How did the Caped Crusader become a top-selling arena spectacular? The show’s executive producer gives you a peek behind the cowl.
Launched at the United Kingdom’s Manchester Evening News Arena, “Batman Live” has been thrilling audiences since it opened in July. The adventure continues as the Dark Knight drives his Batmobile across the globe, currently playing Europe and targeting North America for summer 2012.
How did one of the most famous superheroes in history come to play arenas? “Batman Live” Executive Producer Nick Grace recently spoke with Pollstar about the history of the production, the concert industry and show biz pros that make the show possible and those “water cooler” moments fans can’t stop talking about.
How did “Batman Live” come about?
About three years ago I was looking to find my own family arena show. I’d been putting theatre shows into arenas for the last 15 years. We currently have “Mama Mia,” I’m producing the “Mamma Mia” international tour, which plays in theatres and arenas. We’ve been on the road now for seven years and we’ve played 36 countries. I just love the idea of doing theatrical shows in the arena space. I love the opportunities that you can do in arenas that you can’t do in theatres.
I was looking around three years ago with my creative director and we made a list of brands and ideas that we thought might be universal, a brand that was powerful enough and strong enough to sustain a worldwide tour. At the top of both our lists was Batman.
So I went to Burbank two-and-a-half years ago and asked Warner Bros. if we could do a live Batman show, which had never been done before. They liked my pitch and said yes.
There have been so many different characterizations of Batman, not only in the movies and on television, but also in comic books. What’s your Batman like?
We wanted to do our own take on Batman, a very modern take. What was important for us was having a good story. I think we obviously had inspiration from the last 75 years of the Batman brand. I think our inspiration has definitely come from comics. Doing a live show, we wanted to respect that genre and actually try to create a comic coming alive on stage.
We didn’t want to be as light as the 1960s TV series. I grew up with the ’60s TV series so I remember extremely well. We didn’t want to go as dark as the current movies. We wanted to appeal to all ages.
But Batman in the comics has gone through several changes over the years. Is your Batman more like he is portrayed today or are you basing him as he was during a particular comic book era?
Our inspiration from the very beginning… has been Jim Lee. Lee is now the current publisher of DC Comics. He wasn’t at the time when we started two-and-a-half years ago. I looked at his graphic novels, which I love – “Batman: Hush” – which is in two parts. I said to Warner Bros., “This is absolutely the contemporary look we want for our Batman.”
Funny enough, we went down that route, and then he became co-publisher of DC Comics. So suddenly we had him and his studio helping us with our artwork, which was quite phenomenal.
I think the challenge for us, is that it’s such an original concept that it’s hard to explain what it is until you see it. People don’t know what to expect. I do believe from the responses and reviews we’ve received, people are just amazed at the presentation.
Your show has the original Robin – Dick Grayson – and major villains The Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman.
That was a challenge. Once Warner Bros. said “Yes” we thought our biggest problem was that the Batman universe is so rich in opportunities and there are so many supervillains, what stories do we do? Obviously, we wanted to make sure all the villains people remember and are fond of are in the show. But you can’t have a show featuring 10 people. Our main characters are Batman, Robin, The Joker and Catwoman. And then there’s that whole host of supporting characters who you will see in the show. But the main story revolves around those four main characters.
The story is the origin of Robin, how he starts as a circus performer with The Flying Graysons and ends up as a crime fighter with the Batman. We have a great writer, Allan Heinberg, who has written for “Sex And The City” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” He has written a modern take on the origin of Robin. We also loved that idea. Robin’s background is the circus, so that gives us an opportunity in the first act to have some circus scenes. Half of our performing cast are actors and half are a circus troupe – acrobats and gymnastics.
Among the “Batman Live” credits is an outfit called “Circus Space.” Were they brought on board because of the circus scenes or are they involved with the entire production?
They came on board to help us cast circus performers. They act as a casting director and advise us on the circus elements in the show.
Approximately how much does it cost to present a spectacular like this?
I’d like to say it’s a multimillion production. For me, it’s not how much it is but how you spend the money. What we try to achieve from the very beginning is to have three or four what we call “water cooler” moments, amazing moments in the show that people will talk about the next day. I think we exceed that. We have eight or nine water cooler moments in the show. I think when you come and see the show you’ll be knocked out by the presentation and the technical side to the show.
When it comes to touring, how do you move this from one venue to the next?
We’re fortunate to have Jake Berry for our technical director. He was technical director for the U2 tour that just finished. He has to be one of the best rock ’n’ roll production managers. He’s toured with The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, etc.
We’ve created a theatrical show but we tour it like a rock ‘n’ roll show. Currently on the road we have 23 trucks, but we can still load-out the show in six hours. We load in on a Tuesday and we open on a Wednesday.
When you bring “Batman Live” to North America, will you be doing multiple nights at all stops, or will there be instances of playing a single night or two nights in a venue?
We’re going to do a combination of one-week engagements and split-week engagements. We won’t stay in a city more than a week. Currently, the template in Europe is to do one city every week. We travel on a Monday, load-in on a Tuesday, open on Wednesday, close on a Sunday and then travel again on a Monday. That’s the kind of template we’ll have for North America. In certain places, where we need to, we’ll split weeks and do two cities in one week.
Is it difficult to find venues with that much space on their calendars?
No, I think North America, for us, is one of those shows that can tour for two or three years. I was the general manager for the international tour of “Walking With Dinosaurs,” and that ran in North America successfully in arenas for four years. I wasn’t involved with North America, but I was general manager for the international tour that started in the U.K. in 2009. For North America, combined with the fact that it’s the home of Batman, we’re very excited about the potential for the show.
Is the character as popular in the U.K. as he is in the U.S.?
Yes. North America is his home and I think there’s 100-percent awareness of Batman in North America. But Batman is a popular superhero in the U.K. He’s been around for a long time. You might have grown up with the ‘60s TV series or the Tim Burton movies. We have the “Batman: The Animated Series” on Cartoon Network here, we have the comic and the PlayStation games. The interesting thing is, when you start getting involved with Batman, you walk down the street and suddenly see people wearing Batman T-shirts. I promise you, if I walk down the street in central London tomorrow morning, I’ll spot someone wearing a Batman T-shirt.
I think he’s such a popular superhero because he’s a human being. He doesn’t have super powers. People can relate to that. He’s a cool superhero.
Regarding those “water cooler” moments in the production, do you have a personal favorite?
My favorite is watching the audience and seeing which their favorite is. My favorite [water cooler moment], I guess, is the Batmobile. In a way the Batmobile is one of the stars of the show. There’s anticipation. When the Batmobile is about to come on stage for the first time, you can tell people are waiting for it. They love it.
Is your Batmobile based on various movie versions, how it has appeared in comics throughout the years, or did you combine elements from different representations?
We went to Gordon Murray, one of the world’s most well-known super car and Formula One designers. He designed the McLaren F1, which 20 years ago was the first million-dollar super car and still considered the best-engineered car in the world. I asked him to design it. He was a Batman fan and drew on his inspirations from reading the comics when he was a kid. He wanted to design something that had future Formula One technology. The car you see on stage, if it had a real engine in it, it could drive upside down on a ceiling at 120 mph. He can explain everything about the car and it’s aerodynamically correct. That’s quite exciting for us. As well as having a design for the Batmobile we have this famous designer [creating] it for us who can explain everything about the design.
Considering all the various elements that combine to make “Batman Live”, was there a moment in development that reassured you that the show was going to work and be the spectacular you imagined it would be?
I think it was the first day we had the full set in rehearsals. Having worked on it for a year and a half and having kind of 3D animated designs and sketches, costume designs, but no lighting or sound, and everything on a piece of paper or on a computer screen, going into rehearsals for the first day when we had a 100 foot-long stage and a 100-foot-wide video wall in the shape of the bat, I remember thinking, “This is big. This is going to be amazing.”
Knowing I had such a world-class creative team that worked on everything from Madonna to The Rolling Stones to U2, I think part of my job as producer is to find the right creative people who not only can work together but have a passion for what it is we’re trying to do. Es Devlin is our set designer, who works for Lady Gaga and Take That. I wanted to find people who had a theatrical background but are used to working in a big space – a stadium or an arena – and it just jelled. There were no egos. Everybody came to production meetings, which is a good sign. It was a very, very exciting and pleasant environment to create something new.
You opened in Manchester at the Evening News Arena. Since there weren’t previous performances you could use as demonstrations, was it difficult selling the venue on “Batman Live”?
The Manchester Evening News Arena is constantly in the top four most successful arenas in the world. It’s up there with Madison Square Garden and the O2 – London. Outside of London it’s the biggest arena in the U.K. Manchester is a very theatrical city and it has a lot of theatres and world premieres. To be honest, speaking to the Manchester Evening News Arena and saying, “Would you like to do it? Have the world premiere of ‘Batman Live’?” they were more than happy to consider that.
So it was an easy sell?
Yeah. It was where we wanted to open. It’s a bit like finding my creative team and even the Batmobile designer. If you say to somebody who’s very, very creative, “would you like to work with me on a live show of Batman?” I don’t think anyone I talked to, from the composer to the Batmobile designer to the creative-team, nobody really had to give it a second thought.”
Logistically speaking, how many people does it take to put on “Batman Live”?
We have about 120 people on the road. 43 crew, 43 in the cast and we have 23 truck drivers who also help us with stage work. We have five caterers and two merchandisers.
Do you think you’ll ever do another superhero show on this scale?
I think “Batman Live” will inspire other people to do theatrical shows in arenas. Currently, Batman is my baby, something that has taken me two and a half years to put together. It’s a five-year tour and it’s a big tour, so we’re concentrating on that. But obviously yes, we do have other ideas to do other arena family shows. Whether it’s another superhero, I don’t know yet.
What are your touring plans for 2012?
We’re in Europe until next summer, then we open in North America around August [or] September. We hope to stay in North America for a couple of years. Within the five-year tour we have plans to go to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and southeast Asia.
Did you learn something about the Batman character that you didn’t know about before you started working on the show?
I think what surprised me was looking into the history of not just Batman, but all the other characters and the amazing backstories they have and learning why these characters are still around. It didn’t surprise me, but it was a voyage of discovery. I think that’s one of the reasons Batman is still so popular, that he has these amazing supervillains. It’s not just one or two, but a whole supporting cast that are very interesting characters. One bad day and they either become a villain or a hero.
Do you have a favorite villain?
The easy answer is to say The Joker. I think as a boy my interest was more along the lines of Catwoman.
Did you have a favorite Catwoman from the ’60s TV series? Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether or Julie Newmar?
Julie Newmar, definitely. The funny thing for me, though, is I remember in April 2009 I went to Warner Bros. to pitch the show, and then walking down Rodeo Drive or somewhere down there and there was a Julie Newmar exhibition.
And I was thinking, “This is fate, it has to happen.” When I was young boy watching the ‘60s series and having a crush on Catwoman and suddenly I found myself in Beverly Hills trying to pitch the Batman show, and there’s a Julie Newmar exhibition. It has to happen.
“I wanted to find people who had a theatrical background but are used to working in a big space – a stadium or an arena – and it just jelled.”
Currently touring Europe, “Batman Live” plays Fredericksberg, Denmark, at the Forum Copenhagen, through Oct. 23. Other stops include Stockholm, Sweden, at Ericsson Globe Oct. 26-30; Oslo, Norway, at the Spektrum Nov. 11-13; The Netherlands at Ahoy Rotterdam Dec. 9-11; Geneva at Geneva Arena Dec. 14-18 and Paris at Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy Dec. 21-25. Visit BatmanLive.com for more information.