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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.” 

Of course, it’s not only the Scottish play. Just before the curtain rose on 42nd Street on Broadway, director Gower Champion lost his battle with cancer. Likewise, Jonathan Larson suffered from an aortic dissection and died a few months before the Broadway debut of his musical, Rent.

Kurt Froman, resident choreographer for the national tour of Billy Elliot and associate choreographer for Black Swan, remembers well when he joined the cast of Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out:

The general manager told me to “be careful” because two tragedies had occurred within a few short weeks of each other and me joining. William Marrié, the lead in the second cast, was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Mark Arvin, a Broadway veteran in the ensemble, went in for heart surgery. Doctors accidentally punctured a valve, which put him into a coma and eventually killed him. .  .  . During the course of its run, a crew member committed suicide and another was in intensive care for months from sepsis in his lungs.

As for Spider-Man, an omen occurred at the very outset. In 2005, the original producer, Tony Adams, suffered a stroke just as he was about to sign the contracts for the show. He died two days later. That said, most of the calamities surrounding Spider-Man have less to do with curses and more to do with its director. Notoriously demanding and passionate about her work, Julie Taymor was the genius behind the wildly successful Lion King musical, which cost $25 million to produce and, since 1997, has grossed $4.2 billion. She was approached for the Spider-Man project by U2 frontmen Bono and the Edge, who provide the music and lyrics. But because they and everyone else on Broadway were so in awe of her, Taymor was given free rein—tearing down and remaking sets, hiring a slew of technical professionals, pushing the limits on never-before-seen aerial stunts, regardless of cost.

As Patrick Healy and Kevin Flynn noted in the New York Times, “The costume team alone had 23 people​—​4 designers, 4 shoppers, and 15 dressers.”

During an interview with 60 Minutes, Taymor promised Leslie Stahl that “we actually have a battle that will be over the audience’s head and they can leap through each other’s wires”—something that should have worried her accountants and insurance advisers. When New York’s Jesse Green asked Taymor if she knew how to pull off such stunts, she replied, “Of course not. What would be the fun of it if you already knew how?” Or how much it would cost. As for the accidents, she told Green, “I take safety very seriously. .  .  . But everyone has accidents in theater. It’s part of the world you’re in.”

By the end of February, tensions over the direction of the show and the need to rework the second act reached critical mass, with Bono, the Edge, and producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris pushing for further revisions—and Taymor seemingly resistant. On March 9 it was announced that Taymor would be exiting (the official announcement cited a conflict of schedule), and a new director and writer have since been brought in, although Taymor’s name will remain in the credits.

It remains unclear, however, if any of the inconsistencies with the comic book will be remedied. Onstage, Uncle Ben is a barely formed character who Peter Parker wants off his back. He also doesn’t dispense those famous words of wisdom, “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Parker delivers this line.) There is also something jarring about a Taymor-invented villain known as Swiss Miss, who oddly resembles Grace Jones. And why not eliminate “Pull the Trigger,” a number featuring stomping soldiers? (Before turning into the Green Goblin, scientist Norman Osborn is pressured by the military to work for them so they can engineer Marine supersoldiers, invoking sinister ideas such as God and Country.)

At this juncture, it is also doubtful that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can make a profit, let alone recoup its losses. During previews the show was breaking even, pulling in a little over a million dollars weekly. That said, explains one veteran Broadway actor who asked to remain nameless, “The money they’ve made through previews was a gift. Future sales is what matters and they don’t have that. Basically, as with all art, if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” In addition, he points out:

It’s rare that any big musical can come straight into Broadway without an out-of-town grooming period. And I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen producers hire a show doctor to come in and fix their show once they’re in previews. It never works. You can’t build a hit in a few weeks.

Still, there is no question that the actors (including understudies Matthew James Thomas as Spider-Man and Kristen Martin as Mary Jane Watson) pour their hearts out during performances. There are also a few (but not many) memorable ballads, such as “The Boy Falls From the Sky” and “Rise Above.” Bono and the Edge are also writing two more songs. (It’s a shame they can’t somehow plug in a hit like “With or Without You” the way Green Day has incorporated its repertoire in the rock opera American Idiot. Then again, the show wouldn’t be called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but rather Spider-Man: Rattle and Hum.)

There is one glimmer of hope: the reaction inside the theater. At the end of the show, the crowd applauded loudly as if in defiance of the critics, and delivered a partial standing ovation. The fact that much of the plot made no sense didn’t seem to bother anyone. Lynn, the woman on my right, wonders if she enjoyed it so much because her expectations were so low. That is not the case, however, with Javian Moronta, from Queens, who says he loved every minute of it and had not a single complaint: “My favorite part was when Spider-Man beat up the Green Goblin,” he tells me.

Granted, Javian is only four years old, but a ticket is a ticket.

Victorino Matus is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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