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Troubled 'Spider-Man' is beaten but unbowed

Director Julie Taymor's Broadway production has suffered an excruciating series of disasters – creative setbacks, financial woes, injuries and delays. Advance word isn't kind. But people are still buying tickets.

January 23, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • No modern Broadway show has been besieged by as many setbacks as "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." But people are still buying tickets.
No modern Broadway show has been besieged by as many setbacks as "Spider-Man:… (Charles Sykes, AP )

Reporting from New York — No modern Broadway show has been besieged by as many financial, creative and safety setbacks as "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the long-delayed musical about the web-slinging comic book and movie hero. So when "Spider-Man's" composers, U2 stars Bono and the Edge, hosted a recent reception for the cast and crew, it was not surprising that the New York event began to feel like a gathering of disaster survivors.

There were uplifting speeches inside the Manhattan restaurant from the show's creative team, and an inspirational appearance by Christopher Tierney, a stunt performer who was seriously injured in a "Spider-Man" performance accident several weeks earlier. It was a chance for everyone to lick their wounds and assume that the worst was behind them, that the most expensive production in theater history had rounded a corner.

"It spontaneously turned into a pep rally … maybe because we've been through so much together," said Patrick Page, a veteran actor who plays the dual " roles of Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin.

It's not surprising that the "Spider-Man" team might feel as if it's them versus the world. The $65-million (or more) musical spectacular has become the talk of Broadway and beyond, netting both a satiric New Yorker cover and hosannas from right-wing TV talker Glenn Beck.

The show's many mishaps — including cost overruns, numerous cast changes, technical problems, on-the-job injuries, even the death of a producer early on — have been scrupulously chronicled in the entertainment media, often with derisive commentary from the blogosphere. "Spider-Man's" official premiere has been postponed five times (the latest projected opening: March 15), although preview performances — with top ticket prices in excess of $200 — have continued while the show has been reworked.

The unprecedented number of previews led four critics to break with theatrical tradition and review the show well before its official opening. Bloomberg News' Jeremy Gerard, in the most vicious notice, called the show "an unfocused hodge-podge of storytelling, myth-making and spectacle that comes up short in every department. "

"The press hates 'Spider-Man,' " said Julie Taymor, the show's director and co-writer. "They're having a good time with coming down on it. It's kind of a joy."

At the same time, Taymor acknowledges that the show remains a work in progress, subject to technical breakdowns and in need of narrative improvements. She installed a new finale last week she characterizes as "uplifting, exciting and fulfilling."

"We have to do a show that we're satisfied with," Taymor said. "And at a certain point you are never satisfied with a show. Even if you open, you still want to make changes. There's just a point where you do what you can get done. We can go on and on and on" with changes.

So far, ticket buyers appear to be much more forgiving than the media.

Two weeks ago, "Spider-Man" narrowly dislodged perennial champion "Wicked" from first place on Broadway's sales charts, grossing $1.58 million, according to the Broadway League. Last week, the show finished third among all shows, trailing "Wicked" and Taymor's own "The Lion King," but ahead of the hits "Billy Elliot," "Jersey Boys" and "The Addams Family."

It's not entirely clear what is driving "Spider-Man's" sellouts — are people coming to see the show because they think it's like watching a car crash, or are they truly mesmerized by its over-the-top staging, partially why its budget is $65 million, Broadway's biggest ever?

The two-act show follows Peter Parker's transformation from bullied teen to crime-fighting hero, with Spider-Man vanquishing rivals in high-speed aerial battles that unfold above the audience. While U2's hit song "Vertigo" is featured in one scene, Bono and the Edge's "Spider-Man" music is unlike the rest of their repertoire, and as diverse as quiet ballads and chant.

Four prominent Broadway producers, all of whom have seen the show but did not want to comment publicly for fear of offending Taymor, said they doubted the musical's narrative problems could be fixed with a tweak here and a new line of dialogue there. If critics are not kind when the show opens in March, the producers said, their most optimistic projections are that "Spider-Man" could play for two years — not long enough to earn back its production costs.

Even as "Spider-Man" passed "Wicked," one prominent investor who declined to be identified because he's still involved in the show said that he already has written off his multimillion-dollar investment. The investor said he was convinced the show couldn't make money, particularly because its weekly production costs of about $1 million (the backstage team is so large there are 20 people in "Spider-Man's" wardrobe department) mean that it would have to play to sold-out houses for years simply to break even.

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