Broadway’s Spider-Man: A Tangled Web of Lessons in Project Management

A project crippled by scope, budget, and time.

The Broadway production of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has been plagued with significant delays, cost overruns, technical failures, scathing reviews, and most recently, the apparent dismissal of its director, the esteemed Julie Taymor. Those familiar with the Broadway community know Ms. Taymor as the brilliant creative and directorial force behind the smash hit “The Lion King”, as well as numerous other successes of stage and film.

Wondering if I could diagnose the situation from the perspective of project management, I spent a few hours reading articles that piece together a history spanning six years of this massive undertaking. Where did it go wrong? Was there a single point of failure, or a barrage of circumstances that brought this now $65MM (and growing) debacle to its knees? All large projects have their share of drama (pardon the pun) and this one reads like a soap opera. Here’s what I have gleaned and translated into the perspective of a project manager, as a cautionary tale for all of us who take on high-stakes initiatives.

Project Initiation:  The story starts back in 2005 when Marvel (the comics company) recruited producer Tony Adams, who in turn recruited rock stars Bono and The Edge of U2 to collaborate on a new Spider-Man storyline for the stage. Bono, in turn, sought out Julie Taymor who directed the visually-stunning Lion King stage adaptation of the blockbuster film. And thus a star-studded and talent-packed team was in place.

The first setback in this tale struck immediately, when producer Tony Adams died of a stroke literally at the signing of the contract at the The Edge’s home. The terrible personal tragedy notwithstanding, this threw the project into immediate chaos. Adams’ business partner jumped in to rescue the deal, but seemingly was not able to secure the full funding needed for the project.  But they marched on.

Project Planning:  Getting the right people into the right project team roles is perhaps the single most critical driver of success. On the surface, it seemed that the combined talents of Taymor, Bono, and The Edge could have nothing but the Midas touch.

Here’s the catch. As they say in the world of financial investing, “past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results” –especially when the key players cast themselves into unfamiliar roles.  Bono and The Edge are rock musicians, a format entirely apart from Broadway musicals. And Julie Taymor took on, in addition to overall direction, the roles of script writer and creative leadership. Her creative passion and vision fueled the Lion King, but critics point out the difference between adapting an already-successful film versus starting from scratch with a new storyline and plot. Among the many issues plaguing the show is harsh critics’ feedback on the disjointedness and gaps in the storyline. Furthermore, Taymor is said to have a poor grasp of the original Spider-Man ethos and story. Thus, it seems, her stretch assignment of script development carried significant risk, which was not mitigated well.

Project Execution, Monitoring, and Control: Taymor’s multi-faceted all-encompassing role also created another risk for the project: loss of checks and balances. Clearly there was an underestimation of the budget needed to pull off the special effects envisioned by Taymor, and as the costs mounted, her creative passion may have clouded her objectivity and financial judgment.  Some reports hint that Taymor was more concerned with artistry than the deadlines as the budget ballooned. Others report that Taymor displayed arrogance and ignored the input of colleagues. Furthermore, watching the interactions of Taymor, Bono, and The Edge in a “60 Minutes” interview, I had an uneasy sense that they were all star-struck and quite taken with each other, and not likely to challenge each others’ expert domains.

The creative ambitions of the project have not only inflated the budget but also have pushed the boundaries of technical capability. The actor’s flying rigs were adapted from the 4-point systems used to hover cameras over a football field. Rigging failures and accidents have resulted in the departure of the original male and female leads due to serious injuries—hers a concussion, and his a fractured skull and vertebra in a 30-foot fall that some say has killed stuntmen in comparable accidents. The Department of Labor has investigated the production for workplace safety violations. Some speculate that the current risk to human life should not be tolerated—and yet the production soldiers on.

Had there been a separate Director monitoring the budget, perhaps there would have been an open challenge to the creative and technical investments that eventually drove the production into $25MM debt in August 2009, causing it to shut down.

At that point, Bono and The Edge swooped in to secure additional funding. When interviewed by “60 Minutes” in November of 2010, Bono asserted that he learned of the financial difficulties only when they were reported in the press. Taking this claim at face value indicates a total breakdown in communications and stakeholder management. But it seems no one was questioning ROI at that point. Was it passion, ego, or perhaps a toxic blend of both?

Bono secured additional funding and the budget grew to $52MM, and eventually to the $65MM where it stands now, still an unfinished product. Operating in “preview mode” for an unprecedented 160 performances, the show was the second-highest grossing on Broadway this week at $1.3MM, just after the hit “Wicked.” So why such concern? Well, given its weekly burn rate of $1MM for production costs, the show will have to run at full capacity for 5 years before it breaks even on its investment.

Which brings us to the present. As usually happens in these instances, the Project Manager was killed. Not literally, but Ms. Taymor has been sent off into the sunset with some vague press releases about production delays causing a conflict in her schedule of upcoming projects. Riiiight. A new director has been recruited and the show reporting a 3-month plan for revision and turnaround.  Considering the $65MM already sunk, and investors demanding a return, the production is at a dangerous point of being able to only move forward under conditions of inexorable and forced progress.

Lessons Learned?

Well, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback, as they say, and I have no direct insight to the project. Based only on the reports I’ve read and interviews viewed, here are my major takeaways.

1.       Getting the right people into the right roles is the foundation for success. Stretch assignments (such as Taymor’s script-writing) are good but must be tracked closely and mitigated with support and guidance from those with experience.

2.       Believing your own hype is a deadly mistake. No matter how many notches on his/her belt of project success, a project leader must approach every new assignment with a fresh sense of humility and openness.

3.       Separation of duties is an important risk mitigation. It fosters objectivity and open challenge through a system of checks and balances.

It will be interesting to see where this production lands at the end of its three- month hiatus. Watching the video clips of the scenery and special effects, I was truly mesmerized. I hope that the team can pull it off, and that Ms. Taymor moves onto a new success with lessons learned, albeit the hard way.

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