The cancellation of the Jesus Christ Superstar Arena Spectacular tour before it ever launched June 9 in New Orleans was due to “horrific” ticket sales, according to producer Michael Cohl, producer of the tour with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Really Useful Group. Cohl talked about the cancellation in a wide-ranging interview just four days after news of the tour's demise broke.
Conceived as a 54-city arena tour, the production boasted a cast of Incubus front man Brandon Boyd, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols, 'N Sync’s JC Chasez, and Destiny's Child singer Michelle Williams. Despite the intriguing cast, the enduring popularity of the music, and a well-conceived announcement in April featuring the cast and producers, this latest version of the venerable show failed to ignite consumer interest.
“We realized we had a problem the day we went on sale,” Cohl says. “We all worked very hard re-inventing things, re-thinking things, fighting the good fight, hoping against hope, and it just got to the point…look, it is a business, let’s face it. We had to make the right business decision.”
In the end, that decision meant pulling the plug rather than incurring more losses, both for producers and the arenas that partnered on some of the dates. “I considered any possibility of keeping elements [of the tour] alive, and talked to the 10 buildings that were our partners that were helping put up the money, and every single one of them said, ‘no, this isn’t happening, it’s time to go,’’ Cohl says. “It’s not just math, because you think about all of the people that have worked so hard, and the cast that has rehearsed. You think about them playing to 60 percent-70 percent empty houses, and that’s a consideration. You add to that the consideration of we can make a much more manageable loss by not doing the tour than we can by doing a tour that will be a struggle for the cast to get through, playing in these giant empty houses. It just made sense all around to chalk it up to a learning experience and move on.”
Clearly, the move caught at least some of the cast off guard. “Just as soon as we were excited to get to New Orleans to start rehearsals, it got pulled,” Williams tells Billboard. “I didn't see it coming.”
To call the cancellation as “abrupt,” though, doesn’t fully portray the true nature of the decision, Cohl says. “My joke is people ask, ‘did he die suddenly?’ and I say, ‘one minute he was alive and the next minute he’s dead,’” he explains. “It wasn’t abrupt; we’d been thinking about it and working on it, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d broadcast to the cast, or anybody, that we’re thinking of canceling, because that inevitably sinks your ship. In some ways, of course it’s abrupt, because one second it’s on and the next it’s off. But it’s not the kind of thing you can talk to hundreds of people about over a week or two.”
Making this pill even tougher to take for Cohl is the fact that a similar production of Superstar that toured the U.K. and Australia in 2012 did well. That tour was co-produced by RUG and AEG Live. This time around, AEG “chose not to promote,” Cohl says, “so I probably should have listened to them. That’s one of the things that’s hard to swallow. But, I admire that they were right, and I made a mistake, so be it.”
Given the "jeopardy" of an American tour, S2BN hedged its bet in a sense by striking a broader deal with Really Useful, according to Cohl. That deal gives S2BN the global rights to produce arena tours of RUG properties, which include such hugely popular works as “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Starlight Express,” and “Evita.” “Even today, on reflection, it seems like an opportunity, from where we stand,” Cohl says.
Asked about potential losses from the cancellation, and who’s on the hook, Cohl says, “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. Everybody’s on the hook, to a degree. Everybody’s got a little bit of pain.”
So why didn’t “Superstar” work in American arenas? “Who knows?” Cohl responds. “The answer is, ‘we don’t know for certain.’ We’ve questioned a thousand things. Had we gone with one or two lead superstars, if we had gone with a cheaper ticket price. It’s all 20/20 hindsight. We knew that this was a very risky project, it made sense in the context of the whole rights [deal], we thought we had a good cast, we thought we had a shot, and clearly we were wrong.”
As for Lydon’s comment in the New York Times regarding Cohl that Lydon “didn’t like him and I instinctively didn’t trust him,” Cohl tells Billboard, “consider the source.”
Right now, it’s too early for Cohl to speculate on the next exploration of the Weber canon. “We’re still cleaning the wounds from last week,” he says. “We’ll get to it. This one didn’t work, and it’s a sad day for the cast, for all of us, but that’s showbiz. We still have a pretty good batting average, and if you bat .500-.600, you’re a superstar in this business.”
A risk-take of legendary proportions, Cohl is best known as a producer of all 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 (where he played a key role in executing long-term multi-rights deals with artists such as Madonna, Jay-Z and U2) before leaving to form S2BN, producing such tours as Yo Gabba Gabba, 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, Cohl was brought in as co-producer to help salvage “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the most expensive and technologically ambitious—and, some would say, snake-bit—Broadway show ever mounted. Spider-Man’s tumultuous Broadway run came to an end in January having grossed more than $200 million, but still ending in the red, though an arena tour planned for the fall of next year will likely improve the ledger. Cohl also co-produced “Rock Of Ages: The Musical,” both on Broadway and in Las Vegas; and “A Night with Janis Joplin,” along with the off-Broadway hit “Fuerza Bruta,” with it’s successor “Wayra” launching this month.
Even if his most recent career has been a mixed bag, Cohl says that’s the nature of the live entertainment beast. “Here’s the key thing: even during the Rolling Stones, U2, Pink Floyd, Barbra Streisand years–which were spectacular—there were always thousands of shows every year, and always those that disappointed, those that crushed, those that failed,” Cohl points out. “I don’t think it’s any different than what exists now, although the companies are so big, Live Nation and AEG. I’m not comparing my company to them, because they do billions and billions of dollars a year, we do a couple hundred million, at best. We’re a little player in a big game. But all the players have wins and losses, nobody goes undefeated, nobody who tries any meaningful level of activity. We’ve had our share of losses post-Live Nation, as you call it, and we’ve had our share of wins.”
So while Superstar is “clearly a loss,” Cohl says, “’Rock Of Ages,’ on the other hand, has been going for almost six years, it’s a home run, and is a success in Las Vegas. ‘Fuerza Bruta’ we just closed in New York, it played for six years, and its sequel ‘Wayra’ is coming out starting in late June with previews, opening in July, and I expect it to play four or five years.”
The “Janis” production largely did well on Broadway for 140 performances, but a planned off-Broadway run at Live Nation’s Gramercy Theatre was canceled. Cohl is confident the production has legs. “We established that brand through the five months on Broadway to the point where in 2015 we expect to have a full year of touring and subscriptions,” Cohl says. “It’s an incredible success, with great success to come all over North America, with great profits. Yeah, we stumbled in the Gramercy, we knew that was a big gamble. Live Nation wanted to try and see if they could turn [the Gramercy] into a more legit house, we had a cast and a set sitting around, and it seemed like a worthwhile gamble. It turned out to be not such a great idea, but it wasn’t a lot of money for anybody, and it was something worth doing to keep the cast busy for the summer, if we could have. But that show’s a winner, and it will play for years to come.”
With Spider-Man, “considering the circumstances when [co-producer] Jerry [Harris] and I took it over—which was it was bankrupt, all three floors of the house were on fire—by the time we finished, it’s in the top 15 highest grossing shows in the history of Broadway. Over 2 million people saw it, and we have offers to play it in almost every part of the world. We’re going to begin a U.S. tour in September 2015 in arenas.”
Regarding a proposed Spider-Man run in Las Vegas, which Cohl and his partners announced late last year, “we’re still talking,” Cohl says, ‘but we may just opt for the arena tour, which is what I loved from the beginning, as you know. I may have won the argument with all our partners to do the arena tour. The re-work and the re-design and re-think for the arena show moved along much more quickly [than did Vegas]. Some very exciting ideas came to the forefront that made it the most exciting proposition on the table, and so we’re going to head in that direction.”
In short, Cohl says, “I haven’t lost my mojo. I was extraordinarily successful in the live music field, I moved over into a different business and became a producer and promoter of family-oriented, broad demographic shows, and we’re way more successful in the early years of this than we were in the music business. And I fully expect that, by the time the book is written, we’ll be at least as successful, if not more.”