Spiderman: Turn Off the Suck

When we first planned this trip to New York, I asked Ron if there were any Broadway shows he wanted to see, and he mentioned Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. Having heard how awful the show was, and that it was by far the most expensive Broadway show ever produced, I admit to a morbid fascination to see just how bad it was. So we got tickets to see it. When we purchased them, American Express insisted on reading a warning that many purchasers had been unhappy with the show and that there would be no refunds. Not a good sign when you’re spending $300 a seat!

We knew the show had never officially “opened.” technically it is still in previews, the longest any show has ever remained so, and a sure sign of trouble. Nevertheless, it continues to be sold out. Since the day we bought the tickets there have been two other interesting developments: the director, Julie Taymor, was essentially fired, and they’ve announced the show will close to for a month or two to be reworked. In fact, today is its last day.

With all that going against it, I was expecting it to be bad, and I wasn’t disappointed. It might not be the worst Broadway show ever, but it’s in contention. If you factor in production cost, it’s a clear winner.

The main reason it sucks is the usual one: story. It seems as if they couldn’t bear to just retell Spiderman’s origin, so they layered two incomprehensible plotlines on top of it.

Incomprehensible plot line number 1: Four unidentified teens are attempting to come up with a Spiderman story that is essentially this show. The story is… a retelling of Spiderman’s origin, combined with incomprehensible plot line number 2.

Incomprehensible plot line number 2: Arachne is a mythical character who committed suicide and became an immortal spider. Now she is in love with Peter Parker and is creating imaginary versions of his past villains and convincing everyone on the planet that the world is being destroyed (or not) to convince Peter to be with her rather than Mary Jane. If that sounds like it makes no sense, it’s because it makes no sense. It is, however, a good excuse for having lots of people dressed as spiders dangling from cables.

The first half of Act 1 is so bad that the audience was giggling in embarrassment over how bad it was! I’ve never experienced that before.

The other huge problem with the show is the dull, repetitive and poor music by Bono and U2. There might be five halfway decent songs, and that’s being generous.

A lot of people have said they don’t know where the 70 or 80 million bucks went for this show, but I didn’t feel that way. There are tons of giant moving things: set pieces, video walls, ramps, lifts, hoists, plus a rigging system that can fly two people over the audience as they fight. It looks expensive.

The show has exactly two things going for it: those giant moving things, and the impressive arial work of the eight stuntmen dressed as Spiderman. I’ve seen a lot of over-audience flying, but this is truly impressive. It’s also the reason the audience applauds at the end, although there was no unanimous standing ovation, the first time in a while I’ve seen that.

If they can continue to pack the theater after they rework (and presumably officially “open”) they may, at $300, eventually pay back the investment, but this show can’t travel, which limits its revenues. If you take away the gimmicks that are clearly not portable, it would be unbearable.

The show sucks mainly because Julie Taymor, who co-wrote and directed, is a mask designer, not a writer or director. She won a Tony for directing Lion King, but that already had a story and a score, and she won the Tony because it was her idea to design cool masks and put them on top of characters’ heads instead of over their faces. That doesn’t make her a writer or director. Obviously.

So now that they’ve called in others to fix it, what will they do? Will they have the guts to discard the two incomprehensible plot lines and all but five songs? That seems unlikely. As a result, I’m betting that the Spectacular Spiderman will continue to suck, but perhaps just not so spectacularly.