Friday, December 3, 2010

Spider-Man and the Black Hole of Broadway

spidey_musicalA recipe for a Broadway musical:

- Take one superhero.  Dust off recent movie megafranchise and create own unique take on widely-accepted origin story.
- Add one Irish alt rock duo.  Be sure to find one that’s at least ten years removed from real relevancy and about twenty years from its last work of real consequence.  Their massive success should afford them the opportunity to tackle a crazy, mixed-brow project as big as they believe themselves to be.
- Toss in an acclaimed theatre director.  Preferably one with lots of success bringing beloved animated characters to life onstage through the magic of puppetry.  Extra points if she’s coming off a bonkers film based on the work of a band even bigger than your Irish duo
- Book actors with name recognition.  Find other actors (preferably people with chops) when delays cause your marquee names to drop out.
- Mix in $65 Million.
- Cross fingers.
- Pray (if that’s your thing).

This is not a review of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.  This is not a preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.  I don’t know if/when I will ever bother get a chance to see Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

But now that I’ve thoroughly engrained the show’s debacle of a title into your brains, I really want to talk about Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.

On Sunday, November 28, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had its first preview at the 1,800-seat Foxwoods Theater on Broadway.  For anyone unfamiliar with the professional theatre process, preview performances are a way for shows to attract an audience before they’re technically “open.”  Anyone who’s ever been onstage knows that a play is an entirely different beast once you add an audience, and the preview is a means by which the actors can get their sea legs before being thrown overboard at opening.

Typically, critics do not review the piece until after previews.  They wait for most of the kinks to be worked out before passing judgment on what is considered to be the “finished” product.  Most will attend opening night or weekend, write their reviews on the ride home or in the office the next day, and publish soon after. 

Despite this convention, major outlets are already covering Turn Off the Dark.  Why?  Spidey isn’t looking so good.

Production on Turn Off the Dark began in earnest with readings in 2007.  It apparently ran out of money in 2009, so Bono pulled a few strings, shook a few hands, and raised the capital for a project whose budget had then risen to $52 million.  This was after another delay earlier this year that pushed the intended February opening to this coming December (now it’s looking more like January 2011).  What’s worse: the money it is taking to keep the 41-member cast, 18-member orchestra, and plentiful backstage crew employed through all these delays has ballooned the overall budget to around $65 million – twice the cost of the previous record-holder, Shrek the Musical.

So why is something with all this money behind it so fraught with delays and worry?  Prior to the first preview, two stunt doubles were injured in the ambitious aerial sequences (at one point, actors fly out over the audience on wires, without safety nets).  Last Sunday’s preview reportedly stopped five times, and Act I actually went unfinished because Peter Parker (played by Reeve Carney) got stuck in his harness mid-flight.  Crew members rushed to his aid, and the stage manager ended the act prematurely after it took almost a minute to bring him down.This is what they want you to see.Audiences appeared split on the evening.  Some were upset by the “dress rehearsal” atmosphere of the performance (the actual final dress rehearsal had been cancelled due to technical difficulties), while others relished in the opportunity to be part of something special.  The New York Times quoted disgruntled theatregoers who were unimpressed by the show, technical faults aside.  Other fans – younger, Spider-Man-oriented fans – were in awe of the tricks that did work.  Critics are, of course, reserving judgment for the proper opening – if that ever comes.

Turn Off the Dark has all the trappings of a flop in the making, and Broadway’s certainly no stranger to extravagant misfires.  The 1988 musical adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie ran a mere five performances.  The great Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along lasted only sixteen performances in 1981.  More recently, take the 2007 run of Coram Boy, a $6 million production of an 18th-century English melodrama with a cast of forty and an onstage choir of twenty.  It ran for thirty performances after opening.  That’s a drop in the bucket on the Great White Way.

Some shows will surprise you, however.  I personally doubted Shrek the Musical’s staying power, and Legally Blonde ran for nearly a year and a half.  There’s a chance that, should Turn Off the Dark figure out how not to fall apart, it could find its audience and flourish.

Here’s the part where I add my “I work in theatre” disclaimer.  I know from personal experience how difficult even the simplest of machines can become when they’re adapted for use on the stage; I can’t even begin to imagine troubleshooting rigging for aerial stunts.  I have also seen, gushed over, and eagerly anticipated the work of Julie Taymor.  She’s an innovator, and her work is worth seeing even if she outshines the material. 

That said, the team behind Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has spent a number of years and millions of dollars creating as much of a punch line as they have a production.  If the show is to survive the negative press it’s already amassed, it better be freaking mind-blowing.