"In a million years, I never would have guessed that Spider-Man would become a worldwide phenomenon, and that one day they'd be preparing a Broadway show based on Spider-Man." --Stan Lee, 2010

Stan's amazement doesn't stem from any naivety about the bean-counters at Marvel Entertainment, who would certainly accept a large check from anyone wishing to buy the stage rights to the Spider-Man character. But the fact that-- six years after the check was cashed-- a Broadway show about the wall-crawler is really about to open in New York at the Foxwoods Theater, with all the buzz you'd expect from a production that is not only the most expensive ever undertaken, but follows in the footsteps of It's A Bird... It's A Plane... It's Superman, the other Broadway musical based on a comic book character.

(You don't remember that one? No? 1966? From the Broadway team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams? No? Not ringing any bells?)

By opening night, the price tag for Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark had approached $75 million dollars. (By comparison, in 1988, it cost $8 million to open Phantom of the Opera, and in 2003, $14 million to bring Wicked to Broadway.) Pre-sales leading up to the opening reached $8 million, but with weekly expenses expected to near $1 million, the odds of the investors making a profit are slim.

It was Tony Adams, a producer from Dublin, Ireland (credits include all The Pink Panther films), who acquired the stage rights to Spider-Man, and then asked two local fellas with some musical talent if they'd had any ambitions of writing for Broadway. Apparently the 22 Grammy awards sitting on the mantles of Bono and The Edge had neither satisfied their itch to write a rock and roll musical, nor had they been sufficient to keep Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber from monopolizing the limelight at dinner parties. Adams also got Tony Award winning director Julie Taymor on board. But no sooner had Bono and The Edge signed the contracts then Adams died of a stroke. Adams' lawyer, David Garfinkle, became the rights holder, and announced to everyone involved that rather then hire a tried and true impresario, that he himself would step into the role "Broadway producer." (His credits on Broadway, previous to this show: none.)

Bono and The Edge started work on the songs, and Taymor began work on the book. She hired Glen Berger, the head writer for PBS' Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman to help her with the story. In addition to two Emmy awards (for writing episodes of Arthur), Berger has serious theatre bona fides as a playwright. And Taymor had a vision. Big visions. (Hey, you don't win a MacArthur genius grant by thinking small). She envisioned putting the New York city skyline onstage. Dancing. Singing. Flying. ("Hi, Cirque du Soleil? Yes, this is Julie Taymor. I need to fly some actors from the stage to the balconies of a 1900 seat theater. Think you can help me?") Fighting. Digital projections. A rotating turntable (a la Les Mis). A live rock band. And villains. Lots of villains.

One leaked version of the script had the Green Goblin and the Lizard. Also the Rhino. And Electro. Also Carnage. Also also Arachne. Also "Swiss Miss," a non-canonical villain (made up by Taymor and Berger) who has swiss army knives all over her body. Taymor has been quoted as saying that she wasn't interested in one episode of Spider-Man's career, but the whole mythic Spider-Man experience. Crammed into two hours.

At some point in 2008 or 2009, production halted. Garfinkle had managed to raise $25 million (at this point, already the most expensive Broadway production ever), and Taymor had spent it all.

Enter Michael Cohl, a Canadian producer with a track record of success (Spamalot, the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour) --and one very big flop on his c.v. (The Lord of the Rings musical in Toronto)-- who managed to get more investors to fund the show, which, at a point in time about a month before the first previews, has 41 cast members, 18 orchestra members, and 18 songs. The size of the show meant that expenses approached $1 million per week. It was rumored that Cohl, Bono, and The Edge had to invest their own personal funds to get the show moving again... and they nervously joked about never seeing any of that money again.

Taymor did not call the show a musical, but a "rock and roll circus." She points out that Spider-Man will not burst into song at any point in the show (it would be too difficult, for one thing, with the spandex covering the hero's face, to sing). Reeve Carney, a rock singer, was cast as Peter Parker, and his band would be part of the show.

The production delays from the money troubles meant that Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming, who had signed on to the show, were no longer available. Instead, Jennifer Damiano, noted for her previous roles on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Next to Normal was cast as Mary Jane, and a veteran Broadway performer, Patrick Page, as the Green Goblin.

Choreography for the show is by Daniel Ezralow (Across the Universe, Cirque du Soleil's LOVE, and stage shows for David Bowie, Josh Groban, U2, Andrea Bocelli, and Sting), and rounding out the production team are Tony Award winning lighting designer Donald Holder (South Pacific, The Lion King), Academy Award winning costume designer Eiko Ishioka (Dracula), sound designer Jonathan Deans (Fosse, Ragtime),  set designer George Tsypin (The Little Mermaid on Broadway), Jacque Paquin for aerial rigging, and projections designer Kyle Cooper (title sequences for Se7en, Spider-Man, and visual effects for Titus Andronicus, Across the Universe, and The Tempest).

The musical began previews Nov. 28, 2010 and officially opened January 11, March 15, June 15, 2011 at the Foxwoods Theater in New York City. In addition to Taymor's mercurial artistic decisions, the aerial rigging caused many of the production delays (sending at least three actors to the hospital with broken bones (including cracked ribs and a hairline skull fracture) and a lead actress left the production when she sustained a concussion offstage as a loose rope sent a piece of equipment into her head). On March 11, 2011, OHSA cited the production for three serious safety violations (hazards carrying a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result").

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Ben Brantley of the New York Times, February 7, 2011:

    The sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from “How can $65 million look so cheap?” to “How long before I’m out of here?... “Spider-Man” is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.... from what I saw on Saturday night, “Spider-Man” is so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair. Fans of Ms. Taymor’s work on the long-running musical The Lion King adapted from the animated Walt Disney feature, will have to squint charitably to see evidence of her talent.
On March 9, 2011, after more than 100 previews, Taymor was removed as director of the show. The show shut down April 19 through May 11 for extensive rewrites (from Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a playwright with bona fide comic book writing experience), new choreography from Chase Brock, and new songs from Bono and The Edge). Philip Wm. McKinley was brought in to direct (although the program still lists Taymor as director, and McKinley as "Creative Consultant").

 

Brantley would review the "reimagined" version after opening night:

This singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore.

 

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Sources:

Spider-Man on Broadway - Official Site http://spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com/

Bono, the Edge, Julie Taymor. Interview. Good Morning America. September 10, 2010. Accessed October 12, 2010.

Ben Brantley. "1 Radioactive Bite, 8 Legs and 183 Previews." New York Times, June 14, 2011. http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/theater/reviews/spider-man-turn-off-the-dark-opens-after-changes-review.html Accessed August 29, 2011.

-- "Good vs. Evil, Hanging by a Thread." New York Times, February 7, 2011.http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/02/08/theater/reviews/spiderman-review.html Accessed February 8, 2011.

Kevin Flynn, "‘Spider-Man’ Cited for Federal Safety Violations" New York Times, March 4, 2011. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/spider-man-cited-for-federal-safety-violations/. Accessed March 16, 2011.

Andrew Gans, "Spider-Man Experiences Flying Trouble at June 30 Performance; All Systems Go For July 1" Playbill.com, July 2, 2011. http://www.playbill.com/news/article/152342-Spider-Man-Experiences-Flying-Trouble-at-June-30-Performance-All-Systems-Go-For-July-1. Accessed August 29, 2011.

Patrick Healy, "Costly ‘Spider-Man’ Can’t Get Off the Ground" New York Times, November 5, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/theater/05spiderman.html?src=mv Accessed November 5, 2010.

-- "A Lead Actress Departs ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark'" New York Times, December 28, 2010. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/28/a-lead-actress-departs-spider-man-turn-off-the-dark/ Accessed February 8, 2011.

-- "A Rock Impresario Gambles on 'Spider-Man," New York Times, September 9, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/business/10spider.html Accessed October 12, 2010.

Mark Kennedy, "'Spider-Man' Is off and Running." Associated Press. October 6, 2010. http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wirestory?id=11810070&page=1 Accessed October 12, 2010.

Thomas Peter, "Spider-Man Song Unveiled on 'Good Morning America," Playbill.com, September 13, 2010. http://www.playbill.com/playblog/2010/09/spider-man-song-unveiled-on-good-morning-america-video/ Accessed October 12, 2010.

Michael Riedel, "Broadway bombshell, The curtain-raising Spider-man!" The New York Post. May 30, 2010. http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/theater/broadway_bombshell_mPkijXeyzMHysdvLJ1s25N#ixzz12DCzwzzV Accessed October 12, 2010.

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