Despite strong box-office demand, the Spider-Man musical extravaganza has been dogged by injury and debt as it approaches its Broadway premiere.
Spider-Man musical hanging by a thread
Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the musical-theatre version of the classic superhero story that's set to open on Broadway next month, has so far found itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Although ticket sales for previews were through the roof (in fact, it is currently the highest-grossing show on Broadway), one catastrophe after another has left the production reeling, with cast complaints about safety, hasty rewrites of poorly received songs, investigations by the labour department and the Actors' Equity, and hefty debts.
The production is certainly ambitious. Directed by the film veteran Julie Taymor and featuring music by U2's Bono and the Edge, it has been described as a "rock 'n' roll circus drama" by Taymor, and as a "pop-art opera" by Bono.
As well as rock songs, a "geek chorus" commenting on the action and a new villainess, Arachne, culled from Greek mythology, it features 27 complicated aerial sequences with actors on wires. They'll fly around a hi-tech set to give the feel of a pop-up comic book, and the audience is intended to feel right in the middle of the action, with a perspective that shifts from a conventional one to a bird's-eye view of Manhattan.
Work began on the show in 2007, and the opening date was pushed back a handful of times as a result of creative tinkering and depleted funds: by early 2009 the production was reportedly US$25 million (Dh92m) in debt. The show's celebrity leads, Evan Rachel Wood (set to play Spidey's girlfriend Mary-Jane) and Alan Cumming (as the Green Goblin), pulled out because of the delays, and were replaced with less high-profile actors.
Then the injuries started. One stunt double broke both wrists in a rehearsal of a flying sequence; another broke a toe. Natalie Mendoza, the actress playing Arachne, was concussed in Turn off the Dark's first preview when she was hit on the head by equipment in the wings, and was replaced by an understudy. A couple of weeks later, a stuntman's safety rope gave way as he was simulating a leap from a skyscraper: Chris Tierney fell into the orchestra pit and was taken to hospital with a reported hairline fracture to his skull, broken scapula, broken arm, four broken ribs, bruised lung and three fractured vertebrae. Performances were resumed three days later.
Nick Wyman, the president of the Actors' Equity Association, said that he was "disturbed and distraught" on hearing about Tierney's injuries, adding: "That Chris is not the first actor, nor the second, but rather the fourth to be injured on Spider-Man is frustrating and maddening and, to some, infuriating."
Of course, Turn off the Dark may yet overcome its teething problems, and no one knows how it will go down in history, but just in case, perhaps someone should buy Taymor a copy of Not Since Carrie by Ken Mandelbaum, the story of every major Broadway flop of the past 40 years. It focuses on the doomed 1988 musical version of Stephen King's psychological thriller, which is generally cited as Broadway's biggest failure, closing in under a week at a cost of at least $7m.
As with Spider-Man, many of the problems can be traced to the fundamentals of the story. Spider-Man has to swing through Manhattan skyscrapers, and the climax of Carrie is when she's covered in blood at her high school prom. This caused microphone malfunctions, and there were other technical and creative hitches. The lead actress was nearly decapitated by a set piece on opening night and left the production after its initial UK run, while rewrites went on between performances.
Sometimes a story is best left alone. It's mind-boggling to consider the thought processes behind A Doll's Life, the musical version of A Doll's House,Ibsen's gloomy tale of domestic repression and suicide, which closed after five performances in 1981. Similarly, Mary Shelley's story of a monster looking for redemption, Frankenstein, didn't work so well as an all-singing, all-dancing spectacular. Staged in the same year as A Doll's Life, it was the most expensive production of its time, and had only one official performance.
Taymor should know better than most how to stage a hit. Although none of her films (including the Shakespeare adaptation Titus, the art biopic Frida and the Beatles musical Across the Universe) has been a runaway success, she was also the director of the 1997 stage musical version of The Lion King, which earned her a Tony and an Olivier award and which became, as of this month, Broadway's seventh-longest-running show.
The Lion King was an ambitious and innovative production, with actors performing on stilts, wearing mechanical headpieces and suspended from ropes, but there was nothing so downright risky as Spider-Man's aerial stunts. And, while Bono and the Edge have been struggling with their songs - it was reported last month that a new final number would be added - The Lion King was already a musical, with an audience already geared up to sing along to the familiar tunes.
This week, Spider-Man beat both Wicked and The Lion King for the first time to take the title of highest-grossing play currently on Broadway. But Taymor's show must do exceptionally well after its official February opening in order to recoup its staggering $65m budget, which is more than double the price tag of Shrek the Musical, previously the most expensive musical ever.
Perhaps, despite the rewrites, delays and injuries, Spider-Man will pull through. Superheroes are definitely in vogue right now, and a show that combines circus stunts, rock songs and good fighting evil at dizzying altitudes certainly sounds exciting. As the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and the gruesome stories about injured performers may add fuel to the pre-opening hype.
Taymor thinks there's another reason audiences will enjoy it: "Yes, we have the spectacle," she said in a recent promotional video, "but the spectacle is in the service of a good story. There's a real reason why these myths just last and last: there's something that touches you deeply."
We'll have to wait and see, and hope that a world tour will follow the New York premiere. Meanwhile, Mendoza posted on Twitter that she had taken time off to travel, while Tierney is learning to walk again, has tickets for the opening night and has said he wants to return to work on the production, a wish as brave - or foolish - as anything pulled off by Spidey himself.