An interview with Michael Cohl is always a wild ride.
From his roots as a strip club operator turned concert impresario in Canada, Cohl, Billboard’s first Legend of Live, became a live entertainment titan as a producer of all the Rolling Stones tours from 1989's Steel Wheels through their last, the $558 million-grossing (according to Boxscore) Bigger Bang tour of 2005-07.
He briefly served as chairman of Live Nation before leaving to form S2BN, producing such tours as How To Train Your Dragon Live; Yo Gabba Gabba (winner of the Creative Content award at the 2010 Billboard Touring Awards); and, of course, Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark, the most expensive and technologically ambitious Broadway show ever mounted. And, some would say, the most snake-bit show ever.
In 2010 Cohl was brought in as co-producer to help salvage Spider-Man, which features music and lyrics were composed by U2 members Bono and the Edge. The list of challenges the show faced is too long to list here. After show overhauls, accidents, the sacking of director Julie Taymore and the longest preview before official opening in Broadway history (another of its many distinctions), Spider-Man finally began its run in the summer of 2011.
And on Jan. 4, Spider-Man’s tumultuous Broadway run will come to an end. In the most basic of terms, after a strong start, the show’s running costs each week now exceed what it earns and, to make matters worse, Spider-Man has not recouped for investors, surely a tough nut to swallow for a man accustomed to handsome returns for himself and his financial backers.
But that doesn’t mean it’s curtains for Cohl and Spidey. Last month, Cohl and co-producer Jeremiah Harris confirmed Spider-Man’s next stop will be Vegas -- probably. And as Cohl reveals to Billboard, perhaps Russia. And Germany. And Asia. Oh, and there’s an arena tour in the works. Like the high-flying protagonist of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, Cohl is nothing if not persistent. He spoke with Billboard’s Ray Waddell about the latest for the hero that just keeps getting up off the mat.
Billboard.biz: So what’s the plan with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark?
Michael Cohl: My plan is we’re going to Las Vegas.
The sooner the better.
Can you be more vague about that?
I can be more vague. I don’t know. Listen, we’re just finishing up what we hope will be the right deal with the right people, and we’re going to make an announcement some time in the near future. But other than that, there’s not a lot I can say, other than I’m optimistic that we’ll get the deal done and it’s gonna happen.
The Broadway run ends Jan. 4. Why then?
Because January and February typically are crappy months on Broadway for most shows. November was not bad, December looks terrific for us, I think we’re going to have a bang-up finish, do a couple million [dollars] a week for the last couple of weeks, and it’s time to move on.
So as you sit here knowing it’s coming to an end on Broadway, how do you feel about it?
I have mixed feelings. It was one of those things. It was an enormous task to get it past all of those nightmarish hurdles and then we had a good run of success. On the other hand, we didn’t recoup all the money. I’m an artistic-type producer, but I’m also a businessman, so in some ways we succeeded and in some ways we’ve yet to succeed. It’s important now that we succeed in the financial area as well.
The numbers I’ve seen reported are about $203 million as of mid-November. Is that ballpark correct on the total gross?
I think that’s ballpark correct. Over two million people [in attendance], probably in the top 15 highest grossing shows in the history of Broadway, probably one of the top attended shows in the history of Broadway, too.
So the problem, then, was the weekly nut, the running costs?
Yeah, the running costs are killer. But you know me, Ray, I’m budgeting it for Japan and we’re looking at taking it to China, Russia, we’re taking a look at our own self-standing venue in Germany. We’re looking at an expansive property. It’s not the kind of show like a typical New York theater show that can go into every city for two or three weeks and tour that way. It can have installations, though, and I expect we’ll do at least one a year for the next five years. That having been said, for every one of these, everything’s divided by three; the cost of putting the show on is one-third what it would be in New York, the cost of operating weekly is probably about 40% what it was in New York. We remain really optimistic.
At one point you and I were talking about an arena tour for Spider-Man, now you’re talking about sit-downs?
The arena tour is separate, we’re still very much into designing and thinking about and working it, we’re getting closer and closer to an arena tour. We’re much closer today than we were six months ago, in terms of what the design’s going to be like, what the show needs to be and getting to a point where we can start to budget. I would expect it to be touring arenas by 2016.
So that would be in the vein of a Walking With Dinosaurs or How To Train Your Dragon Live type of show?
Much better than both of those. It would be a touring production like Michael Jackson’s Cirque show.
To me, Las Vegas seems a better fit than Broadway for this type of show.
We all agree with you and that’s why we’re going there.
Was that ever discussed in the beginning, or was it Broadway all the way?
Let’s put it this way, if this was a 10-chapter story, I came on at the beginning of Chapter 3. It was already in theater, in Broadway, out of money; the stage, the sets, the scenes had been built and were under lock and key. It wasn’t practical to sit there and be the smartass and say, “Why don’t you just abandon everything you’ve been working on here in this theater in New York, write off all that money, and let’s just go to Vegas.” I was brought in to try and save a show that was already in big trouble on Broadway, and that’s what we tried to do. It is what we did. We created a show that two million people saw, standing ovations every night, we’ve established a brand. I think the show in Vegas will be even better, and I’m very optimistic about the future of Spider-Man the musical.
Will costs be less in Las Vegas?
Costs will be substantially less, because we’ve done it. We’ve made almost all of the mistakes.
What will be different?
We haven’t figured that out yet, but the show will change. When we opened in New York, we treated it a bit like a comic book that we all loved. New characters will come and others will be taken out, and the story will change slightly and there will probably be a couple of new songs. At it’s core it will still be Spider-Man, but it will be a different enough show to be a fresh experience for those that have seen it, and for those that have never seen it, it will still be the most spectacular theatrical show they ever experienced.
So there will still be flying, all those “wow” moments?
All of that stuff. Even more.
So you expect to recoup from Vegas, the arena tour and the installations?
I expect them all to be successful and we’ll do very well. Listen, the second time around, I hope we can’t be as crazy as we were the first.
Spider-Man on Broadway has been called a lot of things. What would you call it?
Anything you’d do differently now?
Jesus Christ, if I knew then what I know now, I could have fixed it all very quickly. It was a unique, difficult learning experience. And there’s not a lot of mistakes that we’ll make again.
Name one thing could have fixed it.
There’s no one thing that would have fixed it, there were a thousand things that needed fixing. Everything was wrong, every single thing was wrong. I used to say to people almost every other morning, “Spider-Man on Broadway has an infinite capacity to surprise.” What I mean is, just when you thought the beast was a bit trained and was gonna stay in its cage and things were gonna be OK, you got smacked in the head some morning. And it was infinite; it just never stopped.
Yet it sounds like you’ve committed to two or three more years of it.
This is the book of Job. We’re going to win. We’re going to succeed. It is happening. We’ve moved the pebble a long ways. We were way below zero and now we’re way above zero. The real bottom line is people love the show, it gets a standing ovation every night.
What will you do after that last show on Broadway Jan. 4?
Fly to Las Vegas the next morning. Totally serious. That’s what we’re going to do on Jan. 5, keep working.