The musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has been on Broadway, officially at least, for four months now. The initial previews, last year, received scathing reviews. Later, it was substantially overhauled, though the New York media still describes it ad nauseam with the adjective ‘much-maligned’.
Fortunately for the producers (and the financiers, as it’s easily the most expensive show in Broadway history), it has a few things in its favour. Firstly, the box office has been good, whether because audiences want to see such a popular superhero on stage or because they’re drawn to a train wreck (or, most likely, both). It might even break even some day. Secondly, not every New York reviewer hated it. I saw the previews in May, after the overhaul, with a Manhattan-based friend and fellow arts writer, E. Nina Rothe. Writing about this production for the Huffington Post, she was kind enough to plug my book Overrated: The Most Overhyped Things in History, by stating that she saw this production with ‘Overrated author Mark Juddery’. I should remember to call my next book Brilliant, or at least Totally Cool.
But enough of this self-promotion. Nina went on to describe Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as ‘a fantastic spectacle that makes one rethink the American show’. She sees it as a Broadway milestone, as innovative as Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate or The Lion King in their time. It’s certainly just as ambitious.
Of course, superheroes have been doing well at the movies for the past decade, now that digital special effects allow the visions of comic book artists to look spectacular rather than kitsch. Spider-Man has been perhaps the most successful. In the theatre, digital effects don’t work so well. Instead, the ceiling of Manhattan’s Foxwoods Theatre has been equipped so that the hero (and the various villains) can swing from a web, leap great distances (and in the villains’ case, fly). The vision was spectacular, but also hazardous, injuring four cast members last year.
Knowing about this added to my thrill as the actors and stuntmen flew directly overhead, strapped to a flying fox. If anyone else fell, it might well have been on top of me. Fortunately, they have not had an accident since the revamp. Along with a new director, new script and new songs (written by Bono and The Edge, of all people), the high-wire has been redesigned by some of the folk behind the Cirque du Soleil — an obvious choice, as they know how to put on a spectacle. Indeed, the Montreal-based entertainment machine (as well as staging 22 high-concept shows simultaneously around the world) seems to be a major influence on the modern Broadway musical. Even Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical starts with three divas dangling over the stage from trapezes. (Somehow, their voices don’t quiver as they belt out numerous 1970s classics.)
Thrilling aerial stunts work well on Broadway (and are perhaps inevitable when your protagonist is a superhero), but no Broadway musical has ever succeeded without decent songs. The U2 duo have done reasonably well here, though if Spider-Man has a stand-out hit (a ‘Memory’, or an ‘America’, or even a ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’), I missed it. Though Reeve Carney, as Peter Parker (who is secretly Spider-Man, but don’t tell anyone), has a strong voice, one is often reminded of who the songwriters are, as many songs seem designed only for Bono’s anguished tones. Still, if the initial song list was as bad as the critics believed, it is fair to say that these two megastars were able to swallow their pride and rewrite their original work.
Carney, also a rock musician, is what might be described by the old Broadway term ‘triple threat’: he sings, he acts (though not quite as well), and he somehow flies around the ceiling in his Spider-Man leotard without screaming in terror. He is also, I am reliably informed, dead sexy. He looks like James Franco, who played Peter Parker’s best friend in the movies. He also resembles Jeff Buckley, which is just as well, as he’s just been cast in an upcoming movie about the tragic singer-songwriter.
But why bother telling you all this? Spider-Man might look great on Broadway, but will it ever be successful enough to come to Sydney or Melbourne? Well, potentially. Box office might be good, but this production will have to break more sales records to succeed. Still, even if it fizzles, Broadway flops have often been repackaged to become hits elsewhere. Legally Blonde and Shrek the Musical failed in New York, but are doing well in London (where ditzy Americans, especially if played by British comedy actors, are considered inherently funny). The producers of Spider-Man are now evaluating the rest of the world. ‘Broadway is only one stop for us,’ Bono has said, hedging his bets.
It would be a relatively simple task to hook up a Sydney theatre ceiling with web-swinging and flying equipment. (The Cirque du Soleil’s perennial Saltimbanco show was there recently, in the Acer Arena rather than the traditional Big Top.) The question is whether it would get the audience. Australians didn’t even want to see the local version of the Broadway hit Xanadu, even though the heroine was a make-believe Aussie (played by a real one).
But this is Spider-Man. While he’s often dismissed as ‘a comic book hero’, that’s only his original incarnation. More of his fans would know him from television, video games, toys and of course movies. But even when he was ‘merely’ a comic book hero, Aussies liked him more than anyone. In the 1980s, Marvel Comics (his publisher) noted that its comics sold better in Australia, per capita, than anywhere else. While the US might have invented comic books, Australia enjoys them even more. If Spider-Man came to Sydney, we would possibly flock to see him.
If not, he’s worth visiting on Broadway. Forget Giuliani, De Niro and Babe Ruth. No hero signifies New York quite like Spider-Man. Sure, he’s fictitious, but nobody’s perfect.