Philip William McKinley, the stage director who replaced Julie Taymor and stopped the bleeding — literally and figuratively — on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, will next tackle something even more iconic than a superhero saga: The Old Testament. He’s directing The Bible: The Beginning, a live show scaled for arena-sized venues that will use music, dialogue, tumblers, jugglers, singers, aerialists and fighters to re-enact the Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, Moses and his clash with the Pharaoah, the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea, all culminating in the delivery of The Ten Commandments. The musical will be narrated by Gabriel the Messenger; Raphael the Healer; and Michael, Leader of God’s armies.
The show will be more logistically complex than Spider-Man, which, McKinley swears, won’t need a miracle to recoup a mammoth budget pegged at $70 million before it opened. “We are selling out every night, consistently drawing $1.7 million each week and finishing behind Wicked and The Lion King,” he said. “Right now, it’s all about maintenance and being incredibly conscientious. We’ve got the New York Department of Labor in the building for every show still, but we’ve taken safety to heart.”
Since the show’s operating costs are in the range of $1.2 million per week, Spider-Man will need a loooong run for its investors to be made whole. That effort to recoup will be helped by broadening beyond Broadway, something McKinley said he’ll help facilitate when the time is right. While Spider-Man hardly drew raves when it opened after umpteenth delays — including a three-week shutdown McKinley needed to implement changes — the director feels that the musical that was driven as much by visual effects as music by U2’s Bono and The Edge has turned a corner from being a cautionary tale about the limits of live theater to a model for what is possible. The Bible will push that envelope further, even though it’s too large to fit in a Broadway venue.
McKinley is producing The Bible with Spider-Man’s Michael Cohl, whose S2BN has partly raised the millions needed for an arena launch planned for late 2012 or early 2013. Michael Levine, Matt Rollings and Ryan Beveridge are composing the music, with lyrics by Maribeth Derry and book by Shaun McKenna. The sets will be done by Mark Fisher and Ray Winkler, who designed the giant claw stage for U2’s recent 360 tour. McKinley said the show will launch in a U.S. arena and spend several months there before hitting the road like an arena rock band tour.
McKinley expected to take on something small after Spider-Man, only to change his mind after a three-martini dinner with stage actress Judy Kaye. “I told her I’d done The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, and she said, well, there’s nothing left then but The Bible,” McKinley said. “The more I thought about it, I realized that we could take these stories that have big morality themes and put them in a style of contemporary performance.”
It will be a more daunting technical feat than Spider-Man, which McKinley took over after a litany of serious injuries threatened to kill the show in previews. Those mishaps occurred with such regularity that it created an awful perception in the Broadway community: that safety had taken a backseat to spectacle. When Chris Tierney fell 30 feet into the orchestra pit and fractured his skull and numerous other bones because of another rigging mishap, many wondered whether the show should simply be shut down before someone got killed.
McKinley was an ideal choice to replace Taymor. Although best known for directing Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz, he has directed Ringling Brothers circus spectacles for almost two decades and also staged Ben-Hur in London, complete with horse-drawn chariot races. After observing several preview performances, McKinley felt that Big Top discipline would curtail the mishaps, and he was proved right.
“Because I’d been around the circus for 20 years, I knew exactly how and why those accidents were happening,” McKinley said. “If there are five steps involved in an aerial segment, you must never go out of order,” he said. “In the circus, I would create a model of the show, and every time we had a wire attached to a person, each department head watched what I was planning and told me if it was possible. Once, I had a flying act with 32 tie-down lines and it took eight minutes to get it ready. You can’t rush that, so I found an eight-minute production number to fill the time. The first thing we did when we restructured Spider-Man was sit down with every person in every department. On every flight, we said, what this does to your world? Is it possible? These kind of shows will always carry risk. It’s not Peter Pan; we’ve got guys going 40-45 mph, circling the theater in five seconds in stunt and thrill flying sequences. If one of your main guys goes out over the audience after eating a steak dinner and a milkshake, that extra weight on him is going to throw off the flying. You have to be aware of everything. We cut Arachne’s flying for creative reasons, but I added five more flights.”
McKinley said a show like Spider-Man will inevitably have minor problems and stoppages. Because nobody has gotten hurt, the glitches have become part of the appeal and something McKinley feels should be part of live theater: “Maybe it’s the reality TV factor, but when we stop, the audience goes nuts. They love it because it is reality. If the show isn’t perfect, what’s wrong that that? The same thing could happen with The Bible. During Shakespeare’s time, they threw vegetables at you. I’m glad we’re past that, but I like to be involved in creating things that an audience feels they are experiencing with you, as opposed to observing while sitting outside the fourth wall. We are in a golden age of theater in New York, and I wish more journalists and critics would realize it. Spider-Man doesn’t have to be The Normal Heart or The Book of Mormon — there’s room for all of it. And spectaculars like Spider-Man are necessary if we are to expand this art form. My favorite moment with Spider-Man was being in the lobby and watching two 8-year-olds pretending to web each other. One stopped and said, ‘Isn’t this the best Broadway show ever?’ The other kid agreed and said, ‘I can’t wait to see the next one.’ There’s your future audience. The point is, get them in the theater, get them to make this part of their life and something they need as badly as their Game Boy. Because that’s what we’re battling against.”