Holy arena tour: Will Batman be ready for his live stage debut? - Features - Theatre & Dance - The Independent

Holy arena tour: Will Batman be ready for his live stage debut?

"Tonight," says Batman, reading from his cue card, "there will be three homicides in Gotham City. There will be 39 burglaries and 27 robberies. There's an old saying: 'Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.' It's simpler with me: I'm not complicated by friends."

But this Batman isn't right. He's too upbeat.

"Try it again," says James Powell. "Try to be less happy about the homicides."

In a club in central London, 40 members of the public, many dressed as Batman, Robin, Catwoman, the Joker or the Joker's girlfriend Harley Quinn, are being put through an X-Factor-style audition. They're trying out for a lead role in Batman Live, a £7m world arena tour that will open this summer in Manchester. (Powell is the co-producer.)

Outside on the pavement there are more than 500 hopefuls waiting. They started arriving at 6.30am – three hours ago. Now the queue stretches about half a kilometre, all the way from High Holborn to Chancery Lane. Their costumes range from hired muscle-chest Batsuits to home-made Heath-Ledger-by-way-of-Ronald-McDonald Joker get-ups, complete with spray-green hair and shaky lipstick. An outbreak of PVC – the Catwoman contenders – seems to be going down well with male commuters stuck in rush-hour traffic. As it starts to rain, you figure: at least PVC's waterproof. "It's just one of those things," reasons Nathan Moore, a 21-year-old drama student down from Newcastle for these open auditions. "I've read the comics since I was five. Once you get a chance to play Batman, you have to do it."

Back upstairs, a Batman called Chris is being given some accent advice by Powell.

"Let's try it across the Atlantic, shall we?"

"American," clarifies someone.

Chris isn't very good. He doesn't have to be. It turns out he's from Scott Mills' Radio 1 show. So mob-handed are the members of the media who figured it would be a wheeze to get dressed up and audition – not to mention the countless reporters interviewing the throng outside – you start to wonder whether the whole thing isn't a PR stunt. "Definitely not," assures executive producer Nick Grace, who has spent much of his career promoting musicals. "We did open auditions for Mamma Mia! as well. We're never going to cast a whole show like that, but occasionally we find someone." They don't this time but several people – not least a professional Irish actor called Stephen who gives a terrific Joker in full charity-shop-sourced regalia and blood-curdling laugh – get callbacks. Stephen is immediately set upon by a woman auditioning from The Mirror. What tips could he give her?

"I would say: be confident."

"OK. Move your arms about, or just stay still?"

"A little bit."

"In what way?"

"Well, in a confident kind of gesture... Is this going to be in the paper?"

"Hopefully," she says. "Unless I get the part."

The interest in Batman Live, which will tour UK arenas from July to October before setting off for Europe and arriving in North America by summer 2012, is understandable. For a start: it's Batman. Then you have to consider the pedigree of the creative team involved. Nick Grace's last client was Walking with Dinosaurs – the Arena Spectacular, the £10m extravaganza that had the audacity to take the stars of the hit BBC series, render them as 36ft animatronic puppets and have them roar and snort their way around the world's arenas. That show has been touring for the past four years, taking £300m at the box-office and being seen by 6.5 million people. (In 2009 it was so profitable it ranked fourth in the top 100 worldwide tours, beaten only by U2, AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen.)

The stage set, meanwhile, has been designed by Es Devlin, the multi-award-winning international stage and costume designer behind tours for Lady Gaga, Kanye West and Pet Shop Boys. For 2009's £10m Take That Presents: The Circus Live tour, she dreamt up a life-size robotic elephant that took centre stage while the band dressed as clowns, and capered about on bikes and unicycles. Her latest gig is even bigger than Take That: she's designing the London 2012 Olympics closing ceremony.

Elsewhere, creative director Anthony van Laast has a choreographic CV that takes in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar and Mamma Mia! while his Siegfried & Roy at the Mirage show in Las Vegas ran for 13 years, and would probably still be going had one of the show's tigers not bitten Roy in the neck and necessitated the removal of quarter of his skull.

Lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe has spent the past three decades working with Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones, as well as lighting Vanity Fair's Oscar parties, the Queen's Jubilee concerts at Buckingham Palace and last year's FIFA World Cup celebration concert in Soweto, South Africa. In 2009, he spent six weeks working in LA with Michael Jackson on his ill-fated This Is It shows.

And technical manager Jake Berry has spent 25 years as production director on some of the world's biggest music events; tours by Madonna, U2 and AC/DC included – all the better for overseeing the 20 articulated trucks that will be needed to take Batman Live on the road. "What's happened in the past few years is that rock shows have got more theatrical and theatre is getting more like a rock show," says Berry. "It's 'broadrock'. Broadway and rock."

The adage that comics aren't just for kids any more has been a tired cliché ever since Frank Miller and Alan Moore popularised the superhero graphic novel in the mid-1980s. But given the pedigree of the people involved here you don't have to be the world's greatest detective, as the Caped Crusader himself is sometimes called, to deduce that Batman Live means big business. Taking the origin of Robin as its starting point, it will combine a 43-strong cast, a 100ft bat-shaped video screen that will flash comic strips and "interact" with the performers on stage, illusions, the Batmobile, Busby Berkeley-esque routines and circus performers k (Robin's family were the Flying Graysons, an acrobatic troupe). "I compare it most to a Cirque du Soleil show," says Es Devlin. "There will be spectacular dance sequences, but it's not so much dance: it's movement and acrobatics."

"Walking with Dinosaurs encouraged me that there is a family audience out there that really wants to experience a big event together," adds Nick Grace. "Families are so dysfunctional now, in the sense that you go home and your children are on the internet, your wife's watching television, or you're watching the football. Very rarely do you get together as a family; unless you're watching Britain's Got Talent. That's why they're such amazingly successful shows."

Indeed, at a time when traditional media are haemorrhaging audiences, live tours that leverage their best-known properties are helping stem the losses. BBC Worldwide has turned Strictly Come Dancing, Top Gear and Doctor Who into hugely successful live events, helping the organisation's sales top £1bn last year. Disney has done similarly with Winnie the Pooh, Mickey's Magic Show and Pixar's Toy Story 3. Australian entertainers the Wiggles have gone from stars of pre-schoolers' TV to global arena phenomenon, earning more than Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Kylie combined to become their country's top-earning entertainers four years in a row. In 2009 they took home £29m, and have played New York's Madison Square Garden for 12 consecutive performances. (By comparison, Coldplay managed it twice.) Sky One is even rumoured to be preparing live versions of Fat Families and Pineapple Dance Studios.

Yet it's not always a case of singing and dancing all the way to the bank. There is an unfortunate precedent to Batman Live. And that's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the Broadway "comic book rock opera circus" that has indeed turned into a circus. To date, the pre-production of that show has encompassed five hospitalised actors, two script rewrites, one fired director and an eight-month delay: by the time it eventually opens in June, it will have had 180 preview performances, and cost $65m. (Despite, or rather because of, becoming a global laughing stock, it is currently number one at the US box office, grossing $1m a week based on advanced sales from the incurably curious. Nevertheless, to recoup its initial investment and $1m a week running costs, it will have to be New York's biggest draw for years to come.)

None of this is news to the Batman Live team. "We don't deal with superheroes, we deal with heroes," bluffs Jake Berry when the Spider-Man question is put to him. A technicality, but he has a point. Part of the problem with making a live show out of Spider-Man is his superhuman powers: he's expected to bounce all over the theatre. A technical nightmare. As even the most casual of comic-book fan knows, Batman is merely a man – just a very determined one. Still, it must be slightly awkward for Berry. He's still touring the U2 360° tour. And Bono and the Edge wrote the music for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. "Yes; ha ha!" he says. "They've been very gracious and understanding." As everyone involved is at some pains to point out, Batman Live is not a musical. "Our show is absolutely not a musical and when you see what's happening to Spider-Man, I'm thrilled we're not a musical," says Van Laast.

They're not even slightly concerned people will draw comparisons? "No: for me that's a completely different project," Grace says. "It never occurred to me that Batman should be a musical. It's not going to be in theatres, because theatres are too small. You can't get enough capacity to pay for what you want to do. You can't take it to everybody's city. I hope Spider-Man is a success. You wouldn't want a superhero failure. But either way, I don't think it will affect us."

I first encounter the Batman Live production in Circus Space in December 2010. Housed in a beautiful Victorian power station in London's Hoxton Square, it is the UK's national centre for the circus arts. "Unlike actors who seem to be out of work two-thirds of their life, most circus performers are well-employed," Grace notes. "If you wanted to run away from home and join the circus, it's still entirely possible." Today they're casting the Flying Graysons. Juliette Hardy-Donaldson, Circus Space's "head of aerial", asks each auditionee to shin up a rope, transfer to a trapeze, then, after getting up speed and more height, drop from a standing position and grab the trapeze as they fall. It's real heart-in-mouth stuff. They're 28ft up. "Oh, Jesus Christ," says Van Laast from behind his clipboard. "That scared the shit out of me."

Grace had the idea for Batman Live in summer 2008. "I'd been putting musicals into arenas in Scandinavia for years. Cats, Grease, [Jesus Christ] Superstar, loads," he says, when we meet in March in a London club where he's interviewing prospective general managers. "But they were always someone else's musicals. I thought it would be nice to get a brand I had some kind of control over."

He asked one of his company's directors to come up with a list of "top five brands we could actually do something with". Batman was up there. "We both thought, 'I don't think we'll get that...'" But Grace went to visit DC Comics and its parent company, Time Warner in Burbank, California, and they loved his pitch. "I thought I'd be sitting in a room with 15 lawyers giving me a hard time. I was shocked how nice they were." In his 72-year history Batman has appeared in comics, newspaper strips, films, TV series, animated cartoons and videogames – but never on stage. "I think they liked the concept: this is their million-dollar baby and it's going to be put into arenas. It's a big statement."

"It's the first time people will be able to see him in the flesh," says Berry. "He's stood outside the opening of a Batman movie before and done the odd promotional appearance, but in 2011 the time is right to see he's a real character, a real person."

If you think some of the team sound like they're in danger of getting a bit carried away by the whole thing – you're right. "I went with Nick to the launch [event for Batman Live] in New York in October, and there's something about walking into DC Comics... and then the promo Batman comes in. There was me and about 30 adults and I nearly got killed in the stampede to have my photo taken with him," Berry says. "Batman's cool, isn't he? We've started to email each other: 'I want to talk to you about dur-ur-dur-ur, dur-ur-dur-ur – BATMAN!'"

"I had my own Batcave when I was young," adds Grace. "I fell in love with Catwoman. All boys have capes, don't they?"

At the end of March, I visit Es Devlin in her Peckham studio. She's just presented her Olympics plans to Lord Coe. "He loved it," she says. Batman Live has now been cast, set construction is under way, the costumes are being made. (While I'm there, the Penguin understudy arrives to be measured up; two people pile layers of foam round his midriff.) Six weeks of rehearsals will kick off in May. Devlin's studio walls are covered with Batman character references: every iteration of the Caped Crusader's world from 1940s comic to Dark Knight movies. Using a scale model of the set, she talks me though the performance, from 25 minutes of pre-show atmospherics involving helicopter effects, smoke and swooping Bat-Signal, to the Joker's final exit in a flaming hot-air balloon. Barring the curse of the Spider-Man, the show is scheduled to tour until 2016. "It's almost like an animated, 3D, living comic book taking life before you," Devlin beams. "I didn't have to be asked twice. I was there."

To book tickets for the show, which begins on 19 July in Manchester, visit batmanlive.com

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