In the book Which Lie Did I Tell, famed screenwriter William Goldman explains a concept with applications beyond the movie business. To paraphrase, Goldman stated in reference to two films released in 1997: Of course everyone in America wanted to see a four-hour love story about the sinking of the Titanic, and no one wanted to see Kevin Costner play a singing post-apocalyptic mailman… in hindsight. The truth is, until they open, no one knows which movies people will want to see.
Applying Goldman’s idea to the musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, most Broadway fans probably accept as fact that a musical about Spiderman with complex stunts and dangerous sets was doomed to failure… in hindsight. Glen Berger’s book Song of the Spider-man: the Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History walks readers through this musical from inception to closure, and while the outcome was never in doubt, I was surprised by the number of times I thought to myself, “This might have actually worked.”
Glen Berger spent six years co-writing the book for Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark along with famed director Julie Taymor. Various artists and producers would enter and exit the fray, but Taymor, Berger, Bono, and The Edge formed the creative nucleus—a distinction that each may or may not appreciate six years after Spiderman’s closing. One of the pleasures of the book is Berger’s point of view as the artist struggling to support a family of five while glimpsing into the lives of his more eccentric co-creatives. Here is one of my favorite lines:
“Jim Morrison of the Doors stayed in this apartment,” said Bono as he stood on the balcony in his bathrobe. The lads were eager to assess the songs from workshop—“Let’s listen to them, and then beat them up,” said Bono, who apparently was going to stay in his bathrobe for the meeting” (64).
The book is filled with many insights. Here are a few of the take-aways that particularly stood out to me:
Spiderman‘s conflicts were rooted in The Lion King’s success
Following her success with The Lion King, Taymor was given carte blanche over Spiderman, but Spiderman proved to be a very different challenge. Most significantly, the directive regarding audience for The Lion King was much clearer—family-friendly show with more adult appeal than Beauty and the Beast. With Spiderman, Taymor became excited by the project when she thought of using elements of Greek tragedy. She envisioned Arachne, mother of spiders, as her main antagonist and created a Greek chorus of four teens called the Geeks. Her story sounds interesting to someone like me (who knows more about theater history than comics), but audiences were confused by Arachne, hated the Geeks, and wanted more of the Green Goblin. Taymor’s record of success led to creative battles pitting her vision against audience feedback.
Bigger is not necessarily better on Broadway
Before I criticize some of Spiderman’s funding decisions, let’s explore the counter-argument by noting the current inhabitant of the same theater: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Both shows raked up significant budgets by redesigning the theater and adding impressive effects. With Spiderman, the initial budget (which ranges from $65 to $82 million depending on the source) became the story, and no one blinked when Harry Potter started with an investment of at least $65 million. That being said, financial considerations are a consistent topic in Berger’s book, and it helped me to understand why Broadway is plagued by so many jukebox musicals and movie adaptations. Producers will gamble on a show knowing an audience exists for either its songs or for its story. The death-defying effects in Spiderman are fantastic (check out a video clip), but they also led to crippling on-going costs. Smaller-scale original shows like Come From Away, Hadestown and Six do not need to recoup these types of costs every week and therefore are a safer bet for producers.
Spiderman’s great mistake was it was not reproducible
From Spiderman’s first preview on November 28, 2013, to its closure on January 4, 2014, almost two million people saw it. It grossed about $203 million over its total run although the investors still lost an estimated $60 million. Many Broadway shows like the original Guys and Dolls have opened and closed in less time and been considered hits, but those shows continued in regional productions. Take Suessical, for example. It lost about $10 million on Broadway in 2001 but reinvented itself and become a children’s theater staple. Spiderman is unique, however, because it has almost certainly experienced a finalizing death blow due to its legacy of being too expensive and too dangerous to produce.
A closed show need not be forgotten
Song of Spider-man is an engrossing exploration of the good intentions behind a doomed show. As I read the book, I recalled a documentary along the same lines, which I also strongly recommend. In Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened, the original actors from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along look back at how a sure-fire hit closed just 16 performances after the opening. Combining rediscovered footage from 1981 with interviews from 2016, director Lonny Price explores both how the optimism of young actors can be disparaged and how those same actors progressed to remember their ill-fated Broadway debuts with nostalgia. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened is available on Netflix and itunes.