In the Mel Brooks movie The Producers, unscrupulous impresario Max Bialystock explains the "two cardinal rules of producing" to his new protégé, timid accountant Leopold Bloom. "One," Max announces solemnly, "Never put your own money in the show."
"And two?" Leo asks, tentatively.
To which Max shouts, "Never put your own money in the show!"
That Max feels it necessary to be so emphatic about this rule suggests a certain level of temptation. Mightn't it seem natural to want to profit on the back end of the fruits of one's labor? And, potential profitability aside, shouldn't the producer believe enough in his own work to want to contribute the funding of it -- especially if it presents something of a risk?
No greater risk can be imagined in commercial theater than the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. On its surface, the project seemed to possess several elements of a probable success: strong, popular source material; songs by Bono and the Edge; and a director who'd worked on a long-running blockbuster, Disney's The Lion King on Broadway. But on second thought, each of these apparent assets comes to seem a liability. The question of how to enact Spider-Man's aerial heroics using human actors, rather than animation or film special effects, had never been solved. There was no evidence the two most visible members of U2 possessed any sense of musical theater storytelling. And a repeated successful application of Julie Taymor's eccentric, perfectionist aesthetic to a family-oriented entertainment would be akin to lightning striking the same place twice.
The show had its opening on June 14, after a record-setting 183 preview performances, but surely the more eye-popping record was set by its budget, which has reportedly risen as high as $75 million. The previous record, held by the stage adaptation of Shrek, was a mere $24 million. (And most shows have only thirty or so previews.)
The tally already stood at $65 million when preview performances began in November. After an initial critical savaging in early February, Turn Off the Dark shut down for a three week-long creative overhaul, during which Taymor was replaced. "It's really dangerous," Bono is quoted as saying in the June 23 issue of Rolling Stone, about his decision to stick with the show to try to fix it, rather than walk away. "It is doubling down, but I really believe in these tunes; I really believe in the creative team."
The magazine calls this decision "a huge, risky bet," noting that Bono and the Edge "could have cut their losses." (The reporter spoke with Bono in Las Vegas.) And yet the U2 front man told The New York Times that he put none of his own money into the show -- despite having convinced concert promoter Michael Cohl, the former chairman of entertainment leviathan Live Nation (LYV), to join the project as a producer, in which capacity he raised millions. (This was back in 2009, when the production was already deeply in debt, its future in doubt.) In contrast, the Edge told The Times that he "put in an undisclosed sum to underscore his commitment."
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Darkgrossed nearly $1.28 million during the week that ended Sunday, putting it in third place on Broadway. The Lion King was second, meaning that Taymor should be set financially, despite her dismissal from Turn Off the Dark. (Early this month, Taymor's union filed a suit on her behalf against Spider-Man's producers, seeking $300,000 in unpaid royalties.) This box office performance will have to improve in order for the show to have any hope of turning a profit -- but, in any case, we now know, Bono will be safe.
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