x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Applause, forgiveness... and doubts welcome: revamped Spider-Man musical

Can a radical overhaul save Broadway's most famous basket case? A packed house for the reopening promises well, but the show is not out of the woods yet.

An advertisement for the Spiderman movie in 2004.
An advertisement for the Spiderman movie in 2004.

When the Spider-Man musical Turn Off the Dark reopened on Broadway last week, all of New York seemed to hold its breath in anticipation. Everything was going well until the climactic aerial battle scene, when that arch-villain the Green Goblin suddenly froze in mid-air, dangling high above the crowd. An automated voice instantly assured us that this was a routine safety procedure triggered by a minor technical fault. Ouch.

This was just the latest mishap in a catalogue of disasters to plague this notoriously ill-fated "megamusical". But instead of an embarrassing error it felt like part of a dazzling, self-mocking, post-modern circus show. When the unfortunate stuntman playing the Goblin began to clap, the capacity crowd roared its applause. The feel-good effect was infectious, snatching triumph from the jaws of defeat.

The embattled team behind Spider-Man must be hoping their latest relaunch can pull off the same trick. Like the Goblin, the most expensive musical in Broadway history has been hanging by a thread for months.

Even with the combined talents of Julie Taymor, the director of the phenomenally successful stage version of The Lion King, plus songs by the superstar rockers Bono and Edge from U2, and the marketing muscle of a blockbuster comic-book movie franchise behind them, Turn Off the Dark has been an unusually cursed production. It has now cost a staggering US$65 million (Dh238.7m) and rising.

After countless delays, accidents, negative reviews and an unprecedented six months of preview shows, Spider-Man finally came crashing down to earth last month when Taymor quit and the show closed for three weeks of emergency surgery. The official opening has now been pushed back again, to June 14.

Given the show's calamitous track record, I was expecting to witness a real-life disaster movie when producers turned the dark back off at the Foxwoods Theatre on Manhattan's fabled 42nd Street last week.

Instead, I saw a highly entertaining razzle-dazzle spectacle attended by a sell-out crowd of almost 2,000 people, most of whom had paid between $70 and $150 per ticket. For a financial basket case, Spider-Man is doing surprisingly healthy business.

Admittedly the first act feels a little slow and clunky. But it picks up momentum when Reeve Carney's geeky hero, Peter Parker, discovers his wall-crawling, web-spinning superpowers. And while the songs may not be on a par with Bono and The Edge's stadium-filling rock anthems, they are not the forgettable plodders scorned by some reviewers. At least one, the stirring power ballad Rise Above, already sounds like a solid U2 classic.

The much-vaunted flying sequences are certainly impressive, with Spider-Man and the Green Goblin leaping from the theatre's upper balconies to soar over the audience in great arcs. They may be supported by highly visible cables, but their circus-like acrobatics still arouse a childlike sense of amazement. Theatre is all about suspension of disbelief, after all. Literally suspended, in this case.

But arguably more dazzling is the stage design, a high-rise Pop Art gallery of stylised skyscrapers and gigantic video screens, including supersized replicas of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building. Combining the crazy-paving angles of Expressionist cinema with sharp-lined comic-book graphics, this is the fantasy New York of Metropolis and Gotham City. Ker-Powww!!

First announced nine years ago, the Spider-Man musical has had a rocky journey from page to stage. In October 2005, the original producer Tony Adams died following a sudden stroke. Work on the production finally began in 2007, but technical and financial setbacks delayed its opening six times. Early last year, the star leads Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming pulled out. Adding insult to injury, Cumming told one interviewer: "That was a lucky escape… talk about dodging a bullet!"

Amplifying the sense of a cursed project, five people have now been injured while working on Spider-Man. Last December, the stuntman Christopher Tierney plunged into the orchestra pit during an aerial action sequence. He was rushed to hospital with a reported hairline fracture to his skull, broken arm, broken ribs, bruised lung and fractured vertebrae. He is now reported to have recovered and rejoined the show, but soon after his fall, a member of the original cast, Natalie Mendoza, left after suffering a concussion backstage. In March, her replacement, TV Carpio, temporarily left the production with a neck injury. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration then fined the show's producers $12,600 for three serious safety violations.

Exasperated by constant delays, critics and theatre bloggers finally broke with Broadway convention in January, by reviewing Turn Off the Dark from its work-in-progress preview. Most were remorselessly negative.

"Spider-Man is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway, it may also rank among the worst," proclaimed The New York Times critic Ben Brantley. David Cote, of Time Out New York, was equally scornful of this "deeply confused, ugly, ultimately boring example of artistic hubris enabled by financial excess". Meanwhile, the LA Times declared the show "an absolute farrago", while the website Gawker called it "horrendously and unfixably bad".

Even outside America, reviews for Spider-Man read more like obituaries. "Never has $65m looked so cheap," complained Hermione Hoby in Britain's Guardian. "The actors have the look of the orchestra aboard the Titanic, valiantly doing their best though they know this ship is going down." Saul Austerlitz in The National was a little kinder, finding a "half-baked soufflé, delicious and inedible in equal parts… neither theatrical nor cinematic, but some gluey amalgam of the two."

After months of technical setbacks, it seems this collective media assault was the final straw that pushed the show's producers into a radical rethink. In March, Taymor announced she was stepping down, handing over to "an expanded creative team" led by the co-director Philip William McKinley. Last month, Spider-Man closed for a three-week overhaul, a move almost unprecedented in Broadway history.

Just before the show reopened on May 12, Bono admitted to the The New York Times that the original Spider-Man had been a confused misfire. "What was not right about it was a catalogue of commonplace problems," the singer said. "Story knots, bad sound and finally a failure to cohere, meaning that the whole was not greater than the sum of the parts, as wonderful as some of those parts were."

Changes in the rebooted version include expanded characters, additional jokes and the removal of the original "Geek Chorus" of narrators. Bono and Edge have also written a new song, A Freak Like Me, an upbeat disco number performed by a colourful cast of mutant villains. This is great fun, like The Wizard of Oz choreographed by Lady Gaga. The lyric even contains a witty nod to the show's financial woes, with the Green Goblin describing himself as a "$65 million circus tragedy".

But the key change is a streamlined plot, which drops Taymor's original second act about a dreamlike power struggle between Peter Parker and the mythic female figure Arachne. Spider-Man's battle with the Goblin, initially the climax of Act I, now becomes the main focus of Act II. Arachne has been demoted to a background chorus figure, although she still stars in two arrestingly balletic aerial sequences.

Turn Off the Dark is now a more conventional slam-bang spectacle than before, with more straightforward action and more self-aware humour. The crucial question now is whether these changes are enough to salvage an ailing show routinely called "Broadway's biggest punchline". Press comment on the rebooted version has been muted so far. Some claim this is one last desperate gamble on the road to inevitable failure.

All the same, the Foxwoods Theatre is still selling out. This may not be the best show in town, but it is certainly the biggest story, and possibly even critic-proof. Proving there is no such thing as bad publicity, Turn Off the Dark is now one of Broadway's must-see events, frequently outperforming its award-winning rivals. Despite minor technical glitches, the audience at the performance I saw gave it a huge standing ovation and left buzzing with excitement.

If Spider-Man is still hanging by a thread, he is not going down without a fight. This is America, after all, where everybody loves a comeback story, and nothing succeeds like excess.