January 20, 2011 in Features

‘Spider-Man’ on Broadway plagued with troubles

Robert Trussell Kansas City Star
Associated Press photo

A banner covers the front of the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd Street in New York in October advertising “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.” The Broadway production has been plagued by financial problems and injuries including a stunt man’s 30-foot fall after his safety harness malfunctioned. Earlier this month the opening was delayed a third time to Feb. 7.
(Full-size photo)

Everyone loves a good train wreck, literal or otherwise.

In 1913, somebody decided it would be fun for two locomotives to collide in an explosion of steam and shrapnel at the California State Fair. Film of the event has been viewed perhaps millions of times in old newsreels and silent-movie compilations and, of course, on YouTube.

But metaphorical train wrecks are even better. What can be more entertaining than public self-destruction?

Think of a notoriously over-budget movie, like “Cleopatra” or “Heaven’s Gate.” Or Howard Dean upending his presidential ambitions with “the scream.”

The apparent cultural disaster of the moment is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Doesn’t it follow that director Julie Taymor, who against the odds turned “The Lion King” into a critically praised, money-making megahit, thought she could make Broadway magic again?

Taymor and a small group of powerful people decided that a good – or at least commercial – musical could be derived from a Marvel comic-book hero who acquires extraordinary gifts after he is bitten by a radioactive spider.

Sounds like a reasonable premise for a live show at a theme park. But Broadway?

Aside from the dumb title (“turnoff” perhaps being the key word), the catalog of things that have gone wrong with “Spider-Man” is remarkable.

It begins with the sudden death of key producer Tony Adams in 2005. Adams, a native of Ireland who had produced movies but only one Broadway show, invited his fellow Irishmen, Bono and the Edge of the rock band U2, to write the songs for “Spider-Man.”

According to a story that has acquired Broadway-legend status, Adams was felled by a stroke only moments after ironing out a contract with the Edge at the musician’s New York apartment.

At a reported cost of $65 million, “Spider-Man” is the most expensive Broadway musical in history. Catherine Rampell, who writes about economics for the New York Times, calculated that it would have to gross more than $1.4 million a week for about four years “before the show begins to even make up its initial investment.”

And the show entered production, it racked up a series of mishaps that brought to mind “Macbeth,” the Shakespeare play whose lore connects it to injuries, deaths and at least one riot.

Superstitious theater folk refer to it only as the “Scottish Play” because to utter its name inside a theater is to invite disaster. And “Spider-Man” seems to be angling to become the 21st century “Macbeth.”

Its aerial stunts have exacted a toll that includes broken wrists, broken feet, broken ribs and fractured vertebrae. Lead actress Natalie Mendoza had a concussion after she was struck in the head by a falling rope, and has left the show.

The “Spider-Man” safety procedures are under investigation by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the New York Department of Labor.

Injuries, technical issues and new safety measures have caused producers to repeatedly push back opening night, which is now scheduled for Feb. 7.

Previews, also delayed more than once, began Nov. 28. But Bill de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, recently said the production may be violating consumer protection laws by not clearly identifying preview performances in its advertising.

In the theater world, previews are public performances – for which ticket prices may or may not be reduced – during which the creative team tweaks the show. By the time they are finished, songs or whole scenes may be cut, shortened or rearranged and new dialogue written.

But once the show opens, it is “set.” Theoretically, audiences on a given night will see pretty much what theatergoers saw the night before.

By tradition, critics stay away until opening night. But for “Spider-Man” something extraordinary happened: The New York press rebelled.

The New York Times sent theater reporter Patrick Healy to the first preview on Nov. 28, not to review it, but to describe what he saw: technical problems that stopped the show repeatedly; actors stranded in midair for minutes at a time; an intermission that dragged on for some 40 minutes.

Then a handful of critics bought tickets and wrote reviews. Linda Winer of Newsday devoted much of hers to opinions of theatergoers she interviewed. Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg.com praised the designers but called the story an “unfocused hodgepodge” and dismissed most of the music.

“Like most rock stars, Bono and the Edge haven’t a clue about writing for the theater,” Gerard wrote.

So “Spider-Man” trundles on. It’s too soon to call it a flop or even a train wreck. It’s always possible to pull out of a nosedive.

Ticket sales are said to be brisk, prompting some to wonder whether patrons – not unlike people attending a NASCAR race – are secretly hoping to witness a spectacular mishap.

Robert J. Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said as ridiculous as turning “Spider-Man” into a Broadway show might seem, it’s not an inherently unworkable idea. He used Taymor’s previous show, “The Lion King,” as an example.

“The idea of taking a Disney movie with talking animals, at first you think what a terrible idea,” Thompson said. “How is this ever going to translate to the stage?

“But in that case the way the transition was made was effective and moving. … That was a brilliant production. So it’s possible to take the most ridiculous subject matter, and if you do it right, you can make it work.”

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