‘Spider-Man’ musical on Broadway: Four lessons learned

People line up to enter the Foxwoods Theatre in New York for a matinee showing of the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark."
(Mark Lennihan / Associated Press)

On paper, at least, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” had the makings of a sure-fire Broadway hit. It boasted a rock score by U2’s Bono and the Edge. It had Julie Taymor, the visionary director of Disney’s “The Lion King.” Above all, it starred one of Marvel’s most enduringly popular superheroes, one who needed no introduction and who came with a built-in fan base.

Several years and mountains of legal documents later, “Spider-Man” has become a cautionary tale of Broadway excess and artistic hubris. The musical, which opened in 2011 and had a budget believed to be $75 million, will close in January at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York. A spokesman said Monday that a Las Vegas incarnation of the musical will open at some point in the future.

How did a production with so much commercial potential fail so spectacularly? Broadway watchers had speculated that “Spider-Man” would have had to run for many years in order to recoup its initial investment. A Las Vegas production will no doubt help. (A German production is also in the works.)


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As Broadway buzzards circle, here are lessons learned from the “Spider-Man” musical.

(1) Julie Taymor is a visual artist, not a writer. The nearly unanimous critical pans of the show pointed to a main culprit: the script. Taymor, who wrote the book for the musical with Glen Berger, mixed pseudo-Greek mythology with modern-day superhero action to come up with something strange and ungainly. (After Taymor was fired, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa came aboard for rewrites.) In the past, Taymor has succeeded when her avant-garde visual talent was paired with classic stories. Creating a script from the ground up is clearly not her forte.

(2) Hiring famous rock musicians is no guarantee of success. The score by Bono and the Edge was roundly criticized for being bland and unmemorable. Some rock musicians with little or no Broadway experience have managed to create hits -- Cyndi Lauper and “Kinky Boots” to name a recent example. But in the case of “Spider-Man,” it maybe would have been more cost-effective had producers simply recycled famous U2 songs, jukebox-style, rather than go to the trouble of writing new ones.

(3) Consider an out-of-town tryout. “Spider-Man” bypassed the tried-and-true Broadway tradition known as the out-of-town tryout, in which a high-profile production opens first in a smaller city in order to avoid the glare of the New York media. “Spider-Man” was wounded by early reports of budget overruns and technical mishaps, developing an instant reputation as a troubled production that it was never able to shake.

(4) Or skip Broadway altogether. Las Vegas seems a more natural fit for the family-friendly, aerial-effects-driven spectacle that is “Spider-Man.” Teaming up with Cirque du Soleil might have provided the expertise and experience in the effects department that were clearly lacking in the Broadway run.


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