It’s the show that nobody can quite believe is finally happening, least of all me. Originally announced to open back in February, the Hilton Theatre (as it then was; it has now been redubbed the Foxwoods, underlining the fact that it is now hosting Broadway’s biggest-ever gamble) was gutted to accommodate Spider-man - Turn Off the Dark, but they have only finally turned on the lights now.
Work had to stop when the show’s original producer ran out of money. Then the cast who had been booked to star in it started dropping away; in April, Alan Cumming - who was due to play the Green Goblin, departed, citing a scheduling conflict; the month before, Evan Rachel Wood, who was due to play the love interest Mary Jane Watson, had withdrawn as well.
But then the show was re-financed, and under the stewardship of a new producer - Michael Cohl, a rock music promoter who had worked with the Rolling Stones and U2 (whose Bono and The Edge have composed the score for Spider-man) - it was put back on track, the leads re-cast, and a new preview date announced for November 14, with an opening set for December 21.
The show went into rehearsal; but then stories started emerging on the actors’ suffering injuries as they executed some of the show’s flying stunts. Michael Riedel reported that the show, already the most expensive and technically complex ever produced on Broadway, “may also turn out to the most dangerous - to both the actors and the audience.” One actor, he reported, “slammed into the stage and broke both his wrists.” He quotes a producer who says, “What they’re doing over there has never been done before. Mary Poppins flies out over the audience, but she goes out slowly and only once, at the end. It’s perfectly safe. But at Spider-Man, they’re going to be flying over the audience for 2½ hours at fast speeds. That first preview is going to be scary.” Riedel duly quips: “EMTs from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital better be standing by.” He also soon renames the show Spider-man, Please Sign My Cast.
A week later, Riedel reported again that, ” People working on the show are grimly joking about opening a Julie Taymor Center for Rehabilitation in Times Square. It will be staffed by former cast members of another Taymor show, The Lion King, who suffered back problems after spending years hunching and crouching as hyenas and giraffes.” And he warned to “expect delays” to the start of previews.
On November 5, it was announced that the producers had to buy themselves some more time, in every sense; the start of previews was postponed for a fortnight, and the official opening moved to after the Christmas holidays, to open now on January 11. New York magazine’s Jesse Green stated that this delay “will cost them at least another million in ticket revenue from thirteen heavily sold houses”, but producer Cohl explained, “Shows like ours, that embrace the challenge of opening on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout, often need to adjust their schedules along the way.”
Cohl also told the New York Times at the time, “It’s really no big deal if it’s Nov. 10, 14, 20 or 28”, before quickly adding, “I mean, it’s a big deal to the people whose shows are cancelled, I feel terrible about that, but we’re doing the best we can.”
I happened to be one of those people whose show was cancelled, having bought a pair of tickets for that original first preview, since it came at the end of a week I was spending in New York anyway; of course I wouldn’t be reviewing it, but was curious to see what it would be like. And after the postponement, I was informed that my tickets would now be valid, in the same locations, for last night’s new first preview.
It has now therefore cost me even more: I have flown back to New York to be here! But what if it got cancelled again? Could I risk crossing the Atlantic, only for it not to happen? I checked in with Riedel personally last Wednesday, and he replied simply, “It’s happening.” They couldn’t afford for it not to - literally. As director Julie Taymor commented to Patrick Healy in the New York Times last week, delaying further is not an option: “Delaying just costs too much money, too much money, too much money”.
So I booked a flight. And I was there (as, of course, was Riedel), witnessing a little piece of theatre history. Though of course the show will hope, no doubt, to go on to give many hundreds, if not thousands, of performances in the months and years to come - and will have to, to stand a chance of recouping what is now said to have grown into a capitalisation budget of $65m and counting - there is only ever one first performance.
Of course, one of the occupational hazards of a first performance is that the show won’t be ready (even though the tickets I bought were not reduced in price, and cost me $140 each); in a news story on the New York Times website last Friday heralding the start of TV ads for the show today (yes, interest in the show is so high that even the advertising campaign is news), it was reported, “The musical’s director, Julie Taymor, has said that she expects to continue working on the show after preview performances begin on Sunday night, and that the musical may need to stop now and then mid-performance to make technical fixes. Those points are not mentioned in the commercials, indicating that the producers believe that the show will be sufficiently ready for theater-goers to start paying to attend.”
The first preview was indeed stopped four times during the first act, and once in the second. A sympathetic, enthusiastic audience was “on side” for the most part, though a longish pause in the first act drew a small slow handclap, and the second act breakdown drew one loud heckle that what we were watching was not so much a first preview as a dress rehearsal.
It is, of course, far too soon to start talking critically about the show, and I wouldn’t dream of attempting to review the very rough draft I saw. It is difficult, though, not to feel that the producers are walking headlong into a PR disaster by showing a work-in-progress as palpably unready as this is; and while all may have been forgiven if the much-vaunted effects truly dazzled, they seemed to be in quite short supply and nothing that has not been shown by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and shows like Ka and O in Las Vegas. The second act may have only had one breakdown against the first act’s four, but that’s largely because it didn’t look like there was much to go wrong; the flying is largely confined to the first act. Or maybe the show was simply not ready to show off all the aces it had up its sleeve.
I will certainly be curious to see it again once it opens officially in January. But for now it is failing to deliver against the high expectations it has inevitably set for itself.