Spider-Man Delays Again: Why Worry About This Show

The producers of the perpetually in previews Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark announced another delay in opening the show. The new delay pushes the first "real" performance back to 15 March 2011. The New York Times Arts Beat blog reports that the delay is to cover unexpected technical issues and a brand new ending to the show. I think one of these is a realistic reason to delay the opening. You see, when the show was first delayed by an entire Broadway season, the reason was valid: the money fell through. The producer financing the show passed away unexpectedly before inking the deal and everything else fell through. It took months of work to secure enough financing for the $65 million dollar spectacle. I accept that as a reality and think people should take it easy over those financial problems. Broadway is terribly difficult business and when something that unexpected happens that late in the process, it's hard to jump to plan B; it's harder still when, presumably, there is no plan B.

Then, the extensive rehearsal process for a 21 December 2010 opening saw two major injuries to cast members caused by the stunt called "The Catapult." Broken wrists and broken ankles are no joke, so the show delayed the start of previews until 28 November. The first preview ran so poorly a theater critic was compelled (by his own blood lust) to interview a woman who was booed and shamed for screaming the audience was being used as "guinea pigs." It was a stupid comment then, and it's still a stupid comment. It's convenient how the critic ignored the audience turning on her twice while reporting on that particular event. Previews aren't frozen performances; they are performances for a paid audience to see what needs to be fixed before opening night. Between the technical problems, the book, the score, and two more injuries--a concussion for former leading lady Natalie Mendoza and the massive injuries caused by a failed stunt of ensemble member Christopher Tierney--led to two different extensions: one to January and another to February.

Early reviews from fans and critics alike suggest the sets and costumes were amazing. The flight sequences were cool, too, though they just dropped out by the second act. The main problems are the book and the score. Act I is essentially the first Spider-Man film with an ancient mythical spider-creature, Arachne, and a Geek Chorus thrown in for interest and meta-theatricality. Even the most recent previews suggest that--a few nitpicky, fanboy-issues aside (OMG, no one says "with great power comes great responsibility," burn the theater to the ground!!!1!")--Act I is solid. It's Act II where the problems kick in. This is the act that features the infamous shoe song (as in, a villain sings a five minute song about shoes; how I wish I was joking about that), the too-long fashion show of the six possible villains for Spider-Man to face, and an ending so bizarre people don't know what happened when they walk out of the theater.

But why, so many years into the project, has no one stopped and considered fixing the script before previews? Has Julie Taymor taken full control of the book to the point that no one was allowed to offer suggestions?

I'm not going to lie. I've spoiled myself beyond belief with this show but haven't seen it yet. What I gather about Act II makes perfect sense to me on paper. The problem seems to be marrying a really solid narrative concept into a long-running franchise that people have certain expectations for. It's not clicking on stage because the book isn't connecting the dots during the show.

The safest example I can present is the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. In Act I, they are only friends. In Act II, they never say they are dating, but the relationship sees a major shift that suggests they are. However, if you never tell the audience they are now dating, the audience isn't going to unanimously connect the dots. I don't care if the show required the audience to show up two hours early for a history lesson of the Spider-Man universe, if you don't treat the story like no one knows anything about the property, the musical will always suffer. Since Taymor went with the origin of Spider-man, she has to provide all the details. If it was a two-act adventure in the Spider-Man universe with no origin, she could pare down the exposition; it's not, so we need more background information on stage. You can never go wrong underestimating the intelligence of a theater audience. It's too easy to dismiss a show that "doesn't make sense."

But why do people have to make these statements now? Spider-Man is not an obvious choice for a musical. He's a superhero. He shoots webs, climbs walls, and saves and/or kills his girlfriends. He quits being Spider-man whenever he faces personal adversity but comes back as soon as someone else he loves is in trouble. He's a wishy-washy nerd known as much for his wordplay as he is for his abilities. The story is, if anything, too straightforward for a stage adaptation. So how is the book so convoluted and heady that audiences leave saying "the flying was cool" and not addressing the story?

I think that shows should not even look at a big theatrical bow in any city (whether it be London, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or anywhere else) before the book and score are heavily workshopped. If the book is too vague or doesn't make sense, it should be the first thing addressed. All the great music or stagecraft in the world cannot cover for a horrible book. Taymor has had years to get the book right for a large commercial audience and now the show is delayed another month to allow for corrections? This is unacceptable.

There is another issue with the show and that's the score. While I know a few people who have turned around on the music in recent days, that is only after they have listened to bootleg recordings over and over to dissect the score. If you can't remember the music when you leave the theater, there's a problem. Hopefully, now that Bono and The Edge are watching all the previews, new or altered music and lyrics can be set in place to improve the show.

The show has made a big deal of this being Bono and The Edge's first Broadway score. Many assume, myself included, that this means they have never written for theater before. That's not true. They are responsible for the critically panned score of London musical A Clockwork Orange: 2004 back in 1990. . The show was a huge flop, closing in less than a month on the West End. It is notable for novelist Anthony Burgess writing the book and then criticizing Bono and The Edge for producing "neo-wallpaper." Reviews suggest the score was boring, uneventful, and repetitive, with bland lyrics and nothing memorable. These are, sadly, the same criticisms they face for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. At least they stayed away from Hip-Hop this time.

I still hope that every show that tries to come to Broadway can succeed. It will never happen. Sometimes, a show is in such poor condition, there is no way to save it.

All the newspaper critics who held reviews under the common agreement that critics don't review plays until they are frozen have promised to review Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark if it delays its opening again; it just did. Expect reviews from publications like The New York Times to start trickling in over the next few days. They won't be short little reviews like the New York Observer, either; they will be full reviews of a show that has delayed its opening three times during full-price ticket previews. If the show can even get out of previews, these critics will come again to see the final version. I'm thinking a universal panning might even stop the rubberneckers from showing up to see how bad it really is.