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Broadway's 'Spider-Man' Musical Turns Off The Lights At Last

Jan 3, 2014
Originally published on January 3, 2014 8:23 am

Regardless of how critics and audiences eventually responded, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was always going to be one of the most-discussed shows in Broadway history. It had songs by U2's Bono and the Edge; it was directed by The Lion King's Julie Taymor; it was based on a hit Marvel franchise; there were going to be flying stunts right over the audience's heads.

And then somehow it all went very wrong, from injured actors to huge cost overruns.

"Spider-Man will be legendary because of the cost," says Jeremy Gerard, who covered the show for Bloomberg News, "and because of the injuries, and because of the ridiculous press attention that was paid to it.

"But ultimately," Gerard says bluntly, "it's a bad show."

Now Glen Berger, the show's co-author, has written a juicy tell-all memoir called Song of Spider-Man. He says that way back in 2007, when the show had its first reading for producers and investors, everyone was convinced Spider-Man was going to be a monster hit. Berger sat next to the actors, reading fantastical stage directions.

"Some of the things I described in the stage directions we weren't actually able to render," he says. "And so some of the story points that were perfectly clear in a reading became a lot fuzzier when we finally hit the stage."

Gerard, for his part, thinks the reliance on costly, complicated special effects might have been one of Spider-Man's first mistakes. "Most of the time when Broadway tries to be the movies, it's a terrible failure," he says.

And as Spider-Man was about to begin previews on Broadway — after a series of long, expensive technical rehearsals — it was clear that some of those effects weren't going to work at all. Take the million-dollar spiderweb that was supposed to hang over the audience at the end of the show for a spectacular battle sequence.

"It turned out that the web net, they just couldn't get it to work," Berger recalls. "It just kept catching on things, and so they scrapped it. And suddenly we didn't have an ending."

When the show gave its first preview in November 2010, it was plagued by technical difficulties. Actors were left dangling above the audience, and the show fast became a Twitter phenomenon. As months of previews went by, Spider-Man turned into the center of a media feeding frenzy. Stephen Colbert joked that it might be changing its title to Spider-Man: Notify Next of Kin.

Critics, tired of waiting for the show to invite the media, bought tickets and gave scathing reviews. Michael Cohl, Spider-Man's lead producer, says he took some of that criticism to heart and asked Julie Taymor to make significant changes to her directorial vision.

"She was absolutely convinced that her vision and her show was going to make it," he says. "We were convinced of the opposite, 'cause it had been playing for four months."

Long story short: Taymor was sacked, and a new team was brought in. The show closed for 3 1/2 weeks for major revisions, only to reopen to equally scathing reviews.

"By opening night, I think, the chance of getting an objective review, you know, had gone out the window," Glen Berger says.

Still, audiences came. The show ran for more than 1,000 performances, but everyone agrees that Spider-Man was ultimately done in by impossibly high operating expenses; it cost between $1.2 million and $1.4 million to stage each week. Jeremy Gerard thinks the loss will be epic.

"When you factor in the very few streaks in which it took in more in the box office than it was spending at the box office, when you factor in the lawsuits and the injuries and the work that had to be done on the theater, I would say it's going to be closer to an entire loss," he says.

Cohl, the producer, has plans to take versions of Spider-Man to Las Vegas, on an arena tour, and to Germany — but no firm plans, at least not at the moment.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A show on Broadway will spin its final web tomorrow. When "Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark" opened in June 2011, its estimated $75 million budget was by far the biggest in Broadway history. Now, as it closes, its estimated $60 million loss means it is the biggest flop in the history of Broadway. Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Regardless of how you look at it, "Spiderman" was going to be one of the most talked about Broadway shows. It had songs by U2's Bono and the Edge; it was directed by "The Lion King"'s Julie Taymor; it was based on a hit Marvel comic book and movie franchise; there were going to be flying stunts right over the audience's heads.

But somehow it all went very wrong, from injured actors to huge cost overruns. Jeremy Gerard both reported on the show and reviewed it, three times, for Bloomberg News.

JEREMY GERARD: "Spider-Man" will be legendary because of the cost and because of the injuries, and because of the ridiculous press attention that was paid to it. But ultimately it's a bad show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I'm a $65 million circus tragedy.

LUNDEN: Glen Berger, the show's co-author, has written a juicy tell-all memoir about the show called "Song of Spider-Man." He says that when the show had its first reading for producers and investors way back in 2007, everyone was convinced "Spider-Man" was going to be a monster hit. Berger sat next to the actors, reading fantastical stage directions.

GLEN BERGER: Some of the things that I described in the stage directions we weren't actually able to render and so some of the story points that were perfectly clear in a reading became a lot fuzzier when we finally hit the stage.

LUNDEN: Jeremy Gerard thinks the reliance on costly and complicated special effects might have been one of "Spider-Man's" first mistakes.

GERARD: Most of the time when Broadway tries to be the movies, it's a terrible failure.

LUNDEN: At any rate, as "Spider-Man" was about to start previews on Broadway, after long, expensive technical rehearsals, it was clear that some of the effects weren't going to work at all. Like a million-dollar spider web which was supposed to hang over the audience at the end of the show for a spectacular battle sequence, says Glen Berger.

BERGER: And it turned out that the web net, they just couldn't get it to work. It just kept catching on things, and so they scrapped it. And suddenly we didn't have an ending.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LUNDEN: When the show gave its first preview in November of 2010, it was plagued by technical difficulties. Actors were left dangling above the audience, and the show instantly became an Internet and Twitter phenomenon. As months went by, "Spider-Man" turned into the center of a media feeding frenzy, including on "The Colbert Report."

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Finally, a tip of my hat to the new musical "Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark." which, due to all the recent injuries to actors, may soon change its name to "Spider-Man: Notify Next of Kin."

LUNDEN: Critics, tired of waiting for the show to open, came in and gave scathing reviews. Michael Cohl, "Spider-Man's" lead producer, says he took some of the criticism to heart and asked respected director Julie Taymor to make significant changes to her vision.

MICHAEL COHL: She was absolutely convinced that her vision and her show was going to make it. We were convinced of the opposite 'cause it had been playing for four months.

LUNDEN: Long story short: Taymor was sacked, a new team brought in. The show closed for three and a half weeks for major revisions and finally opened to equally scathing reviews. Still, audiences came. The show ran for over 1,000 performances, but everyone agrees that "Spiderman" was ultimately done in by impossibly high operating expenses, between $1.2 million and $1.4 million weekly. Jeremy Gerard thinks the loss will be epic.

GERARD: I think that when you factor in the very few streaks in which it took in more at the box office than it was spending at the box office, when you factor in the lawsuits and the injuries and work that had to be done on the theater, I would say it's going to be closer to an entire loss.

LUNDEN: Producer Michael Cohl plans to bring versions of "Spider-Man" to Las Vegas on an arena tour, and to Hamburg, Germany, but has no firm plans at the moment. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.