musical The Lion King, she is widely regarded in theatre circles as a visionary—a bold director who uses dazzling costumes, puppetry, and elaborate staging to create theatrical extravaganzas. Her participation in Spider-Man immediately boosted the show’s buzz factor—and perhaps also its budget. Owing to her grand ambitions, Taymor has a reputation for heavy spending. As the New York Post’s veteran theatre columnist Michael Riedel has put it, Taymor “never met a budget she didn’t blow right past.”
Adams and Garfinkle had projected an initial budget of up to $25 million, which is big by Broadway standards (though only a fraction of the current estimates of the show’s budget). “We knew that we had to match some of the expectations from the [Spider-Man] films,” explains Garfinkle. And that doesn’t come cheap: “You can’t just have four people onstage singing to each other. This is Spider-Man!”
Around Valentine’s Day 2003, Adams and Garfinkle returned to Ireland for their first creative meeting with Taymor, Bono, and the Edge. Although none of the three had yet signed contracts, they had reached interim agreements until final deals could be resolved.
In preparation for the meeting, Taymor immersed herself in the world of Spider-Man. She watched the movies, read the comic books, and even delved into other superhero influences, such as ancient mythology. During one sleepless 48-hour creative binge, she wrote a three-page treatment, which she presented to the group. “This is the way we bring it to the stage,” she proclaimed. Her approach had all of the conventional “Wham!” “Pow!” and “Zap!” of the comic books but also offered a deeper character study of the angst-ridden teenage superhero who must rise above his self-doubt to save the world
from bad guys, including a new villain of Taymor’s creation: Arachne, a powerful spider-woman derived from Greek mythology. “We were all, like, floored,” recalls Garfinkle. Over the next few days, Bono and the Edge used Taymor’s framework to sketch out some of the show’s musical themes. “You could already see the synergy there,” says Garfinkle.
But Adams and Garfinkle still needed to hire someone to write the book, or libretto. After auditioning nine writers—each had to write a potential scene—they picked Glen Berger, a playwright and television scriptwriter with a short but solid list of Off Broadway credits. Berger had never written a Broadway musical before, but he fleshed out Taymor’s treatment into a full-fledged story. (Taymor is credited as a cowriter.)
Garfinkle and others involved in the show say the plot draws on many of the classic elements of the original comic book, with a few new twists and characters, including a geek chorus—a glee club of singing comic-book fanboys. Meantime, the show’s acrobatic stunts, action sequences, and pyrotechnics make the high-wire flying of Peter Pan seem like amateur hour. The action takes place on moving sets that resemble gigantic 3-D pop-up comic books or M. C. Escher drawings. Some aerial battles even take place over the audience and on the walls. “Technically, what we’re doing has never been done before,” says Garfinkle. “It’s certainly the biggest thing Broadway has seen.”
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Meanwhile, Garfinkle and Adams still had to hammer out the complicated details of final agreements with Marvel and their creative principals. The negotiations proved difficult. “Spider-Man is an extremely important multibillion-dollar franchise, and Marvel—legitimately—didn’t want to just turn it over to anybody and have them do whatever they wanted to,” says Garfinkle.
Then there was the tricky matter of negotiating the royalty payments for Taymor, Berger, Bono, and the Edge—and, just as important, determining how much creative control each of them would have. Bono and the Edge, for example, did not want Marvel—or anybody else, for that matter—telling them how to write a song. Taymor and Berger didn’t want any heavy editing on the book. “We had to craft the correct balance that all the parties could agree on that protected the integrity of Marvel’s characters and gave some creative freedom, primarily to Julie, Bono, the Edge, and Glen,” says Garfinkle. “How you distill that to language is difficult.”
Drafts went back and forth until a consensus was reached. “There were several times when I thought, We’re never going to get past X, Y, Z,” recalls Garfinkle. The shuttle diplomacy took nearly three years, partly because the three creative principals were busy with other projects. During this time, U2 recorded its 12th studio album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and the group was touring practically nonstop. Taymor directed one opera, The Magic Flute, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and was simultaneously working on two film projects (Frida and Across the Universe).
Negotiating with Marvel was also slow going. The company’s executives wanted to maintain influence over the creative process to make sure that nothing impugned the integrity of the Spider-Man brand. Unbeknownst to Garfinkle and Adams, Marvel was also in the middle of a messy corporate shakeup, which further prolonged the negotiations. Weeks, sometimes months, would go by with no word from the company. Puzzled by Marvel’s disappearing act, Garfinkle and Adams even sought the help of a corporate therapist—essentially, a consultant who helps solve corporate conundrums—in an effort to figure out the possible reasons for the delay. “You’re always nervous when you’re not getting a response,” explains Garfinkle.
Marvel finally approved the agreement in March 2004. But it took months longer to complete the creative deals. With the last pieces of the contractual jigsaw puzzle nearly in place—Taymor and Bono had signed contracts—a sad drama unfolded in the Edge’s Manhattan apartment in October 2005, just as the guitarist was preparing to sign. As the story goes, Adams looked at Paul McGuinness, and they smiled at each other and flashed the thumbs-up. Then Adams, who was 52 and in seemingly good health, collapsed with a fatal stroke.
“It was a real shocker,” says Garfinkle softly. “I had no idea what was going to happen, except that I felt like I had a real responsibility—for Tony’s memory, as well as to everybody who had backed the show—to carry the torch forward, to make this happen.”
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A Broadway-producer-in-training, Garfinkle had relied to some degree on the more experienced Adams to run the show. If Adams was the Max Bialystock of the partnership—the charming Broadway maestro—Garfinkle filled the Leo Bloom role, the sidekick accountant-turned-showman who primarily handles the bookeeping (without the underlying scam, of course).
To try to fill Adams’s shoes, Garfinkle enlisted Martin McCallum, a veteran theatre producer who had spent much of his career as the right-hand man to Cameron Mackintosh, the British theatre mogul who produced several Andrew Lloyd Webber hits, including Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Garfinkle hoped that the highly experienced McCallum could handle the day-to-day production work. “This was too big a project for one person,” he says.
The show hummed along smoothly for a while. Money wasn’t an issue. There was even a waiting list of investors itching to get in on the action, says Garfinkle. And things were also beginning to come together creatively.
In the summer of 2006, Garfinkle and McCallum arrived in the South of France—at Bono’s villa in picturesque Èze-sur-Mer, a village between Nice and Monte Carlo—for another creative session. Bono and the Edge (who owns an adjoining beachside villa) were debuting some of the songs they had written for the show. Taymor and Berger were there, too.
Sitting on the veranda between the two homes, facing the blue surf of the Mediterranean, the group listened to the tracks on giant speakers that had been set up outside. The U2 bandmates had written
about half of the 18 songs that will be in the show (and on an eventual album). Bono sang along to the recordings. As Garfinkle recalls: “To see Bono’s enthusiasm—it was pouring out of every pore, out of every piece of him—he’s singing along with the music, and I’m thinking, It really doesn’t get much better than this.”
But even as the creative process flourished over the next year or so, more problems developed on the business side. For one thing, there was the matter of finding a proper stage. A show of such size required a larger-than-average theatre (1,500 seats or more) with a proscenium. Only three or four of the 40 venues on Broadway could work, and none of them were available. Garfinkle and the other producers considered building a brand-new auditorium to house the show, similar to a Las Vegas–style installation, but stuck with the plan to find a traditional theatre.
Nothing opened up until January 2009, when Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’s follow-up to The Producers, closed at the Hilton Theatre, since renamed the Foxwoods Theater. By then, Spider-Man’s budget had swelled. Taymor had hired a crew of Broadway A listers, including the Academy Award–winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka, the set designer George Tsypin, and the choreographer Daniel Ezralow. Cirque du Soleil came on to consult on the flying and acrobatics. The Hollywood actress Evan Rachel Wood signed on to play Mary Jane Watson, Spidey’s love interest. (Spidey had yet to be cast.) Alan Cumming took the role of the Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s nemesis. Dozens more actors, singers, and dancers filled out the huge cast, which includes eight villains. Add to that an army of stagehands. “We figured out the show was going to be more expensive but not ridiculously so in any way, shape, or form,” says Garfinkle.
After the first flying workshop with the Cirque du Soleil pros was held in Los Angeles, Taymor, Garfinkle, and the other production heads determined that the greater technical demands of the show required extensive renovations to the theatre. But because parts of the theatre’s interior, including its historic decorative plasterwork and ironwork, were designated landmarks, the renovations needed special permits and involved more extensive labor than simply swinging a wrecking ball. The protected architectural elements had to be moved and stored in a warehouse. They will be reinstalled when the production ends.
Garfinkle says that getting the appropriate permits—a process he calls “permit hell”—moved at a glacial pace. He maintains that he had enough initial financing to cover the renovations but not the increased expenses brought on by the delays. He says a big investor who had promised to pay for a good chunk of the renovations balked the night before signing the paperwork. It was an “Oh, shit” moment.
Consequently, Garfinkle and company found themselves in a serious money crunch—actually, millions short and unable to pay the work crews who were revamping the theatre and building the sets. By early August 2009, all construction stopped and the production was suspended. Schadenfreude gushes liberally on Broadway, and some in the city’s theatre establishment predicted, perhaps a bit gleefully, that the show was doomed.
Garfinkle tried frantically to raise additional capital. (McCallum left the production after the work stoppage.) But he faced a Green Goblin of another kind: the Great Recession. Broadway’s economy, like the rest of the country’s, was reeling. Even the most dependable and seasoned theatre angels were looking for more secure places to put their money. Potential investors who once were gung ho to buy shares got cold feet. “The Dow Jones had gone from 14,000 to, like, 6,500,” says Garfinkle. “Certain investors were having difficulty, and our list of backup people got shortened.” Meanwhile, other aspects of the production, such as ticket sales, casting, and marketing, were also put on hold.
As the problems and delays mounted, the press pounced. Garfinkle, as the guy in charge, found himself the target of scathing criticism. The New York Post’s Michael Riedel was particularly savage. His columns—which typically skewer productions and the city’s producing corps—took on the air of a public flogging. He called Spider-Man “the most expensive train wreck in Broadway history” and “The Show Produced By People Who Have No Idea What They Are Doing.” He deemed Garfinkle “hapless” and “a novice theater producer of the first rank”—and rarely failed to mention that Garfinkle hails from Chicago, not New York, as if to portray him as some Midwestern yokel. When I asked Riedel why he seemed to harp on the fact that Garfinkle is a Chicagoan, he replied: “We’re just snobs. It’s very easy to say, ‘He’s from Chicago—what does he know about Broadway?’”
Once bad news gains momentum, it’s hard to stop. Thanks in part to Riedel’s columns—a must-read for the city’s theaterati—as well as frequent coverage of the production problems in The New York Times and theatre blogs, a popular narrative developed in the press. By that reading, Garfinkle was nothing more than Adams’s lawyer, who landed in the top producer role only because of his partner’s untimely death; he was a Broadway tenderfoot who was unable to control Taymor’s spare-no-expense spending.
Garfinkle disputes both claims. He and Adams “were of a single mind on this, working side by side on everything,” he insists. “It was equal decision making between the two of us.” And as for being a pushover, he says he kept tight reins on the production’s finances and worked closely with Taymor to scale things down. “What a lot of the media didn’t gather was, I sat down with Julie and others and we went scene by scene, and we cut millions of dollars out of the show,” he says. “We spent hours and hours, and then we did it again.”
To get the project back on track, Garfinkle pulled money from his own company, Hello Entertainment. His Chicago friends Richard Weinberg and Jeffrey Hecktman upped their ante in the show, too. Garfinkle also recruited a wealthy Texas family, the Shermans, who were already investors, to spring for the construction loan, and Patricia Lambrecht guaranteed to pay for the theatre’s restoration, meaning that if the show never opened, she would pay the theatre for the restoration costs.
Spider-Man lived. But after construction was suspended, some key investors and other leading voices on the show lost confidence in Garfinkle’s ability to get the production back on track. Riedel reported that Bono, for one, was “furious and embarrassed” by the money woes and delays. Although Bono has never publicly blamed Garfinkle, he has acknowledged asking Michael Cohl, who was already an investor through his company, S2BN Entertainment, to take over the production. (A spokesman for the show said Bono and Taymor were unavailable for comment.)
By November 2009, Cohl was in and Garfinkle was out. Another Broadway veteran, Jeremiah J. Harris, the chairman of PRG—the company that had supplied the staging and scenery and was reportedly owed millions—became Cohl’s second-in-command. (The producers tried to bury the news of the shakeup with other major news about the show: The singer/actor Reeve Carney, a Broadway newcomer, would be playing the leading role of Peter Parker and his alter ego, Spider-Man.)
Garfinkle maintains that he wasn’t forced out. After all, his company owns the stage rights to Spider-Man. Rather, by his account, he grudgingly agreed to the shotgun wedding with Cohl and Harris to save the show. “It was my job to do whatever was necessary to bring this show to the stage,” he says. “Bono had wanted and suggested Michael Cohl, who was one of our original producers. Jere Harris was also one of our original producers. So what I ended up doing was going to Michael and Jere, and they became full coproducers to help lead the production forward. We figured out a way to all work together.” Cohl confirms as much: “There wasn’t an investor revolt,” he says. “I think the circumstances were revolting to the investors, but it was just a matter of recognizing the situation and what needed to be done, and that’s what we did.”
Ultimately, Cohl raised most of the additional money—reportedly more than $30 million—to get the show fully capitalized. He recruited big-dollar investors, including brothers Billy and Fernando Rovzar, the Mexican film producers, and the veteran Broadway producer James L. Nederlander. Cohl also dipped into his own pocket, and Bono and the Edge reportedly put some money in, too. But the checks didn’t come fast enough to prevent more delays. Cohl canceled Spider-Man’s scheduled opening on February 25, 2010, and then offered refunds to ticket holders.
Cohl says he had no idea about the show’s problems before it shut down. A review of the production’s books, he recalls, reflected the reality: “The show was financially in terrible shape. It was an oxygen tent in every respect.” In addition to recruiting investors and raising more money, Cohl restructured the production company and renegotiated a slew of production deals.
But he couldn’t stop all the bleeding. Three months after he took command, Evan Rachel Wood dropped out, citing a scheduling conflict. Alan Cumming left the following month because of his role on television’s The Good Wife. (The Tony nominee Jennifer Damiano replaced Wood, and Patrick Page, Broadway’s Grinch from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, was cast as the Green Goblin.)
By all accounts, Cohl did not scale back the costs of the production—which was one of the purported knocks against Garfinkle. But he raised the money to pay for a bigger show where Garfinkle didn’t or couldn’t. “It’s the producer’s job to manage that,” says Riedel.
Today, Cohl is widely credited as the show’s lifesaver. As a recent Associated Press story put it: “Spider-Man may be the hero on the stage, but it is Cohl who might be considered the production’s savior.”
Garfinkle’s defenders say that unfairly dismisses his role. “There would be no show without David,” says Hecktman. “David dug in. He was tireless. He was totally consumed in this. I don’t think David has gotten enough of the accolades that he deserves.”
When I asked Cohl about Garfinkle’s performance, he answered: “He was better equipped than I expected. I don’t know that the snipy press was all right. That’s not to say that there weren’t difficulties. But to throw it all on David’s shoulders isn’t fair.”
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Garfinkle has been graceful about his demotion. He says he has tried not to let it—or the bad press—get to him. But when I broached the subject over lunch last winter at Marseille, a corner bistro not far from Times Square, he grimaced, shifted a bit in his chair, and fiddled nervously with his BlackBerry. The criticism has stung. “I’ve really tried not to keep the press as my foremost focus,” Garfinkle said. “Because in the end, what people will look at is: Did the show go on? Is it a good show? And the theatrics of what happened or didn’t happen in the process isn’t what it’s about.”
Indeed, Garfinkle is undaunted. “David has a sweetness about him, which, to me, hasn’t changed at all,” says Weinberg. “People could get very bitter, but I never, ever, got a whiff of that from him.”
In fact, Garfinkle is well under way on his next theatrical project, a musical adaptation of Ghost, the 1990 movie starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Previews are set to begin in March 2011 at the Manchester Opera House in England, and the show is scheduled to open in July at the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End. While the production might lack some of the star power—not to mention the sky-high expectations and the budget of Spider-Man—it is also loaded with talent. Bruce Joel Rubin, who won an Oscar for the film’s original screenplay, wrote the show’s book. Dave Stewart, of the eighties duo the Eurythmics, and Glen Ballard, the journeyman songwriter and producer, collaborated on the score and lyrics.
Garfinkle is also coproducing Anne & Emmett, a one-act play about an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. The play was written by Janet Langhart Cohen, a former Chicago TV journalist. Her husband, the former secretary of defense and ex-senator William Cohen, is a coproducer. Garfinkle is trying to line up a regional run for the show, and he hopes for a stint in New York.
But Riedel, for one, doubts Garfinkle will ever live down the hard birth of Spider-Man. “He’s done now, my friend,” he tells me. “His failure was too big and too public. I wish him well running the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.”
Still, Broadway is full of second chances. It sounds corny, but in interviews, Garfinkle often returns to the story of Spider-Man. One of his favorite songs in the show, he says, is called “Rise Above,” a ballad sung by Peter Parker after his beloved uncle dies and the young man is racked with guilt and self-doubt. The crestfallen hero recalls what his uncle once told him: “Rise above—you’re better than that.”
“It’s a song that’s really inspirational,” says Garfinkle. “I’ve taken it to heart. It carries the passion and the message that is Spider-Man—you know, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”
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With the production about to launch, the question now becomes whether hard-core Spidey fans—let alone regular theatregoers—will go for it. It is unclear how well advance tickets are selling. Insiders say they are buoyed by strong advance ticket sales, more than $11 million worth by presstime, according to sales figures provided by an investor. But in October, the producers decided to offer heavily discounted tickets, as much as half- price, during the previews period.
Still, the show’s principals remain enthusiastic. “There’s no way on earth that this isn’t going to be a massive smash,” says Mat Devine, the frontman for the Chicago rock band Kill Hannah, who plays a major supporting role. Devine says he found the script engrossing and the songs “better than anything Bono and the Edge have written since Achtung Baby.” According to USA Today, Bono himself has described the music as “dramatic, melodic, and character-based,” ranging from “punk rock” to “beautiful opera,” but remaining unmistakably U2. “We’d just dream up the maddest stuff.”
Garfinkle maintains there’s nothing cheesy about the song-and-dance version of the superhero. “You know what our number one rule was?” he says. “Spider-Man never sings in tights.”