My friend Mark and I saw “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” at its first preview performance a year ago. Aside from the widely reported technical difficulties — Act I ended prematurely with Spider-Man hanging out rather pathetically above the audience — the production itself lacked narrative coherence, logical characterization, oh.. and an ending. It was like reading the Clone Saga back in the ’90s while listening to U2 but less enjoyable.
A year later, has the “Spider-Man” musical joined the ranks of “Lestat” and “Carrie” as theatrical abominations remembered only by theater geeks like myself who reference the ill-fated productions as punchlines?
No, apparently, it’s a hit — pulling in as much as $300K per week and a record-breaking $2,070,195.60 this past week. And all despite cast members suffering near crippling injuries, despite at-first comical and then-infuriating delays of its official opening, despite replacing its director Julie Taymor with a below average 8 year old child (actually, that was probably an improvement), despite Bono and the Edge finding some more random songs between their couch cushions that failed to advance the plot — people kept coming. Perhaps just to say they did or maybe just to make fun of whatever was happening on stage. Basically, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” became the theatrical equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest and seeing a very expensive midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
You might wonder why I sound a bit peeved. After all, shouldn’t it please me that any Broadway musical is drawing audiences away from their HDTVs?
Well, I also saw another show the same week of the first “Spider-Man” preview. It was Kander and Ebb’s “The Scottsboro Boys” — a brilliant, challenging, thoroughly entertaining production that promptly closed on December 12, 2010. I concede that the timing is coincidental and “The Scottsboro Boys” and “Spider-Man” are essentially apples and oranges. Comic book heroes will always be more popular than tough explorations of the United States’ history of racism. But even if you believed an apple would go down easier than an orange, would you really choose a clearly rotten apple over the orange? Why did people go to see a show the knew was awful? If I’m generous, I can say that the show wasn’t awful, it was just being “refined.” However, how many of you would blow $200 for dinner at a restaurant where the chef is still figuring out the recipes?
What’s worse is that the producers of “Spider-Man” are not chastened by the bumpy road the show was on this past year. No, the free publicity the show received in the media as a result of its incompetence was far greater than what it would have received otherwise.
But now they are barreling ahead with the radio promotions and overtures to foreign news media, while focusing particularly on the idea of the current director, Philip William McKinley, to add material. “I want to tap the comic book roots and do a whole new issue of the show,” Mr. McKinley said. “A ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Issue 2012.’ And then ‘Issue 2013.’ ”
Mr. McKinley is confused. Spider-Man’s comic book roots were brilliantly conceived stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko that arrived on time each month without maiming anyone in the Marvel bullpen. What’s actually inspiring Mr. McKinley is the variant-cover, multiple “first issue,” gimmick after intelligence-insulting gimmick speculator boom that destroyed the comic book industry. I repeat: Destroyed. The. Comic. Book. Industry.
Now Mr. McKinley and his army of P.T. Barnums can bring such well-regarded business practices to Broadway.