Does any show in the history of Broadway need less of an introduction than Spiderman? The $70 million production that toiled through 177 preview performances only to shut down for retooling and return several months later. It teetered on the brink of being the most massive flop in Broadway history yet audiences seemed to turn a deaf ear to the endless parade of bad reviews and the mounting stories of cast injuries as preview performances sold out time and again. Was it simply a morbid curiousity akin to prying your eyes from a gruesome car wreck? Was the old maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity proving its mettle? Hard to say, but Spiderman definitely seems to have worked its way into a stream of the national consciousness because it may be the one of the few Broadway productions we look back on years from now and say it was a game changer regardless of what your thoughts are about the musical itself.
And what I think about Spiderman the musical isn’t easily wrapped up into words. First for those who aren’t familiar, ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark‘ is the musical adaptation of the popular Marvel comic book hero, starring the webslinging Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) as he tries to deal with his new powers drawn from being bitten by a radioactive spider and balance his love life and the usual problems that come with being a teenager. For the nation of non-geeks out there who didn’t obsessively pour over the exploits of Spiderman as a kid, never fear the musical does a good job of bringing the laymen up to speed on how Peter Parker becomes the arachnid king as well as how his villains magically sprout up to cause havoc in his fair city. Fanboys on the other hand will find flaws galore to pick away at as the Julie Taymor book takes considerable liberties with the classic tale they know and love. The thorny story issues are really at the heart of Spiderman’s problem areas, but I’ll dovetail back around to those in a moment.
Spiderman can best be described as a summer blockbuster where Cirque du Soleil meets Broadway. No expense was spared bringing this production to the stage. The set designs are imaginative and top notch. At times, I found myself staring at their intricacies when I should have been glued to the action. The music was handled by U2 principles Bono and the Edge which was a mixed bag. Tracks like “Rise Above” and “If the World Should End” are exactly what you’d expect from this world renowned musical team. Crap like “DIY World” and “A Freak Like Me Needs Company” are sorely not. It was a spotty mix that begged for more standout tracks to carry the dodgy storyline. The best example of this was when Peter and Mary Jane were in the club and U2’s “Vertigo” was blasting through the speakers. That one moment really shined a glaring light on the overall musical deficiencies present here.
The acting duo of Reeve Carney (Peter Parker/Spiderman) and Jennifer Damiano (Mary Jane) was great. The duo did the best they could with the severe limitations put on them by the story and their vocals soared when tapped into via the songs referenced above. Carney especially has a true star quality and expect him to sprout a strong second life after his days on Broadway are in the rearview. The best part of ‘Spiderman’ by far was the stunt work. Actors and stuntmen flew off the stage and over the audience for an aerial ballet that wowed everyone in attendance. It appeared effortless and truly captured the Spiderman character who lives his life swinging between skyscrapers.
Now back to that awful story. Deposed director Julie Taymor wrote the book for Spiderman, and it is a true stinker. At the intermission, I was dead set that I wasn’t going to recommend this musical to anyone outside of parents looking for something for the kids. To that point the story was corny, poorly constructed and just didn’t work. Thankfully, the second half cleaned things up a bit and leaned heavier on the stunt work so as to leave the audience satisfied with their evening even though it had been a roller coaster to reach that point. I’d heard that the show’s producers made some sizable tweaks to the book during the musical’s time offline. My question is why didn’t they scrap the whole thing and start over using the prior script as a loose skeleton to build off of? If that albatross of a story weren’t hanging around Spiderman’s neck, this musical may have been quite an achievement.
I think its safe to say this production marrying Cirque du Soleil stunts to a Broadway story is a massive hit that will put audience members in the seats. That may be Spiderman’s most lasting legacy. ‘Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark’ is also a poster child for the blockbusterization of Broadway, otherwise known as the piling on of massive budgets to buy the box office. Its worked to varying degrees in Hollywood for years so why not Broadway? While the jury is still out concerning ‘Spiderman’s’ ability to turn that blackhole of a budget into an eventual success for its investors, it does present a new direction that disturbs many Broadway purists.
So what is the verdict at the end of the day. I think kids will love it and get a trip out of seeing Spidey perched in the balcony an arms reach away. Adults should see this as well if for nothing else than the amazing stunt work, quality acting and singing talents of our leads not to mention the stunning set work. Try to take the book with a healthy grain of salt. Its tough to stomach but shouldn’t detract completely from an otherwise enjoyable musical.
Author: Mark Runyon