“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the Broadway show currently in previews in New York, aspires to redefine the genre with music from Irish rocker Bono and death-defying aerial stuntwork.
But despite such high-flying talent and ambition, it is more rock than roll at the moment. The production faces a spreading web of misfortunes that is casting an ominous shadow over the teen superhero’s leap to the Great White Way.
In the fourth serious injury of the production so far, a Spider-Man stunt double fell 30 feet Monday night and remains hospitalized in serious condition. Government officials from OSHA and the New York Department of Labor have opened an investigation, and Wednesday’s matinee and evening performances were canceled.
The show’s official open date has been pushed back yet again, currently to February 7. Cost overruns reportedly have pushed the budget to some $65 million, nearly twice Broadway’s most expensive musical to date, “Shrek.”
But of course, this is live theater and Broadway is infamous for falling scenery and mishaps both offstage and on, right?
This is different, say a growing chorus of veteran Broadway watchers. Most troubling – particularly to audiences who have been paying premium prices to watch a show-in-process that has halted performances to tweak technicalities more than a few times – is the sense that this is a train wreck that won’t come right in the end.
‘An unmitigated disaster’
“No matter how anyone tries to spin, it has been an unmitigated disaster,” says Adam Kluger, a New York public relations pro who adds that he has never seen a production with so many technical problems and serious injuries. The latest injury to the stuntman, Christopher Tierney, he says, “has enraged members of the Broadway community who are wondering if someone has to die on stage before the production is shuttered.”
At the center of the storm is Tony-award-winning Director Julie Taymor, the genius behind “The Lion King,” a global franchise now worth some $4 billion that is still running productions around the world. Ms. Taymor issued a statement after the latest accident promising that nothing is more important than the safety of her Spider-Man family members.
“More than likely,” says Mr. Kluger, “those ‘family members’ and the show’s nervous investors will be quick to sue the failing production if things don’t turn around quickly.”
That may be easier said than done, points out Roger Copeland, a professor of theater and dance at Oberlin College who has followed her career closely and who attended an early “Spider-Man” rehearsal before the preview period opened.
Concept may be a problem
While Mr. Copeland acknowledges that many show elements can change during previews, nonetheless, the fundamental concept may be a large part of the problem.
The goal of putting Peter Parker and his comic book villains up in the air above the audience’s heads, a literal rather than poetic translation of the original tale, is the exact opposite of what Taymor has traditionally done and did so brilliantly even when she has had sizable budgets, as with “The Lion King.”
With that show, Copeland notes, there was no attempt to create a literal African savannah or any animals that paraded across the stage. Instead, she presents “a gorgeous, very abstract representation in the form of puppets and human operators completely visible.”
The attempt, with Spider-Man, to create a live equivalent of the movie is not only difficult, he says, but “it may ultimately be at odds with her own very special gifts.”
The widely-held perception that the superhero’s theater debut is not only in technical but conceptual trouble exists for good reason, says Kim Masters, The Hollywood Reporter’s editor-at-large, who covers the business of entertainment.
The production team behind the show is short on Broadway experience except for Taymor herself. And notes, Ms. Masters, “Taymor is not known for her strengths on story and character.”
In the end, audience satisfaction will be the determining factor for a production that now must run nearly half a decade merely to recoup its investment. Early signs are not good. At a Dec. 11 preview, Mark Cohen, an industry executive sitting in a pricey box seat observed, “We came thinking that either the show would be amazing or terrible.” But in the end, he says with a shrug, it’s only “eh.”