As this Spider-Man tale opens, the audience sees New York City “on fire and in ruins” as “a section of the Brooklyn Bridge ascends with Mary Jane bound and dangling helplessly from the bridge.” Soon thereafter, a new villainess called Arachne flies into the picture spinning her own deadly trap, and as Spider-Man battles all kinds of criminals he’s swinging right over the audience.
It sounds like the 3-D opening for the next “Spider-Man” sequel, and even though this superhero story is filled with Hollywood-style special effects, it is instead a glimpse from a confidential script of a planned “Spider-Man” musical -- the priciest undertaking, and among the most troubled productions, in Broadway history.
Theater producers are always looking for the next movie-inspired musical blockbuster, and the pedigree of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” couldn’t be more stellar: Sony’s three Peter Parker movies have grossed nearly $2.5 billion worldwide, musical songwriters Bono and the Edge have shipped more than 50 million U2 records domestically, and director Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” has earned $3.6 billion globally.
But rather than develop into a surefire hit, “Spider-Man” the musical instead has turned into a tangled web of production delays, unpaid bills and costly theater renovations that even Peter Parker’s alter ego would struggle to escape, according to interviews with half a dozen people close to the show who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the show and its finances. Given its immodest ambition to “reinvent Broadway,” the musical’s budget has soared to $52 million, counting theater renovations, according to one person familiar with its finances -- more than double the cost of 2006’s “Lord of the Rings” musical, one of the most expensive musicals ever.
Like any compelling superhero story, “Spider-Man’s” real-life final act is a cliffhanger.
Despite all the talent in its corner, it’s still far from certain when -- or even if -- the elaborate musical will open after six years of development, as it has struggled to find a backer to close the budget shortfall. If the show doesn’t premiere by the end of April, it not only will miss Tony Award eligibility but also face the expiration of the musical’s license from Marvel Entertainment, whose comic-book division created the enduring superhero in 1962. Bono and Edge seem bewildered by the show’s odyssey. “But who cares?” Bono said. “The visuals and the music are amazing, and that’s what will matter.”
While many factors have contributed to the show’s holdup, the musical has been derailed by some of the most complicated staging in Broadway history, as the show’s creators try to replicate the superhero’s skyscraper-swinging movie maneuvers inside a theater.
Three people close to the production say the musical needs to raise as much as $24 million to cover its proposed budget of about $52 million -- $42 million for the show, $6 million for theater renovations and $4 million for theater restorations. At the same time, “Spider-Man’s” fixed weekly running costs total around $1 million -- hundreds of thousands dollars more than what some elaborate shows such as “Mary Poppins” or “West Side Story” cost to stage every week. Part of “Spider-Man’s” expense stems from its aerial and scenic effects: More than 40 stage hands are needed to operate the musical’s backstage rigging, said a person who’s seen the show’s budget.
Those expenses mean “Spider-Man” would have to sell out every show for as many as four years (a feat only a handful of Broadway shows ever manage) simply to break even, according to several people familiar with the production and its finances.
The show has its devoted believers, led by Chicago lawyer David Garfinkle, who has been involved in the project from the start. It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm: A reading of the musical’s script -- along with listening to an hour of unreleased music by Bono and the Edge and reviewing a DVD sent to potential investors of Taymor’s staging tests -- reveals why so many people have worked so long to see this show through.
Tough web to weave
From the very first page of the “Spider-Man” script, it’s evident this is hardly the kind of musical you could stage in just any theater -- it makes “The Phantom of the Opera’s” crashing chandelier look like a simple summer stock trick.
Throughout the script -- credited to Taymor and playwright Glen Berger, stamped “Confidential” on its cover and dated from this summer -- stage directions call for action sequences that at first glance seem almost impossible to stage, let alone transfer to another theater for possible touring productions.
The opening bridge scene is followed closely by the arrival of a giant web woven by Arachne, a temptress who is the musical’s central invention. “A giant loom is revealed -- seven actors swing on vertical silks to form a tapestry,” the stage directions read. At another point, Spider-Man is so busy battling bank robbers and muggers that he multiplies into five different crime-fighting superheroes. One of the duplicate spiders swings over the audience, landing on the balcony.
For all of the theatrical pyrotechnics, the musical’s core story is comparatively old-fashioned, following the basic plot of the first “Spider-Man” movie while adding some new characters and back stories.
The central romance between high school students Peter Parker and neighbor Mary Jane Watson remains intact. Parker is still bullied by his classmates and moonlights as a photographer for a New York newspaper; moreover, he’s torn over his unexpected transformation into a web-slinger. As in the movie, the play’s central villain, Green Goblin, is the genetically mutated form of scientist Norman Osborn. The biggest departure from the movie is the musical’s femme fatale, Arachne.
A figure cut from Greek mythology and sometimes accompanied by her own Furies, she stalks and tempts Spider-Man throughout the story as any god does a mortal. “We’re linked by instinct, but you think a spider can wait? She exterminates deficient mates!” she tells Spider-Man at one point.
The music marks a departure for U2 as well. Famous for their soaring, sometimes political rock anthems, such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (in the Name of Love),” Bono and Edge have crafted “Spider-Man” songs that are driven more by choral harmonies than lashing guitars. Because U2 does not play in the show (the performers are accompanied instead by a band and an orchestra), the songs are written for different voices (including women) with non-U2 arrangements.
Bono described his and Edge’s compositions as varying from “giant, big pop songs to noisy rock ‘n’ roll to ethereal shivers” and said it was “the easiest job we’ve ever done when it comes to the pure joy.
“For me it’s this wonderful thing of escaping from the first-person songwriting, to disappear into these outside characters, it’s just been a thrill of a ride,” Bono said. “You spend so much time digging up diamonds in your own music; it’s a treat to dig in somebody’s else’s dirt. To work on these songs was like a playpen.”
Edge said he and his longtime partner were surprised that the rigidity of the musical format was actually liberating. “The process,” he said, “got more fun, exponentially, as it went on.”
A heroic struggle
The musical’s path to the stage has been filled with personal tragedy, and misfortune visited “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” in a most inauspicious way -- at a 2005 signing ceremony with the Edge cementing the “Spider-Man” deal.
Tony Adams, a longtime colleague of movie producer Blake Edwards and a partner in theater producer Hello Entertainment, died at age 52 of a stroke as “Spider-Man” contracts were being signed.
Hello and Garfinkle attempted to fill Adams’ shoes, and three people who have invested or explored investing in the show said Garfinkle needed to (but ultimately didn’t) bring in someone deeply experienced with day-to-day production to replace Adams and help Taymor create a show that was financially viable. Garfinkle declined to be interviewed.
Taymor, who also declined to be interviewed, always had grand ambitions for the show. At the outset, according to one person close to the show, she wondered if the musical even could be contained in a traditional theater. Just as Cirque du Soleil erected custom houses for its productions in Las Vegas (with a $50-million renovation to Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre in the works), Taymor considered staging “Spider-Man” in a specifically designed new building.
Instead, the producers picked Broadway’s cavernous Hilton Theatre, which had housed “Young Frankenstein” until it closed on Jan. 4 of this year. The production started extensive renovations on the theater as soon as “Young Frankenstein” packed up, but when it later faced a money crunch, the renovations slowed down. A number of people weren’t paid in a timely fashion, according to a person close to the show.
Some of the lead parts have been cast. Evan Rachel Wood, who was in Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” is set to play Mary Jane, with Alan Cumming as Osborn/Green Goblin and newcomer Reeve Carney, who is in Taymor’s 2010 movie, “The Tempest,” as Parker/Spider-Man. But the musical may lose them to other movies, television shows and theater productions if “Spider-Man” doesn’t open soon.
“Mentally, you go from thinking, ‘I’m going to be doing this for a year’ to ‘Oh, maybe that’s not going to happen after all,’ ” Cumming said.
The slick promotional DVD sent to woo investors showcases some of Taymor’s staging, aerial and web-shooting tests along with the musical’s scenic (by “The Little Mermaid’s” George Tsypin) and costume design (“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” Oscar-winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka). If the creative team can create a format to “support the flying and fighting and stickability of Spider-Man,” the DVD promises future investors, the show will “redefine Broadway.”
That’s assuming the musical can find its missing millions; there’s one plan afoot to raise as much as $10 million by selling the income from 100 seats added to the Hilton auditorium, according to a person apprised of the idea.
No matter how appealing the “Spider-Man” musical might look on paper, it’s unclear who its target ticket-buyers might be -- teenage boys and girls, the box-office drivers for the superhero movies, are hardly Broadway’s lifeblood. Though the hits from movie-adapted musicals can be home runs, the margin for error is thin: For every “Hairspray” triumph, there’s a “Shrek: The Musical” washout.
One interested party believes the money will fall into place before the end of the year: Edge, for all the setbacks, remains secure.
Said the guitarist: “It will happen.”
Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.