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Dangling Men

‘Spider-Man’ as spectacle and lesson for Broadway.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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New York

Spider-Man

WENN Photos / Newscom

The crowd is riveted.

Spider-Man has just leapt off the stage in hot pursuit of the Green Goblin, who is hovering 20 feet above the orchestra seats. Harnessed by ropes, both performers are circling round the theater, occasionally landing on the ledge of the mezzanine, much to the delight of those seated far back. Then Spidey and the Green Goblin collide in midair—somehow their ropes remain untangled. Eventually our hero climbs atop the villain and pummels him. But onstage, Mary Jane Watson is dangling from a rope off the Chrysler Building. She falls while screaming in terror. Spider-Man then catapults forward to rescue her. The place goes dark.

Everyone inside the (practically sold-out) Foxwoods Theatre is on the edge of his seat. Does our webbed hero, alias Peter Parker, make it in time to save the love of his life? Suddenly a spotlight appears—and Spider-Man swings to safety with Mary Jane safe in his arms! The audience goes wild.

So what is all the fuss about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? Why are the media having a field day mocking it while the reviewers tear it to shreds? Is the New York Times’s Ben Brantley right when he says it may “rank among the worst” musicals in Broadway history? Not if you ask Glory, the woman who is seated to my left. She’s come all the way from Mountain Lakes, New Jersey: “Even though the music wasn’t my thing,” she says, “I loved it.” Lynn, the woman to my right, is especially fond of how Greek mythology was fused into the plot.

And what a plot it is. For you would think the climactic battle I mention above would be the perfect ending to the show. Instead, this death-defying aerial sequence merely concludes Act One. In Act Two, a group of villains known as the Sinister Six is unleashed on New York along with the Green Goblin. They are let loose by Arachne, a character from Greek mythology turned partially into a spider by Athena (who, suspended high above the stage, better resembles the Magic Flute’s Queen of the Night). She wants nothing more than to have Spider-Man join her in her realm. But he is madly in love with Mary Jane Watson. So out of frustration and envy, Arachne crosses the “astral plain” into our world, along with her Furies (spider-maidens) who then rob the city of shoes for each of their eight legs.

This utter nonsense is contained in a musical number called “Deeply Furious.” Making matters worse, Arachne reveals that all the villains, including the Green Goblin, were illusions of her making. So was any of this real? (My $179 ticket was definitely real, although my spider-sense tells me this can be expensed.)

Now before you start sending letters of complaint regarding all the spoilers I’ve just mentioned, it should be noted that, due to pressure from the critics, many of these scenes are being reworked. In fact, the show, which is still in previews, has been placed on hiatus until May 12. Opening night has been pushed back to June 14. (It’s been reported that the role of Arachne will be minimized while “Deeply Furious” will disappear altogether, along with the young comic-book narrators known as the geek chorus.)

But even on hiatus, Spider-Man’s price tag continues to rise; rent and salaries still need to be paid. Initially budgeted at $25 million, the show’s costs have ballooned to $70 million and counting. It is the most expensive production in Broadway history. Opening night has been postponed six times and there have been five injuries: Actors have suffered broken wrists, a broken toe, a concussion, and whiplash. The worst instance occurred last December when Christopher Tierney, a Spider-Man stunt double, fell 30 feet, breaking four ribs, fracturing his skull, and damaging his vertebrae.

Could it be that Spider-Man is simply cursed? The theater world is chock-full of superstitions and tales of bad luck, the most famous of which surround Macbeth. Actors are advised not to quote from the play or even mention it by name while inside a theater (it can be safely referred to as “the Scottish play”). During a 1937 production at London’s Old Vic, director Michel St. Denis suffered head injuries in a car accident. The founder and director of the Old Vic, Lilian Baylis, died shortly before opening night. (Her dog was also killed by a car.) And Laurence Olivier, only 30 at the time, first lost his voice and then almost lost his life. As Richard Huggett writes in Supernatural on Stage: Ghosts and Superstitions of the Theatre, Olivier “was called and rose to go onto the stage. Shortly after he left his seat, a stage weight weighing twenty-five pounds crashed down on to the seat from the flies, crushing it to fragments.” 

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