NEW YORK — Julie Taymor must have had more than a few dark nights of the soul while she was wrestling with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. That's what I scrawled in my notebook when I finally saw the megamusical that launched a thousand quips.
Taymor is the brilliant director of The Lion King who fell afoul of her perfectionism and — probably more to the point — a lackluster score by U2's Bono and the Edge in trying to turn the comic book classic into a musical. The perils of Taymor's Broadway production were obsessively chronicled as it struggled to open last year, when she was pulled from the show. It eventually received the kind of ho-hum reviews that usually are the kiss of death.
Yet the musical — reported to have cost as much as $75 million to make, by far the most expensive Broadway production ever — has survived and even flourished at the box office. The night I was there in March, the 2,000-seat Foxwoods Theatre appeared to be full. It has consistently ranked among the top-grossing shows, taking in almost $1.3 million in a recent week, trailing only The Lion King, Wicked, The Book of Mormon and the newly opened Evita.
I was in no position to cover the tortured tale of Spider-Man, but I always felt from a distance that the producers made a mistake by not sticking with Taymor, whose magical work in the theater and movies (see Across the Universe, her Beatles homage) can be life-changing. Now all that's left of their relationship are dueling lawsuits between the ousted director and producers over who deserves creative credit — and profits — from the show.
The version of the musical now playing struck me as a Frankenstein's monster, clearly owing most of its identity to Taymor's conceptual wizardry — visually and technically, it is a marvel — but chopped and channeled to stress the spectacular flying elements under the director brought in to salvage the disaster, Philip Wm. McKinley. With all the aerial derring-do, as performers fly over the audience to land on perches in the mezzanine and elsewhere, the musical is like a Cirque du Soleil show on steroids, not surprising given McKinley's circus background.
Naturally, any show about Spidey is going to have plenty of flying, and the dangerous falls during stunts gone wrong in previews became a national punch line (Joan Rivers' standup act "lately has begun with a moment of silence for 'those Americans risking their lives daily — in Spider-Man the musical,' '' the New York Times noted in 2011). But no matter how impressive the staging, a piece of theater has to have a compelling story, and that's where Taymor and others involved were stumped. She clearly intended for Arachne, a mythological spider figure, to play a pivotal role, but the character has been reduced almost to nothing, save for a sensational number early in the show involving women suspended from gold fabric.
Trying to choose among the many, many Spider-Man stories must have been a daunting task, given that Marvel Comics and other variants from TV shows to movies have been churning out material for 50 years. (These days the comic-book Spider-Man is battling Doctor Octopus.) The musical's book (credited to Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) tends to be pretty basic, essentially starting out with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in Midtown High, the early encounter with mad scientist Norman Osborn (later to be transformed into the Green Goblin), the murder (by a carjacker) of Uncle Ben, Peter's career as a freelance photojournalist at the Daily Bugle and so on. Much of Act 2 is taken up with Spidey's high-flying combat with Green Goblin and his band of villains, the Sinister Six.
What most surprised me about the musical was how leaden and uninteresting the score was. I Just Can't Walk Away, a duet by Peter (Reeve Carney) and MJ (Rebecca Faulkenberry), isn't bad, but much of the music has a thudding disco quality. In court documents from the lawsuits, the picture emerges of Taymor desperately appealing to Bono and the Edge for new songs during the problem-plagued previews, but with U2 on tour in Australia, little help was forthcoming. One devastating email by book co-author Berger describes Bono as showing up for a late-night creative team meeting with supermodel Christy Turlington, "and he had already had a few beers, rendering him useless," reported the New York Times.
Still, there is life after Taymor. Spider-Man was nominated for a couple of Tony Awards, for George Tyspin's scenic design and the costume design of the late, lamented Eiko Ishioka. Producers have been talking about someday taking a tour to arenas rather than theaters and performing arts centers, and a Las Vegas production would seem like a no-brainer.
Recently, Michael Billington, the veteran British critic for the Guardian, wrote a column about the current sorry state of musical theater, likening overblown extravaganzas such as Spider-Man to troubled financial institutions. "Nowadays musicals have become so industrial in scale and expensive to produce that any form of risk has to be minimized from the start," Billington said. "Like the banks, musicals have become too big to fail."
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as the Bank of America of musicals? That sounds about right.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.