Troubled ‘Spider-Man’ is beaten but unbowed
No modern Broadway show has been besieged by as many financial, creative and safety setbacks as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the long-delayed musical about the web-slinging comic book and movie hero. So when “Spider-Man’s” composers, U2 stars Bono and the Edge, hosted a recent reception for the cast and crew, it was not surprising that the New York event began to feel like a gathering of disaster survivors.
There were uplifting speeches inside the Manhattan restaurant from the show’s creative team, and an inspirational appearance by Christopher Tierney, a stunt performer who was seriously injured in a “Spider-Man” performance accident several weeks earlier. It was a chance for everyone to lick their wounds and assume that the worst was behind them, that the most expensive production in theater history had rounded a corner.
“It spontaneously turned into a pep rally … maybe because we’ve been through so much together,” said Patrick Page, a veteran actor who plays the dual " roles of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin.
It’s not surprising that the “Spider-Man” team might feel as if it’s them versus the world. The $65-million (or more) musical spectacular has become the talk of Broadway and beyond, netting both a satiric New Yorker cover and hosannas from right-wing TV talker Glenn Beck.
The show’s many mishaps — including cost overruns, numerous cast changes, technical problems, on-the-job injuries, even the death of a producer early on — have been scrupulously chronicled in the entertainment media, often with derisive commentary from the blogosphere. “Spider-Man’s” official premiere has been postponed five times (the latest projected opening: March 15), although preview performances — with top ticket prices in excess of $200 — have continued while the show has been reworked.
The unprecedented number of previews led four critics to break with theatrical tradition and review the show well before its official opening. Bloomberg News’ Jeremy Gerard, in the most vicious notice, called the show “an unfocused hodge-podge of storytelling, myth-making and spectacle that comes up short in every department. “
“The press hates ‘Spider-Man,’ ” said Julie Taymor, the show’s director and co-writer. “They’re having a good time with coming down on it. It’s kind of a joy.”
At the same time, Taymor acknowledges that the show remains a work in progress, subject to technical breakdowns and in need of narrative improvements. She installed a new finale last week she characterizes as “uplifting, exciting and fulfilling.”
“We have to do a show that we’re satisfied with,” Taymor said. “And at a certain point you are never satisfied with a show. Even if you open, you still want to make changes. There’s just a point where you do what you can get done. We can go on and on and on” with changes.
So far, ticket buyers appear to be much more forgiving than the media.
Two weeks ago, “Spider-Man” narrowly dislodged perennial champion “Wicked” from first place on Broadway’s sales charts, grossing $1.58 million, according to the Broadway League. Last week, the show finished third among all shows, trailing “Wicked” and Taymor’s own “The Lion King,” but ahead of the hits “Billy Elliot,” “Jersey Boys” and “The Addams Family.”
It’s not entirely clear what is driving “Spider-Man’s” sellouts — are people coming to see the show because they think it’s like watching a car crash, or are they truly mesmerized by its over-the-top staging, partially why its budget is $65 million, Broadway’s biggest ever?
The two-act show follows Peter Parker’s transformation from bullied teen to crime-fighting hero, with Spider-Man vanquishing rivals in high-speed aerial battles that unfold above the audience. While U2’s hit song “Vertigo” is featured in one scene, Bono and the Edge’s “Spider-Man” music is unlike the rest of their repertoire, and as diverse as quiet ballads and chant.
Four prominent Broadway producers, all of whom have seen the show but did not want to comment publicly for fear of offending Taymor, said they doubted the musical’s narrative problems could be fixed with a tweak here and a new line of dialogue there. If critics are not kind when the show opens in March, the producers said, their most optimistic projections are that “Spider-Man” could play for two years — not long enough to earn back its production costs.
Even as “Spider-Man” passed “Wicked,” one prominent investor who declined to be identified because he’s still involved in the show said that he already has written off his multimillion-dollar investment. The investor said he was convinced the show couldn’t make money, particularly because its weekly production costs of about $1 million (the backstage team is so large there are 20 people in “Spider-Man’s” wardrobe department) mean that it would have to play to sold-out houses for years simply to break even.
Michael Cohl, the show’s lead producer, said he understands how investors might be worried about the production, but, like Taymor, feels “Spider-Man” is finally on track. He wouldn’t specify how long the show must play to full houses to turn a profit, but said it would be less than four years.
“I’m intellectually confident and I’m emotionally apoplectic,” he said of the show’s chances for financial success. “That’s the honest way I can describe my state.”
“The overall theme that I totally reject is that it’s a lousy show. It’s not,” said Cohl. “Like many shows in preview, there are things we need to do better, things that didn’t work the way we wanted them to. But a lot of things worked really well, and things worked better than I expected. People are having a great time.”
Cohl said “Spider-Man’s” advance gate is close to $17 million, a good (but not great) portent, as long as a large chunk of those future sales aren’t cancelable group sales.
The fortunes of “Spider-Man” have been troubled for years. Producer Tony Adams died in late 2005 while signing contracts with the Edge, and producer David Garfinkle subsequently struggled to get the show fully financed. Once set to open in February 2010, the show lost two leading actors — Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming — due to the delays.
As “Spider-Man’s” production budget swelled, so did its injury count. Two stunt performers were hurt during rehearsals, causing New York’s Department of Labor and Actors Equity to look into the show. Natalie Mendoza, cast as the villainess Arachne, suffered an offstage concussion in the first preview performance and later left the show. And in a horrifying accident in front of a packed house, stunt performer Tierney fell some 25 feet from an elevated platform, breaking several bones.
Taymor says the show is completely safe, and that any number of shows have similar accidents. “We did have a couple of very serious accidents,” Page said. “But without question the show is safe.”
Taymor and Cohl acknowledge that some of “Spider-Man’s” attendance has been driven by people who want to see what might go wrong in a given performance, but said that the car-crash crowd is no longer what’s sparking ticket sales.
“I would love that the ticket sales will prove that it has a life,” Taymor said. “Because I feel responsible to the people who put money in it.” And even if the show’s story might never be as clear as she wants it to be, that may not ultimately matter. “You can do spectacle on Broadway with no book,” she said, “and have a very successful show.”
In an unusual duo of pre-opening raves, talk show hosts Beck and Oprah Winfrey separately gave “Spider-Man” glowing reviews, which may suggest that the show could have mass appeal regardless of what newspaper critics say. And even if those critics are mixed, “Spider-Man” could perform like “Wicked,” which received good but not great notices that didn’t hurt its blockbuster box office.
As an icy gust blew through Manhattan on a recent afternoon, hundreds of “Spider-Man” patrons lined up nearly an hour before curtain time in the freezing cold. As soon as the doors opened, scores rushed into the Foxwoods Theater’s gift shop to buy $80 “Spider-Man” sweatshirts and $40 T-shirts.
“I feel it’s one of the landmark shows that will always be talked about. I didn’t want to miss it,” said Alex Warren, a 19-year-old theater student at SUNY Purchase College. “I’ve heard it’s technically amazing — beyond anything that’s ever been done.”
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