Musical Maker Julie Taymor Disses "Musicals"

05/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So when did Julie The Lion KIng Taymor decide calling a musical a musical is asking for trouble bigtime? I only ask because the director-designer-know-it-all is requiring the producers of her next stage spectacle, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, to hand over something like 40 million smackeroos for putting towards special-effects et al purposes.

And as a result, she seems to have decided she'd best do everything she possibly can to guarantee that the whopping investment in her acknowledged talent and newest theatrical vision is recouped.

Determined to snatch success from economic-downturn disaster, she's inadvertently raised some crucial -- and potentially infuriating -- issues about a project supposedly bowing in early 2010 with a score by no-less-Great-White-Way-novices than Bono and the Edge. The queries she's brought to the fore have to do with the whole idea of the musical -- or what used to be known as musical comedy.

That's to say that only a week or so ago the often arrogant and self-serving Taymor importuned a group of ticket brokers and group sales agents not to use the word "musical" when they begin beating the bushes for consumers to buy her product.

This is according to a report from the one journalist who slipped into a closed-to-the-press event where Taymor and several of her Spider-Man collaborators revealed what they hoped would register as intriguing details about the planned production -- insisting, by the way, that the new work will have nothing to do with the Tobey Maguire-Kirsten Dunst flicks.

If the enterprising Jimmy Olsen is to be trusted on his surreptitious coverage -- and there's no reason to think he can't be -- Taymor also maintained that whoever plays Spidey "is not going to sing and dance in tights." Her preferred phrase for the impending tuner(?) is a "circus rock-'n'-roll drama." Yup, Bono and associates have written songs that will boldly be sung, but Taymor is seeking to position the potentially blockbuster property in the "drama" category -- as if what she's putting out there is a close cousin to the lines of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire.

Well, no one can blame a person for being cautious, but in battening the hatches against the designation "musical," Taymor is reflecting an attitude toward the sometimes money-manufacturing, sometimes money-squandering undertakings that may never have prevailed but - -if it did for a while in the late 80's and 90's -- may already be dissipating.

Yes, at one point the very mention of musicals may have raised derisive laughs among some of the young and impressionable audiences Taymor is hoping to lure into her Spider-Man web. But doesn't it occur to her that teenagers may no longer automatically see musicals as stigmatized? Hasn't she been paying attention to the grosses for Disney's three High School Musical releases, or has she only been distracted by Sean Haye's floundering musical-comedy audition on that silly Will & Grace episode?

Hasn't she seen the young ticket-buyers with big smiles on their faces and dreams in their eyes as they leave theaters where Rent and Spring Awakening and the just-returned Hair and West Side Story are playing? Has she herself done badly by letting her own Lion King be blatantly identified as a musical? Is she aware that Adam Lambert -- perhaps the leading contender for this year's American Idol laurels -- has show-biz credits on his resume and is creating an on-stage persona almost as if working on a musical-comedy character?

(Okay, okay, Simon Cowell, who used to denigrate cabaret in his assessments, appears to have switched this year to turning up his nose at performances that remind him of musical-comedy turns -- as if he actually understands as much about musicals as he knows about the current pop market.)

There was a time not so long ago when the American musical was considered -- along with jazz -- one of the land's greatest and proudest exports. Why not honor that accomplishment rather than treat the musical as needing to be shunted into a gloomy ante-room like a poor relative? The American musical still has plenty of cachet elsewhere. In England, for instance, musicals from this side of the pond constantly fill London's West End houses and tour the provinces. The Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows Guys and Dolls, for one, could probably be revived there every other year there and be rapturously welcomed.

By the way, how does Taymor think audiences will react when they attend her "circus rock-'n'-roll drama" and realize it's as much a musical as the packing-'em-in hip-hop opus In the Heights? If the former is anywhere near as good as the latter, crowds will love it and are as likely to consider it strictly drama as they are to mistake Bono for Axl Rose.