TOPICS > Arts

Broadway Holds Its Breath as ‘Spider-Man’ Musical Officially Debuts

June 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
One of the biggest financial bets in the history of theater, a musical about a comic book hero, was set to officially open Tuesday on Broadway after many high-profile problems in early production. Jeffrey Brown discusses "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" with The New York Times' Patrick Healy.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally, one of the biggest financial bets or busts in the history of theater is taking form as a musical about the comic book hero Spider-Man. After months of expense and controversy, it’s finally scheduled to open on Broadway tonight.

Jeffrey Brown looks at what’s at stake.

JEFFREY BROWN: The cost so far, about $70 million, twice as much as any other show in Broadway history, and officially opening tonight, yes, but after delaying its opening six times.

“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is, if nothing else, a major spectacle, including acrobatic stunts where actors literally float above the audience. The production originally brought together several very big names, including Julie Taymor, the acclaimed director known for “The Lion King,” and the rock stars Bono and the Edge from the band U2, making their Broadway musical debuts.

But much has gone wrong, and much is resting on tonight’s performance and how that spectacle is viewed. Here’s a little sample featuring one of the show’s villains, the Green Goblin.

ACTOR (singing): If you’re looking for a night out on the town, you just found me. I’m a $65 million circus tragedy. I’m the new Coney Island and all the rides are open and free, on me.

(MUSIC)

JEFFREY BROWN: Patrick Healy has been covering every twist, turn and fall of this story for The New York Times. And he joins us now.

Patrick, if you can, take us back to the original idea and ambition here. What was “Spider-Man” supposed to be?

PATRICK HEALY, The New York Times: Sure.

They wanted to create something that Broadway had never seen. They wanted to blend circus, music, flying stunts, sort of create like a Cirque du Soleil meets Broadway. And they wanted to tell a story sort of that they saw as a post-9/11 story about a young boy from queens who was finding something within himself to face a very difficult world.

So, they were looking for sort of a small, intimate story, but trying to package it around some kind of a spectacle that they thought at the time would cost maybe $25 million, $30 million.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, then, of course, the first headlines were about delays and technical glitches in which actors were getting hurt. Is there a consensus at this point about what went wrong?

PATRICK HEALY: I think — I think there generally is.

I think that, unlike most Broadway shows, which start in their production out of New York, and are able to have a run and make a lot of changes and fixes, and sort of identify what the problems are, “Spider-Man” opened straight on Broadway in late November, a show that really wasn’t ready to open. They didn’t have an ending for the show

They were still working on the script. Some of the stunts and flying hadn’t been completely finished.

So, what you saw in sort of those first early weeks were all of these starts and stops. The show would stop four or five times so they could fix something, and then they would move on. The show didn’t have an actual ending for weeks. It just sort of stopped, and everybody got up and applauded.

So, I think that they didn’t have the time and it seems like the money, because they were spending so much on the Broadway production, to open it out of town and sort of figure out what was working, what wasn’t working, make some of those big changes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, of course, what was interesting is, critics came in and reviewed it before the official opening, which is unusual in itself and somewhat controversial at the time. But they almost universally panned it, and yet crowds kept coming.

PATRICK HEALY: That’s — that’s right, Jeff.

I mean, you can’t underestimate the interest that a lot of Americans and a lot of tourists have in Spider-Man. Spider-Man has been around for decades as a character. He is a very appealing character because, unlike Superman and some others, he’s not from another planet or from another world.

You know, he’s sort of this average boy from Queens who gets endowed with these special powers. He’s a New York character, so that draws a lot of people. But part of what’s going on, too, though is that “Spider-Man” has been heavily discounting the price of its tickets. So, it’s not like some of the tough tickets to get into — in New York, like “Wicked” and “The Lion King” that might cost you $200 to get into.

You can pretty much get into “Spider-Man” any time you want. But they have been bringing in a lot of people who know the brand name, who are curious about Bono and the Edge, and also sort of curious about what sort of went wrong, what kind of mess this show is, or if it’s actually better than people say.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, now there’s been this overhaul. And Julie Taymor, I mentioned, and others were sort of pushed out. And there’s a new “Spider-Man” about to open.

Now, what do we know about that? What do you expect now?

PATRICK HEALY: Yes, it’s a significantly different show, Jeff.

I mean, they — what they really tried to do was simplify and clarify the story. A big problem with the first version of the show was that it sort of invented some characters, that people going into “Spider-Man” had an expectation of what it was going to be, and, instead, they were getting these other characters that they had never heard of who sort of took over the story and took a lot of the focus away from Peter Parker, from the flying, from Mary Jane Watson, what a lot of people sort of understood.

So, what you’re getting in this new version of “Spider-Man” is something that’s very, very similar to the Tobey Maguire first movie. The storyline almost tracks directly with that. And you see more of Aunt May and Uncle Ben and a lot of these characters, that people like to go to the theater and sort of see, in some extent, what they’re expecting. So, there’s some sort of pleasure in that.

The big question, though, is whether the music has improved, whether the sort of plotline and the love story is that much more interesting or engaging to people. A lot of people found it either very sort of predictable or kind of boring the first time around. You know, we will also see how the integration is between Julie Taymor’s version, the first version, and this second version that sought to kind of strip away a lot of what she brought.

But it is sort of melding, you know, DNA-1 and DNA-2. And do they fit together, or does it feel like just some sort of a monster?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what is riding on it in terms — going back to the money here, the $70 million spent and counting? You said crowds come, but some of them are paying discounted tickets.

Have they been making money? What do they need to do to earn that back? What is the hope at this point for how long a show like this has to run to earn its money?

PATRICK HEALY: Here’s the thing, Jeff. Only about 20 to 25 percent of new Broadway shows ever turn a profit on Broadway. Most of those shows that are musicals are about $10 million to $15 million.

“Spider-Man” is a $70 million show. So, it’s got some odds already against it. It’s going to have to run probably for two, three, four years, doing business along the lines of “Wicked” or “The Lion King,” which have been the hottest shows in town for many years.

So, they really do need the reviews, to some extent. Some people say the show is kind of bulletproof, review-proof, because it’s “Spider-Man,” and people always want to go to see “Spider-Man.”

But what they need are people who are going to want to go see “Spider-Man” and are going to be willing to pay $250 for a ticket, as opposed to $40 for a discount ticket. So, they have a tough road to climb. I think part of their business plan, though, is that it’s not all about just making lots and lots of money on Broadway.

It’s about having a Las Vegas edition of “Spider-Man” and a Tokyo edition of “Spider-Man.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Ah.

PATRICK HEALY: And “Spider-Man” is big in Japan, they say, so bring it there.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

PATRICK HEALY: It’s sort of franchising it out around the world is a lot of what Broadway is about these days.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, “Spider-Man,” the global spectacle. OK.

Patrick…

PATRICK HEALY: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Patrick Healy of The New York Times, thanks so much.

PATRICK HEALY: Thanks, Jeff.