Maybe it’s time to turn ON the dark by turning out the lights on Broadway’s latest super spectacular.
If you follow the theatre at all then you know about the troubled journey of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The musical adaptation of the antics of Marvel Comics anti-hero Peter Parker has been the buzz of Broadway for over two years. Directed by Broadway icon Julie Taymor and featuring the music of Bono the production has a price tag of approximately $65,000,000. Now, any show that needs to have standing room only crowds for multiple years just to break even is going to generate a lot of interest. And that was before things got bad.
The show has had a history of misfortune, so much so that some are calling it the Macbeth of musical theatre. Backers bailed out once the millions started piling up in numbers surpassing Shrek:The Musical, the previous bar setter in production costs at $25 million dollars. Technical difficulties pushed the opening date back and the first preview on November 28 had to be stopped five times. With a weekly production tab of a million dollars that gets expensive to keep delaying and certainly doesn’t generate the kind of press that sells tickets. And that was before things got worse.
Actors are getting hurt trying to perform some of the over 25 aerial stunts and fights in the show. A concussion, two broken wrists and the latest incident with an actor being taken out of the theatre on a back board. The creative team announced earlier this month that the opening had been pushed back again to January 11th, 2011 due to some “unforeseeable setbacks”. Now with the injury of a principal cast member it’s being delayed an additional 27 days to February 7th, over a year from its originally scheduled opening date.
Maybe there is a reason that Spider-Man has only ever been brought to life through illustration before. OSHA has been keeping a close eye on the production from the beginning, the production team is meticulous in its safety precautions and to their credit they just keep making it safer. Actors Equity Association called this latest accident “human error”, and that’s undoubtedly what it was the ‘systems and safeguards’ are state of the art mechanically. Human error is however, inevitable- because humans can not really fly across the sky on spider webs!
I have a significant amount of professional experience with this type of activity as a technician, choreographer and a performer. Having served as a fights coordinator for shows such as Peter Pan and Dracula and having performed in such physically rigorous shows as K2, I am no stranger to rigging, being harnessed and suspended above the stage or the safety checks that go along with any stage ‘flying’. There are multiple check-out procedures, tests and rehearsals before every show no matter if it’s the first or eighth show of the week, or first week or tenth month of a run. I have worked with the best ‘flying companies’ in the industry including ZFX and Foy the systems are safe, routinely checked and improved constantly. If something goes wrong with a flying sequence, 99.99% of the time it is some type of operator error and in over 30 years of doing this kind of work I have never once seen an equipment failure. I have however been dropped 10 feet onto an ice screw, have seen actors fly right through set walls and witnessed a 10 lb vampire bat fly at 30 miles an hour into the audience. All those incidents were created by ‘human error’ and not because the human was negligent or lazy. Because this stuff is HARD, it’s incredibly difficult to do in its own right without having to sing, dance or act at the same time. Mistakes are going to happen, there is always a chance people are going to be injured and those chances rise exponentially with the difficulty of the sequence. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has the most difficult flying sequences ever, including a battle between two characters over the audience, the producers knew actors were going to be at risk. So, with enormous costs, great financial risk and a good chance of personal injury, the question has to be: Why?
Why is there a need to produce huge theatrical productions with special effects that rival movies? Why is there such a burning desire for each new show on Broadway to be more spectacular than the last one? Why when people are in danger of losing their homes, struggling to buy groceries and living paycheck to paycheck is anyone producing shows that have an average ticket price of over $100? Why did Broadway producers decide the American mantra of ‘bigger is better’ suddenly applied to art? And when did audiences decide they needed helicopters, twelve foot giraffes and explosions as opposed to catchy tunes, great choreography and thrilling performances?
Is Broadway trying to compete with movies by being just like them? Or are they telling us that their average audience member is 10 years old? Or has there been a secret plague and all the playwrights are dead and nobody told us? There has to be some reason for the last decade or so of the Broadway musical. The genre has a tendency to be ‘fluffy’ enough without most of the ‘hit’ shows being about comic books, fairy tales, movies and children’s stories. It used to be that stage musicals were adapted into movies but now the situation is seemingly reversed and it probably won’t be long before Transformers the Musical hits 42cnd Street.
Additionally, this type of huge spectacle production is helping to kill theatre out in the ‘regions’. How can a theatre in Detroit, Seattle or Minnesota hope to produce anything comparable to a $65,000,000 dollar show? Don’t think that’s relevant? Ask a local producer how many times they hear, ‘You should do the Lion King or Shrek’? If this is the featured type of show that Broadway is producing then this is the kind of thing audiences across the country are going to clamor to see and they are going to be disappointed when they don’t get it. They are going to wait and save their money for the National tour only to be disappointed because the producers won’t play Cleveland and Milwaukee. Well, not until the third time around because there’s not enough audience and they can’t charge enough per ticket to make their nut. No regional theatre can keep up with the Joneses if the Joneses are really the Rockefellers. Perhaps, that’s their aim, that you will only be able to see shows of that ‘magnitude’ on Broadway. Unfortunately for the industry it doesn’t work very well that way because unlike the economy, there is a trickle down effect in theatre. Broadway is the top and if nothing trickles down that is actually usable then the patient is going to suffer. So maybe it’s time to pull the plug and turn ON the dark for Spider-Man before its more than the actors that are getting hurt- what do you think?