“We realized we had a problem the day we went on sale,” reflects Michael Cohl. It had been four days since he officially pulled the plug on the "Jesus Christ Superstar" Arena Spectacular tour before the cast could do its first show, which had been scheduled for June 9 in New Orleans. Looking back on what went wrong, Cohl, who was producer of the tour with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group, is philosophical — convinced he had done everything he could to keep the lights on, but was done in by ticket sales he describes as “horrific.”
“We all worked very hard reinventing things, rethinking things, fighting the good fight,” says Cohl. “And it just got to the point ... Look, it is a business, let’s face it. We had to make the right business decision.” Asked about the economic toll, Cohl replies: “I never talk about the money, and 40 years on I’m not going to start talking abut it, other than it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been.”
Conceived as a 54-city arena tour, the show boasted a cast of Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols, ’N Sync’s JC Chasez and Destiny’s Child singer Michelle Williams. Despite the enduring popularity of the music and a well-executed April announcement featuring the cast and producers, the production never caught on with the public.
“We’ve questioned a thousand things--if we had gone with one or two lead superstars, if we had gone with a cheaper ticket price,” says Cohl. “We knew that this was a very risky project ... We thought we had a shot.”
The deal may yet bear fruit. Cohl says his company, S2BN, struck a broader arrangement with Really Useful — one giving S2BN the global rights to produce arena tours of a wide range of Webber’s properties. That would include such hugely popular works as "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Starlight Express" and "Evita." “Even today, on reflection, it seems like an opportunity,” says Cohl.
Cohl is best-known as a producer of The Rolling Stones’ tours from 1989 through 2007, a run that grossed more than $2 billion in ticket sales, according to Billboard Boxscore. He briefly served as chairman of Live Nation in 2006 (playing a key role in long-term multi-rights deals with such acts as Madonna, Jay Z and U2) before leaving to form S2BN, producing tours by "Yo Gabba Gabba!" and "How to Train Your Dragon," and concerts by such artists as Barbra Streisand.
Cohl has also made his mark on Broadway, with mixed results. In 2010, he was brought in as co-producer to help salvage "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the most expensive, technologically ambitious — and, some would say, snakebit — Broadway show ever mounted. "Spider-Man"’s run ended in January having grossed more than $200 million, but still wound up in the red (though an arena tour planned for the fall of 2015 may well improve the ledger). Cohl also co-produced the musical Rock of Ages, both on Broadway and in Las Vegas, and "A Night With Janis Joplin," as well as the off-Broadway hit "Fuerza Bruta."
Cohl says it’s too early to talk about which Webber show he might try next. “We’re still cleaning the wounds from last week,” he says. “This one didn’t work, and it’s a sad day, but that’s showbiz. We still have a pretty good batting average, and if you bat .500 to .600, you’re a superstar in this business.”