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On Broadway, 'Spider-Man's' greatest enemy is the budget

Sources close to the production say the musical's producers need to raise as much as $24 million to cover a $52-million budget.

November 06, 2009|John Horn

As this Spider-Man tale opens, the audience sees New York City "on fire and in ruins" as "a section of the Brooklyn Bridge ascends with Mary Jane bound and dangling helplessly from the bridge." Soon thereafter, a new villainess called Arachne flies into the picture spinning her own deadly trap, and as Spider-Man battles all kinds of criminals he's swinging right over the audience.

It sounds like the 3-D opening for the next "Spider-Man" sequel, and even though this superhero story is filled with Hollywood-style special effects, it is instead a glimpse from a confidential script of a planned "Spider-Man" musical -- the priciest undertaking, and among the most troubled productions, in Broadway history.

Theater producers are always looking for the next movie-inspired musical blockbuster, and the pedigree of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" couldn't be more stellar: Sony's three Peter Parker movies have grossed nearly $2.5 billion worldwide, musical songwriters Bono and the Edge have shipped more than 50 million U2 records domestically, and director Julie Taymor's "The Lion King" has earned $3.6 billion globally.

But rather than develop into a surefire hit, "Spider-Man" the musical instead has turned into a tangled web of production delays, unpaid bills and costly theater renovations that even Peter Parker's alter ego would struggle to escape, according to interviews with half a dozen people close to the show who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the show and its finances. Given its immodest ambition to "reinvent Broadway," the musical's budget has soared to $52 million, counting theater renovations, according to one person familiar with its finances -- more than double the cost of 2006's "Lord of the Rings" musical, one of the most expensive musicals ever.

Like any compelling superhero story, "Spider-Man's" real-life final act is a cliffhanger.

Despite all the talent in its corner, it's still far from certain when -- or even if -- the elaborate musical will open after six years of development, as it has struggled to find a backer to close the budget shortfall. If the show doesn't premiere by the end of April, it not only will miss Tony Award eligibility but also face the expiration of the musical's license from Marvel Entertainment, whose comic-book division created the enduring superhero in 1962. Bono and Edge seem bewildered by the show's odyssey. "But who cares?" Bono said. "The visuals and the music are amazing, and that's what will matter."

While many factors have contributed to the show's holdup, the musical has been derailed by some of the most complicated staging in Broadway history, as the show's creators try to replicate the superhero's skyscraper-swinging movie maneuvers inside a theater.

Three people close to the production say the musical needs to raise as much as $24 million to cover its proposed budget of about $52 million -- $42 million for the show, $6 million for theater renovations and $4 million for theater restorations. At the same time, "Spider-Man's" fixed weekly running costs total around $1 million -- hundreds of thousands dollars more than what some elaborate shows such as "Mary Poppins" or "West Side Story" cost to stage every week. Part of "Spider-Man's" expense stems from its aerial and scenic effects: More than 40 stage hands are needed to operate the musical's backstage rigging, said a person who's seen the show's budget.

Those expenses mean "Spider-Man" would have to sell out every show for as many as four years (a feat only a handful of Broadway shows ever manage) simply to break even, according to several people familiar with the production and its finances.

The show has its devoted believers, led by Chicago lawyer David Garfinkle, who has been involved in the project from the start. It's easy to understand the enthusiasm: A reading of the musical's script -- along with listening to an hour of unreleased music by Bono and the Edge and reviewing a DVD sent to potential investors of Taymor's staging tests -- reveals why so many people have worked so long to see this show through.

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Tough web to weave

From the very first page of the "Spider-Man" script, it's evident this is hardly the kind of musical you could stage in just any theater -- it makes "The Phantom of the Opera's" crashing chandelier look like a simple summer stock trick.

Throughout the script -- credited to Taymor and playwright Glen Berger, stamped "Confidential" on its cover and dated from this summer -- stage directions call for action sequences that at first glance seem almost impossible to stage, let alone transfer to another theater for possible touring productions.

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