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The web of failure: Spider-Man the Musical

The Broadway musical version of Spider-Man was meant to be the stage spectacle to end them all. Now, in a perilous tangle of injuries, delayed openings and critical disapproval, it may well prove to be exactly that.
The Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street had to cancel its Dec 22 matinee of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark after a stuntman playing Spider-Man in Broadway's most expensive show ever plunged to the stage in front of a horrified audience. Don Emmert / AFP
The Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street had to cancel its Dec 22 matinee of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark after a stuntman playing Spider-Man in Broadway's most expensive show ever plunged to the stage in front of a horrified audience. Don Emmert / AFP

There are many signs that a Broadway production is in trouble. These can include, but are not limited to: delayed opening; a rash of injuries to the show's performers; repeated technical problems; the firing of the show's creator; articles in the Arts section of The New York Times that note that, at last night's performance, no cast members had been hurt; a New Yorker cover that features a bevy of Spider-Men in a hospital room, clad in casts, using their webs to change channels on the television, and hobbling down the hallways with the assistance of walking frames.

I suppose, having mentioned that particular comic-book character, I have now given away the game, but amid the barrage of New York media coverage regarding the struggles of Julie Taymor's latest theatrical extravaganza, the phrase "troubled Broadway production" has practically become synonymous with the new musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The show's arrival is, in some ways, now an afterthought: the spectacle is the show, and in this case, the spectacle seems to be taking place as much offstage, and in the newspapers, as it is brought to life by the actors treading the boards at the Foxwoods Theatre.

Local newspapers and magazines have had to renegotiate bulk deals with their providers of paper strictly on the basis of the sheer number of pages devoted to Spider-Man's travails. The lead actress Natalie Mendoza quit soon after being hit by a piece of stage equipment. Performers have broken wrists and toes and been flung into basements beneath the stage. Spider-Man's producers are now gently pushing Taymor offstage, in the hopes of locating a replacement able to salvage the production. Everyone has dutifully placed their two cents into the discussion, from state assemblymen wringing their hands over safety issues to New York City's public advocate, expressing concern that Spider-Man's lack of clarity about the distinction between the show's continued previews and its real "opening" (now possibly pushed back to June) constitutes an affront to theatregoers.

Spider-Man's travails have become more than a subject of interest in Broadway-adjacent precincts, rather a matter of international fascination. The megamusical, whatever its local roots, and its hyper-local availability (no theatre buff in Russia, or Spain, or even Chicago can catch a glimpse of this Spidey without boarding a plane to New York), has spread its tentacles across the globe. Like the movie blockbusters it seeks to evoke, this Spider-Man wants the world's attention. It has succeeded, but only at the cost of its own ongoing, calamitous melodrama of inescapable failure. Seeking to become the musical to end all musicals, Spider-Man may be just that: the last of the megamusicals.

The spectacle of Spider-Man itself has become a sideshow to its lurching efforts to get out of the gate, and one suspects that what people are particularly enjoying is the sight of a high-flying performer being brought down to earth. And no, I don't mean Spidey. Taymor has been the toast of Broadway for more than a decade. The Lion King made untold billions of dollars, and the sight of her collaborating with two of the most successful rock musicians of all time - U2's Bono and The Edge - was a temptation to the gods of Schadenfreude.

Whether the muttering about Taymor's production was egged on by her gender, or merely by the sheer obnoxious size of the show, it is clear that with Spider-Man, the Broadway musical has been brought to a crisis point. And with Taymor now departed from the show, it is worth wondering what Spider-Man has to say about the fate of future Broadway mega-productions.

In his erudite and learnt history of American musical theatre, Showtime, Larry Stempel describes the "conflicting sense of what one means by the musical itself: on one hand, a live art form which remains essentially 'uncompromised by the distancing tool of technology'; on the other, a mass cultural phenomenon, corporate controlled and technologically mediated at every turn." He was describing the rise of the megamusical, beginning with Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1980s extravaganzas such as The Phantom of the Opera and culminating in Taymor's own The Lion King, but he might as well have been describing the paradox at the heart of Spider-Man, which seeks to recreate the special-effect-driven magic of a nine-figure Hollywood production nightly onstage.

"If people say it can only be done in a movie," Taymor said in a New York magazine interview, "that's usually when I want to do it on stage." Spider-Man meets Stempel's definition of the megamusical in more than just its budget (an eye-popping $65 million): "Such shows," he notes, "often resembled rock operas in the underlying earnestness with which they took up sweeping tales of lofty import and grand emotions - or those that at least aspired to such." As with Jesus Christ Superstar, so with Spider-Man …

Before the show begins, a voice comes over the loudspeaker describing Spider-Man as "a high-flying, action-packed production," and that, more or less, is what we get for the next three hours. The "mega" of the megamusical has conquered all, leaving the musical half of the equation to wither away like a vestigial limb. I cannot remember seeing another such performance where the singing and dancing were so secondary to the experience of watching the show.

Bono and the Edge's attempts to write a U2-style musical standard to the contrary, the heart of Spider-Man lies in Taymor's near-baroque stagecraft: the troupe of flying dancers garbed in identical mustard-yellow costumes, thrusting toward the audience on elongated swings as panels of fabric fold into place behind them; the Russian Constructivist-video-game-style footage that appears on enormous monitors in the show's second act; and, of course, the flying sequences, in which young Peter Parker and his foils whip into the air over our heads with the acuity of acrobats and the force of ski jumpers. This is the heart of the matter, the most mega of the mega-spectacles on offer, but by pitting itself so nakedly against its larger, better-equipped rivals, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark begs the question: don't the movies do all this better?

The spectacle of Spider-Man has grown so large that it drowns out the putative entertainment: the sight of a small troupe of technicians scurrying to the "landing pad" near my balcony seat to assist the spider-like Arachne (TV. Carpio) prepare for flight was far more exciting than the action onstage. Spider-Man is a puzzling show. Its book is painfully trite, its musical numbers (with the exception of the luminous ballad Rise Above) forgettable, and its take on the Spider-Man mythos mostly uninspired. And yet, there are moments in Taymor's staging that provide a glimpse of another show - smaller, certainly, and less befogged by hoopla, but one whose sense of colour and light and whizz-bang action could have been marvellous. As it is, we are stuck instead with this half-baked soufflé, delicious and inedible in equal parts.

It is the very nature of the megamusical which ultimately dooms Spider-Man to irrelevance. Taymor seeks to draw from the arsenal of theatrical chicanery and Hollywood effects, and the combination makes for a show that is neither theatrical nor cinematic, but some gluey amalgam of the two. The megamusical, having become akin to a live movie, its feet no longer touching the boards of the stage from which it was born, has reached its apotheosis, and its logical end point. Spider-Man is the terminus of the megamusical because it no longer remembers how to be a musical.

Saul Austerlitz's work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.

Updated: March 17, 2011 04:00 AM