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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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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.

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