Michael Cohl is about to head back into his original comfort zone, into the stadiums where the concert promoter made his name. "I am an arena creature—by birth, I think. Most of my life has been spent as a rink rat."
He hasn't exactly had an easy time as the lead producer of the priciest musical in Broadway's history, the $75-million Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. These days, Cohl exhibits a full Jerry Garcia beard and a shambolic, slow walk. A debater in his far-off Toronto youth, the 65-year-old has still got fire within, but he's after something different now. "In the beginning, I didn't have to love them, my acts." (You could hardly love all of them: He represented Barbra Streisand, Michael Jackson, AC/DC, Frank Sinatra and, most importantly, the Rolling Stones.) "It was mostly about being successful, getting a trophy and making some money. Now if I don't love the idea of it, I don't work on it."
The campaign to bring Spider-Man to the masses has been arduous. "I would compare it to a war," he says quietly. "It's been the worst project I've ever gotten involved in." Several performers have been seriously injured thanks to the show's extraordinary acrobatic routines. And Cohl, the Broadway outsider, made himself unpopular by firing the woman who made The Lion King roar, Julie Taymor, in the run-up to Spider-Man's oft-delayed June, 2011, opening.
Still, when we talk, the production has just settled the suit brought by Taymor, and, despite the critics, the hodgepodge show is still running after 2 1/2 years. That said, box office during September was consistently below the $1-million a week reportedly needed to break even, and rumours have a King Kong musical eyeing Spidey's state-of-the-art Foxwoods Theatre. But here's the unalloyed good news: Cohl is preparing the show for Las Vegas, Hamburg and London. It will play in both arenas and conventional theatres. "Yes, Spider-Man has had an infinite capacity to trouble and disappoint," says Cohl. "But it's also been the greatest triumph of my entire career."
Traditionally, tinkering with a musical was done during out-of-town tryouts and previews, and the public would come—or not—based on critics' reviews of a fixed product. The rock promoter with the show-tune-free show, Cohl is not wedded to tradition, and has okayed the addition of a new number to the production this fall. "It's based on a comic book—they always have new issues coming out—we want to entertain return visitors with new material."
Cohl was determined that this gig would succeed. He'd been forced out of the concert-producing and artist-managing juggernaut he'd helped build, Live Nation. And he knew he wouldn't get to produce this summer's Stones tour (AEG Live got it). "When I came on board," Cohl recalls, "[Spider-Man] had already gone through $25 million, and they had probably $10 million in debts. But for a show, they had nothing—music by Bono and the Edge, an almost-completed script, 75% there, a licence from Marvel, but no ending, no show. A big zero. Bono persuaded me to come on board, saying it might take two hours a day. I had some time on my hands....I moved to New York, and it took up 125% of my time."
Once Cohl got rid of Taymor, her dark vision was watered down—for instance, the woman-turned-spider Arachne now leaves Peter Parker free for the attentions of girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson. Evidently, early patron surveys deemed Arachne too creepy.
November will bring a tell-much memoir by Spider-Man scriptwriter Glen Berger. It alleges, among other things, that Cohl so disliked Taymor that he pulled her tickets to the opening. (She got in anyway.) Complicating matters further, Cohl's son Jacob was shooting a meltdowns-and-all documentary—which has yet to be released.
All that unpleasantness is in the past. "We're all on the same page now, and we get to move forward with the stadium shows." My last question: Did Cohl freak out when the first preview had to be stopped five times for technical problems? "After 42 years in this business, I've learned to keep my cool. I don't go, 'Dammit, I've got to go shoot myself' or 'Dammit, I've got to close this show.' I say, 'Dammit, we've got to fix this.' If we are nothing else, we are relentless."