Spiderman and Julie Taymor, Bono and the Superstars – Part Two

Continued from Part One

This is Part Two about the lawsuits over Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

A few days ago the Julie Taymor side filed its answer in the Federal Civil Suit over her being fired from the show Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. The case is not scheduled to go to trial until January 2013, but with so many reputations at stake, reading the narrative of the court filings and quotes from emails and recorded meetings, the story becomes a compelling drama.

We continue to quote the legal answer filed by Julie Taymor cited in Part One.

The story continues as Bono arrives at the meeting with a couple of supermodels and a few beers in him, causing the meeting to be postponed until the next day.

It states that on January 13, 2011, Cohl, Berger, and Bono met with Taymor in the VIP room of the Foxwoods Theater. Unbeknownst to Taymor, Berger apparently understood that the purpose of the meeting was to finally disclose “Plan X” to Taymor. As Berger recounted in a later e-mail, however, “that meeting never happened”:

The meeting was postponed til 11 p.m., when Bono was going to show up – except he showed up in our room with Christy Turlington and a couple other supermodels, and he had already had a few beers, rendering him useless – so the producers postponed the meeting til the next afternoon – but that meeting never happened – but the producers assured me the new plan was to implement JT’s vision for the next three weeks and, if after polling and focus groups and checking their own guts, if they feel like theydon’t have a hit, they’re going to shut down and implement “Plan X” – but JT doesn’t know about that plan. – so meanwhile, we just pushed opening again to March 15th.

Throughout January and February 2011, with the show in public previews and scheduled to open in March 2011, Berger continued to work with Taymor on changes of the scope described at the January 4 meeting. After early January, there were no further meetings with the full creative team and the producers. Taymor was led to believe, based on the January 4, 2011 meeting and other statements by the producers, that (i) a shutdown to make substantial changes to the Musical was out of the question, and (ii) everyone was working together to improve the show.

In January and February 2011, Taymor repeatedly requested that Bono and Edge—who were rarely in town — deliver the improved music and lyrics that had been discussed at the January 4 meeting. On the rare occasions that Bono and Edge were in town during this time, Taymor worked with them as much as possible on changes to the show.

During this time, Taymor also requested that Berger deliver re-writes for the Book of the Musical to improve on the story’s pathos, clarity, and humor . In addition, when Berger proposed new ideas for changes or cuts to Taymor, Taymor sent e-mails to Berger asking him to “write them out” in script form so they could be evaluated and implemented if appropriate. Presumably because of his primary focus on Plan X, Berger failed to deliver the writing and improvements that Taymor requested.

Because of Berger’s failure to deliver re-writes to Taymor, Taymor asked the producers to consider hiring an additional bookwriter to join the team and assist Berger to develop the material necessary to improve the Musical’s story.

Meanwhile, the producers had and continued to induce and encourage Taymor’s ongoing work. From December on, Harris sent e-mails to Taymor stating that “[a]udiences have been very positive into the show in all ways,” “audiences have been much better,” and “each night we get closer and closer.” Cohl also stated: “My reports are all positive…well done.” On January 26, Cohl sent Taymor an e-mail containing links to two favorable reviews of the Musical, stating: “enjoy.” One of the reviews stated:

[Spider-Man] is an incredible technical feat of epic proportions and it absolutely blew my mind. It’s a new type of musical, a new breed – where circus meets Broadway under the guise of a music concert. Julie Taymor has molded these elements together quite well. You can tell she’s still ironing out the details, but for a show with no out-of-town tryout, she’s doing a helluva job and she should be 100% commended for it.

The producers, Berger, Bono, and Edge, however, continued to develop and assess Plan X behind Taymor’s back.

Upon information and belief, Berger secretly communicated with Cohl and Harris during this time, sending the producers detailed descriptions of his Plan X. Berger apparently reported to Cohl that he was “exasperate[ed]” at having to work on changes to the story with Taymor and that “any timetable and marching orders you’ve got for me…I’ll take them.” Berger also apparently sent an e-mail to Harris stating:

Hi Jere. . . . I’ve been desperately agitating for substantive changes to the book (and specifically the 2nd Act) since late December. . . . I implored Bono and Edge and Michael and anyone else to get [Taymor] to consider changes. Though Bono and Edge were fervent in their belief that change needed to happen, and told me they were on board with my proposals, their relatively gentle persuasions on Julie didn’t have any teeth. So since the beginning of January my marching orders have been to work with Julie to help her implement her vision. I was told that by last January (now mid-February), if more changes are required, then we’ll all get down to it. I’ve gone along with this, despite it being what Edge called a “schizophrenic” situation. . . . [T]he problem hasn’t been in finding a solution, the problem has been in the willingness to implement a solution…. [P]lease know that anything you need from me – I’m at your service.

Tsypin also apparently repeatedly lobbied privately for the producers to scrap Taymor’s changes and implement Plan X, which would change the technical ending of the story that Tsypin continually was failing to properly design. For example, upon information and belief, on January 31, 2011, Tsypin sent Cohl and Harris an e-mail urging them that “[n]ow is the time to act” on Plan X.

On February 7, 2011, critics published pre-emptive reviews of the Musical five weeks before the then-scheduled opening night of March 15. While some of the reviews contained criticism of the show, those that praised it praised elements that had been conceived and implemented largely by Taymor: “As a stager . . . Taymor is bold, elegant, and eloquent”; “The flying is thrilling, a full-tilt leap into the extraordinary”; “‘Spider-Man’ deftly spins substance and spectacle”; “The state-of-the-art visuals can be stunning”; “Taymor delivers”; “A visual feast.”

After the pre-emptive reviews, Taymor continued to work on many changes to the show, including to the Book of the Musical and the producers, Berger, Bono, and Edge continued to encourage her work. Among their e-mails to Taymor during this time-frame:

Bono: “i know today is not a surprise and the treatment by the media is as expected for a production of the scale of ours but just wanted to send my love and undying respect in case it got to you … you would think imagination was the enemy not banality….

Tsypin: “I was excited about the show last night. The first act is much tighter, has great energy. The ending is exciting, Reeve is fantastic, the show still sags a bit in the middle of the second act, I can’t wait to see new Dee[p]ly Furious.”

Cohl: “much better than before”

Despite communicating praise to Taymor, however, upon information and belief, the producers, Berger, Bono, and Edge continued to conceal Plan X from Taymor and to secretly work on it behind her back.

The Producers Held Secret Discussion with Phillip William McKinley and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa About Using and Changing Taymor’s Work

Upon information and belief, at some point in late January or early February 2011, the producers secretly began to explore the possibility of engaging a new director and bookwriter for the production. They did not inform Taymor of such plans.

Upon information and belief, in mid-February 2011, Cohl and Harris began to have secret discussions with Phillip William McKinley and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Cohl apparently met privately with McKinley on February 11, 2011, after he had instructed McKinley to view the previous two days’ performances and generate notes on his suggested changes. Cohl and Harris also apparently solicited detailed notes on the Book from Aguirre-Sacasa and Marvel’s new Chief Creative Officer, Joe Quesada, who had not been involved with the Musical during the many years in which the Book and design of the Musical were approved.

The producers’ discussions with McKinley were hidden from Taymor. McKinley’s notes, for example, confirmed that they “were never meant to be given out to Julie or anyone from her team.”

The producers’ discussions with Aguirre-Sacasa and Quesada initially were also hidden from Taymor. On February 16, 2011, however, Taymor heard about the producers’ rumored discussions with Aguirre-Sacasa from press reports. That evening, Taymor and Cohlmet over dinner to discuss a focus group report that Cohl had just received. Taymor asked Cohl about Aguirre-Sacasa’s rumored involvement. Cohl responded that he and Harris were simply “reviewing the research and reading the audience and our guts and trying to chart a course.” He told Taymor that no decision had been made yet as to how to proceed. He mentioned that he had received notes from Aguirre-Sacasa and Marvel outlining potential changes to the show.

Taymor urged Cohl to share whatever notes he had with her and reiterated to Cohl that she was open to changes that could be implemented.

On February 18, 2011, Cohl forwarded pages of notes from Aguirre-Sacasa and Quesada to Taymor. The notes did not appear to Taymor to contain concrete changes to improve the Musical within the current technical and scheduling confines, but were instead in the form of brainstorming about ideas as if the show were re-starting from scratch, without regard to the fact that the Musical had gone through years of development and was currently performing in previews, with a planned opening date less than one month away.

Cohl did not request or direct that Taymor to implement any change to the Musical based on the notes that he had forwarded. In fact, when Cohl discussed the notes briefly with Taymor later, he told Taymor that he in fact did not like the notes. Bono expressed the same negative sentiment to Taymor about the notes.

On February 18, 2011, without explanation, Berger forwarded an outline to Taymor stating that it was merely a “dramaturgical exercise” that he had created in November 2010 and that he was sending it to Taymor as “just fyi.” Only later, after Plan X was disclosed to Taymor shortly before she was fired, did Taymor learn that Berger’s outline apparently was the genesis of Plan X.

Neither Cohl nor Harris ever expressed to Taymor that they wanted to implement any suggestion contained in the notes forwarded to Taymor on February 18, 2011. No one reviewed the notes with Taymor to determine what realistically could be accomplished within the then-existing time limitations. Nor did the producers ever notify Taymor that their earlier directive not to allow large structural changes by temporarily shutting down preview performances — a decision that had been communicated to Taymor on several occasions — had changed.

By late February 2011, Taymor had implemented numerous changes to the production. The changes included replacing the failed web ending with an alternate web and a dramatic ending scene in which the lead actor playing Peter Parker flew above the audience.Taymor, Berger, Bono, and Edge also further clarified the story in the second act by improving the show’s lyrics and dialogue, as well as restructuring certain scenes.

Taymor and Others Continued to Substantially Improve the Musical

By many accounts, the version of the Musical as it was being performed in late February 2011—which version was never reviewed by the press — had greatly improved since the version that had been reviewed by the press at the beginning of February 2011.

On February 18, 2011, for example, Glenn Orsher, Cohl’s Executive Producer, sent an e-mail to Taymor stating: “Wow! What a great show!”

On February 25, 2011, Berger apparently expressed his own doubts to Cohl, Harris, Bono, and Edge about the advisably of implementing Plan X in light of the improvements Taymor and others had made:

Watched first half of the first Act (1st Geek scene big improvement), and the latter 3/4ths of the 2nd Act which, maddeningly, worked far better than I’ve ever seen it, and a palpably better ovation as a result .…(new music tweak leading into tweaked curtain call helped too). Which is to say – tomorrow the top of 2nd Act Geek scene will be implemented. I think two things –

1. probably a good/crucial idea to watch at least the whole 2nd Act tomorrow – assess one more time – is it truly absolutely beyond saving? … JT is very much up for cuts, a certain degree of reworking, rewriting, etc

2. as I’ve said – . . . .the tires need to be kicked hard – really hard – on plan x before that trigger is pulled. What I sent back in January was preliminary, and didn’t really put ore [sic] work/thought into it since then (been concentrating on implementing current version)….

Point is – not that I’m getting cold feet – but there’s one last day to assess., There will definitely be a certain percentage of cast freak-out with a postponement, and I’m in the dark about how much certainty there is that something resembling plan x (much less the tweaks to Act One) can be implemented in the time we have.

On February 27, 2011, after viewing the previous evening’s performance, Edge sent e-mails to the producers and Taymor stating that “many things are the best they have been,”that “[i]t was very good throughout,” and that “it might not take a big change to achieve” the desired level of improvement. Upon information and belief, Edge urged the producers to reconsider whether major changes were still needed.

Cohl and Harris, however, apparently had already made their decision to fire Taymor. Upon information and belief, in response to Edge’s February 27, 2011 e-mail, Cohl wrote that the decision had already been made to “remove Julie and fix” the show. Significantly, Cohl apparently boasted that with Taymor dismissed from the production, he was “confident we can raise” new capital.

The decision to fire Taymor was not immediately communicated to her. Instead, on February 26, 2011, Cohl had a meeting with Taymor, Berger, and Edge, with Harris and Bono participating by telephone from Vail and Switzerland, respectively, to discuss whether to postpone the show’s opening night beyond March 15. In this meeting, the producers revealed for the first time that Berger secretly had been working on Plan X, although Berger distanced himself from Plan X, saying it had not been “fully vetted yet.” The producers never told Taymor at the meeting that they were willing to shut down preview performances to allow her to implement changes. Taymor thought the meeting was solely about deciding whether to postpone opening night once again. She expressed her belief that opening night should not be postponed again and that everyone would continue to work to improve the show.

After the February 26, 2011 meeting, Taymor traveled to a previously scheduled conference in California. Taymor still did not know that her collaborators were considering her removal from the production.

On March 4, 2011, when Taymor returned from California, the producers, Bono,and Edge summoned Taymor to a lunch meeting at The Lamb’s Club in New York. When Taymor arrived at the meeting, she was summarily dismissed from the Musical.

The Producers Dismissed Taymor to Publicly Scapegoat Her While Continuing to Use and Change Her Work

Upon information and belief, the producers did not fire Taymor because she refused to implement Plan X or any other proposed changes to the production.

Indeed, the producers never disclosed Plan X to Taymor until the decision had already been made to fire her. The producers never offered Taymor a chance to implement Plan X and never offered her a shutdown to make other changes to the Musical.

As Edge confirmed in interviews published after the Musical’s official opening in June 2011:“[P]eople were careful in what they said or told [Taymor]. I certainly didn’t feel I could be 100% frank with Julie. . . . She’s been given the lion’s share of the blame, but we were all in those workshop meetings and all saw the script. . . . [Taymor’s work] is still the heart and soul of the show.

Upon information and belief, the true reason Taymor was fired was because the producers believed that doing so, while blaming all of the Musical’s past problems on her, was the one action they could take to serve their own opportunistic goals.

In the end, the producers have not created a “re-imagined” production. The revised Musical currently performing on Broadway is substantially the same production that Taymor directed before she was dismissed in March 2011. This technically-complicated Musical took years to write, design, and develop. The producers’ current suggestion that they have created a “new” show after a mere three-week shutdown is false and incredible.

Rather Taymor’s substantial creative contributions to the Musical, including her work as co-author of the Book, remain an integral part of the Musical and a substantial reason for its success. The myriad press reviews of the revised Musical that the producers have touted on the Musical’s website promoting the show confirm this: “A fun, high-flying adventure”; “There’s more flying than ever – And you can’t help but feel a thrill as Spider-Man and the Goblin battle it out just a few dozen feet above your head!”; “it’s a fantastic spectacle”; “Thrilling high-flying acrobatics”; “dazzling sequences unprecedented on Broadway!”; “It was one of the most dazzling theatrical experiences we have ever seen! And, most of that, we think, can be attributed to the bold and inspired work of Julie Taymor”; “[e]ssential elements of [the Original] production remain”; “[v]isually speaking, the show bears Taymor’s outlandish stamp”; “fans of ‘The Lion King’ will be in familiar territory”; “[o]riginal director Julie Taymor’s fingerprints are still evident.”

The elements of the Musical praised in such reviews — which are elements Taymor was instrumental in creating—are the same elements that had been praised in February 2011, before Taymor was dismissed and the Musical was revised.

The producers also have not created a more financially viable production than Taymor’s original production. The first version of Spider-Man consistently ranked as the second- or third-highest grossing show on Broadway, despite the lack of promotion of the show to encourage ticket sales during the prolonged preview period. Its box office receipts were almost identical to the box office receipts that the revised version has earned since Taymor was dismissed from the production.

In total denigration of Taymor’s over seven years of work on the Musical and with obvious malice, defendants assert in paragraph 10 of their counterclaims that “[t]he show is a success despite Taymor, not because of her.” The evidence at trial will put the lie to this falsehood. In fact, Taymor undeniably has been instrumental in the enormous success of two of the three currently top-grossing shows each week on Broadway — The Lion King and Spider-Man.

In the end, the document states that the countersuit filed by the producers against Julie Taymor is without merit since any damages that were claimed were caused, or substantially contributed to, by their own conduct and the conduct of others.”

And so the document concludes.

Wrapping it Up- Who is at fault here?

Suits. Countersuits. Now it will be up to the courts to decide just who, if anyone, are the injured parties here. In this brief, filed on behalf of Julie Taymor, her lawyers have constructed a fascinating narrative of just what happened during the months we read about the behind-the-scenes battles to “save” the show. This account will no doubt be challenged in court, and we look forward to sharing the rest of the story with our readers as it unfolds.

Taymor claims she has a damaged reputation as a result of the firing. The producers claim she doesn’t deserve to be paid and that her refusal to change things hurt the show.

Either of these outcomes are unfortunate, but in the legal wranglings, I would like to advocate that they consider the real losers.

And those are the ticket buyers who see a show that falls short of its full potential. And that failure is due to the parties who are now suing each other, reliving all the internal squabbling, over-sized egos and secrecy involved in creating this show.

In theatre, it is a clear vision, true collaboration, and open communication that contribute most to a successful show.

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