Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the greatest geek flop on Broadway

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Jun 14, 2018, 6:03 PM EDT

Seven years ago, the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opened on Broadway. Well, it officially opened on June 14, 2011, but it had technically been running for quite some time before that. To be precise, the musical had been in previews since the previous November, where it spent several months trying to fix its endless errors, essentially rewrite the entire show, and stop actors from plummeting to their deaths. By the time the show opened for real, it had lost its director, sent several members of the cast to the emergency room, and pushed the skyrocketing budget past $75 million. To most people the show is its own punchline, the ultimate failure of the musical world. In reality, it's one of modern pop culture's most fascinating follies, an esoteric part of the modern superhero canon, and not as bad as you might think.

First, some background. Marvel had announced in 2002 that producer Tony Adams, best known for the Pink Panther movies, would produce a stage musical based on the Spider-Man comics. Sam Raimi's film had just been released, helping to birth the modern superhero blockbuster, so it seemed like a smart idea to diversify one's portfolio. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was a few years off and the genre hadn't yet become the mega-phenomenon that would change modern pop culture. Later that year, Marvel would also release a live stunt show based on Spider-Man that successfully toured America.

A musical adaptation wasn't anything new for the franchise either. If you went to Universal Studios Hollywood between 2002 and 2004, you may have been an attendee at a performance of Spider-Man Rocks! The show was a strange beast, the kind of thing you can only get away with in theme parks. Part stunt show, part rock-and-roll jukebox musical, it was the perfect time-waster for those in need of air conditioning but not much else. Having said that, it did feature a duet of Spider-Man and Mary Jane, in which she sings Bonnie Tyler's "Holding Out for a Hero" and he sings Ricky Martin's "She Bangs."

Tony Adams sadly died in 2005, but his partner, David Garfinkle, decided to push forward with his creative dream, despite having little producing experience himself. To facilitate the optimum creative experience, Bono and The Edge of U2 fame were hired to write the music, and the iconic Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor was brought on to direct. Taymor was the first woman to win a Best Director Tony, and her inventive work on The Lion King made it not only a commercial smash but a surprise darling of the critics, who had written off the show as a shameless Disney cash-grab. Surely she would bring a Spider-Man musical the clout it needed.

Things went bad almost instantly. By 2009, the production had gone $25 million into debt. The budget was allegedly set at $52 million but spiraled out of control from there. Further fundraising was done to keep the show going, before it even went into previews. There were major changes to the cast, with original choices Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming fleeing the production once the delays became too much. Taymor’s creative control led to some barmy story choices, and she was asked to leave the production. Her alleged wars with Bono and The Edge provided some of the more colorful tabloid rumors.

And then there were the injuries. Stunt doubles were hurt during various flying sequences, causing broken wrists and feet. Natalie Mendoza was struck on the head by a piece of stray equipment. During one infamous preview, stunt performer Christopher Tierney fell over 20 feet into the orchestra pit when his harness wasn't properly connected to the safety cord. Before the show even opened, it had become a running joke. At the Tony Awards, host Neil Patrick Harris joked that the musical was the first on Broadway where the actors in the cast were actually in casts.

Initial reviews of the early previews were terrible. The visuals were praised but many took umbrage with Taymor's story direction, as she tried to turn the story of Spider-Man into a Greek mythology hybrid and meta-examination of the art of storytelling. By the time the show was revised, taking a more traditional form based on the Raimi films, the reviews were more tepid. Nobody liked the show, necessarily, but it had become decent enough, if mostly boring.

If the chaos of Turn Off the Dark can be distilled to one major problem, it would be the story. Here is a Spider-Man musical that seems to have been made by people who don’t give two hoots about Spider-Man. Most of the story of the finished product is lifted from the first two Sam Raimi movies, with Norman Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin happening in the style of Doctor Octopus from the second film. Major villains from the canon are mentioned for less than a few minutes then quickly disposed of, with no impact on the narrative. None of the characters feel true to the canon, nor do the aesthetics feel especially interesting, even as they try to replicate the 2D comic-book style. One can imagine the producers pitching this idea to investors with “Hey, people liked the movies, so let’s just do that, but with U2 songs!” It’s hardly the worst strategy; after all, musical adaptations of movies are 10-a-penny on Broadway, and many of them have been huge successes — but it’s still crucial for the writers and composers to understand the material itself.

Because so much of the show was completely rewritten before its official opening, the producers and creative team essentially had to play grab-bag with the stuff they had. Scenes would be scrapped but the sets remained and had to be used in new ways they weren’t intended for. Songs were appropriated for new meanings and moments in the show, regardless of whether it made sense. Characters were dropped or had their roles decreased, except for the Green Goblin, who ended up becoming the main villain of the show. What this led to was a mixed bag for the senses. Some scenes would look spectacular, while others seemed unbearably cheap.

Taymor’s original version at least took some risks, although they too seem to have come as a result of not being that interested in the comic books. She added Arachne, the weaver from Greek mythology whose hubris saw her transformed into a spider by the goddess Athena. In the show, Arachne becomes a spirit guide of sorts to Peter, inspiring him to don the red and blue of Spider-Man. After he defeats the Green Goblin in Act One, the story follows Arachne and her desire for Peter. As spiders, they can share their darkness together. He rejects her offer, and soon Arachne is out for vengeance. This involves her stealing dozens of pairs of shoes. And singing a song about it. And kidnapping Mary Jane, but eventually she realizes that she cannot curse Peter to a life like hers, and she ascends into the heavens.

So, you can see why that all got scrapped, but admit it, you want to hear the shoes song.

Of course, we must talk about the music. Neither Bono nor The Edge, two undeniable titans of 20th-century rock, had ever written a score for a musical. While it’s become fashionable for musicians to make that jump — from Cindy Lauper to Sting to, of course, Elton John — it’s hard to understand what either person saw in this musical. Their music feels like a mish-mash of songs that were rejected from U2 albums, covers of popular U2 songs, and painful filler that the brain thankfully immediately deletes from memory upon first listen. Worse than that, too many of the songs don’t seem to have that much to do with telling the story of Spider-Man.

Still, they’re not all bad. There is the beauty that is "A Freak Like Me Needs Company."

Every great musical needs a villain song, and at the last minute, Bono and The Edge pulled an absolute blinder. This felt like the moment where they just went, “You know what, this show’s a damn mess, we might as well own it.” Early previews that slammed the chaotic show mostly agreed upon Patrick Page’s depiction of the Green Goblin as a memorable highlight. So, naturally, he got a brand-new song to show off how fabulous he was, and girl, he brought it. For a full appreciation of this majestic moment, I suggest that you watch the version of the song that was performed on The Late Show with David Letterman. The bemused audience members speak for all of us. From the sexy science lady back-up dancers to the man covered in toy bees, to the scientist who has Reptar from The Rugrats burst from his chest, to the giant metal woman who looks like Grace Jones… there is not a fault to be found. When your own show’s villain is singing the line “I’m a $65 million circus tragedy / Actually, more like $75…” then you know there’s no coming back from that.

The thing is, the show wasn't that bad. It was mostly dull — way too dull for a $75 million show that featured extensive stunt work and a scene set in a disco — but had flashes of brilliance. The flat 2D look of the show, inspired by the comics, was visually appealing, and every time the Green Goblin is on stage, you're both confused and delighted. The hype and madness of the previews stage gave it a far more infamous reputation than it really deserved. It's certainly not the worst musical ever made — I've seen Love Never Dies, I know musical hell — but for what it was meant to be, a family-friendly visual spectacle to fill your New York City vacation, it felt like a viable option. 

Musicals are inherently pretty geeky. The theatre kids get as much flack as the computer nerds, so it makes sense in the abstract that these two forces would collide in spectacular fashion. Nowadays, with the geeks having inherited the earth and musicals like Hamilton dominating the pop culture world, it seems kind of surprising that something like another superhero musical or something sci-fi and fantasy themed on Broadway hasn’t become the norm. Story is king when it comes to musicals, and if said story is from a pre-existing intellectual property that’s easy to market to international tourists, all the better.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark just scared away every possibility of that. It doesn’t help that musicals are generally seen as earnest and a bit twee – mostly by people who have never seen Cabaret, Next To Normal, or anything by Sondheim – and sci-fi & fantasy still struggles to get out of that “grim and edgy = serious art” mold. Turn Off the Dark was such a catastrophic failure that it seemed to confirm every cynic’s worst thought about how silly both musicals and superheroes are. Never mind that we’re in a new golden age of the genre: This one example was so bad that now we don’t get any more of it. A lot of great geek culture stories feel like natural fits for the theatrics of the musical, and given the proper creative team, the stench of Turn Off the Dark could easily be wiped from the face of the earth.

Alas, it probably won’t happen as long as the folly of musical Spider-Man is still in our memories. Broadway is a brutal business, and 75% of all new musicals that open on the Great White Way fail to break even, so can you blame anyone for wanting to play it as safe as possible? Outside of the stage, we’ve had one-off musical episodes of great geek TV, from Buffy to Batman: The Brave and the Bold to the Supergirl/Flash crossover, all of which went down a storm with eager fans. They were vibrant and unabashedly silly, but also treated the musical format completely seriously as a means to tell the story, something a certain Spider-Man never did. There is certainly hope for the genre mish-mash. It may take some time for Broadway to be brave enough to embrace it once more, but for now, we have the greatest geek folly in all of musicals. So, happy birthday to you, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. We hardly knew ye but your memory lives on. As do the injuries.

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