You know something's wrong when a Broadway show makes headlines for a performance in which no one got hurt.
"Spider-Man Musical Safely Swings Through Performance," ran the New York Times headline Dec. 24. The article asserted that the musical in question, the Julie-Taymor-directed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, "went off without injury or any major technical hitch on Thursday night."
Whew! One night down, four years to go. (That's how long it's supposed to take for Spider-Man, the most expensive Broadway show in history, to recoup its investment.) When it comes to safety records, this is the Broadway equivalent of the Springfield nuclear power plant ("7 Days Since Last Accident!").
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is having trouble for a good reason: it's ambitious. Its creators, simply put, wanted live audiences to have the experience of Spider-Man actually performing the kinds of stunts that require massive CGI trickery on movie screens. The impetus to involve Broadway patrons in the action is an old one, stretching back to the crashing chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera and beyond.
They also wanted, understandably, to tell a new version of Peter Parker's story. That means that while the show, laudably, attempts to break new ground in the development of Spider-Man story, the technical delays have been accompanied by a considerable amount of shuffling, rewriting, and rethinking of its book and music even after it began performances for paying preview audiences. Taymor may be a Broadway veteran but her collaborators, playwright Glen Berger and songwriters Bono and The Edge from U2, are newcomers to major Broadway musicals.
Stunning aerial performances in everything from The Big Apple Circus to off-Broadway interactive experiences like De La Guarda have made Spidey-style whizzing about seem possible, and the escalation of superhero movie magic have made it seem necessary. A Spider-Man musical would not work without an airborne Spidey. Thus the 38 aerial and stage maneuvers that make Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark one of the most technically complicated shows ever.
The problem is: the engineering necessary to make the spectacle possible has, unexpectedly, been honed by trial and error -- and those errors have resulted in injuries to the show's performers.
At the Dec. 20, 2010 performance, Christopher Tierney was performing one of the show's less-involved stunts when the safety tether to his harness malfunctioned and he plummeted 20 feet to the ground, prompting screaming from the audience. At Bellevue hospital he was found to have suffered a hairline fracture in his skull, a broken scapula, a broken bone close to his elbow, four broken ribs, a bruised lung, and three fractured vertebrae.
In an account by his father given to the Times, Tierney "was falling headfirst but managed to land on his right side in the basement below the stage," tucking his body and rolling sideways in midair. If he hadn't, the 31-year-old actor's injuries might have been far worse. "My understanding is that Chris is fortunate to be alive," Timothy Tierney said.
The show attributed the accident to "human error," the Times said. The two performances for Dec. 22, highly lucrative in the heavy-tourist week before Christmas, were canceled to rehearse new implementations of all the aerial stunts, involving additional stagehands assisting each stunt and new verbal protocols among them to ensure safety.
The incident generated publicity for the show, but the Times reported that some company members were "demoralized" and a few had confronted Taymor over the show's safety.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers horned in on the show's controversy, holding a press conference to simultaneously voice concern for the possibility of tragedy and express confidence in the new safety measures.
Tierney's injury was the fourth for the show. At the first preview performance on Nov. 28, Natalie Mendoza, who plays the villainess Arachne, received a concussion when she was struck in the head by a cable for backstage equipment.
Physical injuries are only a symptom of the show's engineering problems. The show began preview performances Nov. 28 without having resolved technical problems that had forced the show to be interrupted several times during rehearsals the previous week. That performance was paused five times, including a 45-minute delay after one of the performers playing Spider-Man was stuck in his harness, suspended ten feet above theatergoers.
The show is still in previews. The opening for the show, originally slated for Jan. 11, has been pushed back an additional month, to Feb. 7. That means it will probably have the longest run of previews since 1991's Nick & Nora, which ran through 71 previews, finally opened to much fanfare, and closed after only 9 performances.
Added to the technical issues still to be resolved are "storytelling problems" concerning the second act and the ending (the last ten minutes were "unfinished" when previews began), according to the Times.
On top of the injuries, there's a more basic question: How is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark supposed to make money? It opened as the most expensive show in Broadway history, at $65 million -- more than twice as much as the previous record-holder, Shrek the Musical, which closed on Broadway in January 2010 after 13 months of middling sales and scathing reviews.
The business model for Shrek offers possibilities: Like many Broadway shows, the New York run was followed by a North American tour, which launched this summer, and a West End production, slated for next summer.
Catherine Rampell, a Times economics blogger, estimated that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would recoup its $65 million pricetag in four years, if only (optimistic) ticket sales were involved. She added, however, that that estimate excluded such additional revenue streams as merchandising, which is often a big moneymaker for Broadway shows.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether Spider-Man will last even as long as Shrek at the Foxwoods. To do that, people need to start talking about the spectacle instead of the injuries and the confused storyline, and ideally that will have to happen by the time the show opens in February.