By James H. Burns, CBSNewYork.com contributor
Only now, after years of preparation, a script co-written and directed by Julie Taymor (“The Lion King’s” live-action stage adaptation; “Across the Universe,”), a score by Bono and the Edge, and over ONE HUNDRED performances, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the new Broadway musical, has a chance to get better.
On April 18, the justifiably much maligned play closed down for a nearly four week hiatus, giving new scriptwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directorial consultant Phillip William McKinley the opportunity to finally make a stage presentation worthy of its illustrious source.
How did things go so wrong?
Even after the show’s first preview performance on November 28, when industry veterans–including those WITHIN THE Spider-Man production–advised Taymor that the musical needed vast rewrites, the director arrogantly refused to make any changes.
A new vision of “Spider-Man” might have been intriguing, but Taymor and co-author Glen Berger created a bizarre mish-mosh that seemed far more about her version of the mythological figure, Arachne, than everyone’s favorite webslinger.
It appeared, in fact, as though Taymor had only watched the first two “Spider-Man” movies (actually using scenes from them), and looked through a Marvel Comics merchandising catalog, to see which villains she wanted to feature as her odd “puppet people” creations.
Even “Turn Off the Dark’s” aerial scenes–for which its theatre had to be redesigned, allowing actors to “swing around” high above the audience (although with harnesses and wires in full view)–seemed to grow tedious after the first couple of sequences. No matter how exciting it may be to have one of the Spider-Man actors land in front of you on a platform attached to the mezzanine, there was also great danger involved.
At press time, five actors had suffered serious injuries, with one Spider-Man double needing back surgery in December, after plummeting through a trap door (in a non-flying stunt). Just a few days ago, an actress suffered the play’s SECOND concussion…
As problems both creatively and technically mounted, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” kept delaying its opening date (originally slated for the end of December), never ending what is now one of Broadway’s longest preview periods EVER…
(Broadway plays usually have a few weeks of what’s called “Previews”
(performances with tickets sold to the public at discounted or FULL prices), where shows are fine tuned (or in extreme cases, heavily reworked), before the production is “frozen,” and “officially” opens on a date previously set well in advance.)
“Spider-Man” is scheduled to resume previews on May 11, and launch its new “first night” on June 14. Although there is a rumor going around Broadway that Spidey may never reopen, that seems unlikely. Despite its current tedium (and perhaps because of its notoriety), the play has been close to selling out each of its eight weekly performances.
I prefer to believe that the public’s love for the character is so great, that people’s desire to see a wonderfully produced adaptation IN PERSON overcomes any negativity. (A Spider-Man musical also represents what could be a terrific opportunity to introduce kids, and others, to the thrills–and often innately, and specifically–fantastical charms of musical theatre.)
The play-makers, as you’ll see, have their work cut out for them. The score itself if surprisingly tepid (without ONE TUNE that you can remember, just a few minutes after leaving the theatre). Bono and the Edge desperately need to compose a song that expresses the exuberance, and not just the angst, of being Spider-Man, with at least a couple of other character and relationship defining numbers.
Following is a memo that at least some members of the production read, written just a few days after “Spider-Man” opened its doors, in early December. Similar sentiments were expressed later, by many in the New York media.
It demonstrates, through inference, how woefully astray Taymor and company had wandered with their $70 million-plus opus, but also how relatively painlessly the musical could almost immediately be improved, with just a few cuts.
With stage presentations such as “Cirque De Soleil” engineering far more complicated and hazardous action than in “Turn Off the Dark,” the producers also clearly need to ensure a far more secure work environment.
No doubt, the new creative personnel will have many of their own ideas. Playwright Aguirre-Sacassa has actually written for Marvel Comics (including “The Sensational Spider-Man,” and “The Fantastic Four.”). McKinley directed Broadway’s THE BOY FROM OZ, staring Hugh Jackman, and worked with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Hopefully, they will come up with something of excellence.
The love and fascination that the public has already displayed deserves the best efforts of those involved.
James H. (Jim) Burns, a writer/actor living in Long Island, has written for such magazines as GENTLEMAN’S QUARTERLY, ESQUIRE, TWILIGHT ZONE and HEAVY METAL. More recently, Jim has made several contributions to Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, and written Op-Eds or featuresfor NEWSDAY, THEVILLAGEVOICE.COM, and THE NEW YORK TIMES. )