Seven stage managers try to corral Broadway spectacular
On Broadway, there’s big. And then there’s “Spider-Man” big.
Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and villainess Arachne soar over the Foxwoods Theater crowd, sometimes landing in the aisles within inches of the audience, then disappear into the balconies, only to re-enter onstage an instant later (played by another performer, of course). There are elevators and drawbridge-like ramps in the stage itself. Eight huge, moving LED panels enhance the live action visually. Large, intricate sets move on- and offstage in the span of a heartbeat.
And, as one key indication of what a step up in complexity “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” represents, the show has seven stage managers — two production stage managers and five assistant stage managers. That’s two more than any other show in Broadway history.
It’s also a telling gauge of the show’s ambition and technical intricacy.
Amid all the schadenfreude over the huge budget and technical woes that have delayed “Spider-Man” in its long evolution, one critical fact seems to have been lost: The show, for better or worse, represents a new Broadway model, one that aims to marry legit musicals with the scale of arena rock shows, the spectacle of digital visual effects and the pacing of action films.
It’s an unprecedented experiment in logistics, at least for Broadway, and the production’s travails en route to an official opening night have been much discussed in legit circles and in the media. The show’s debut has been pushed back multiple times. (Its most recent target date, Jan. 11, looked last week to be bumped again, likely to February, as the technical challenges on a rework of the second act are sorted out.)
Beyond the producers, director Julie Taymor and songwriters Bono and the Edge, much of the responsibility for executing this high-wire attempt to launch a new style of stage franchise falls on a tight-knit team of stage managers who, if their craft prevails and the tech isn’t too bumpy, will remain entirely anonymous to the paying aud.
Their struggles through exhausting months of rehearsals, cast injuries, delays and more than a little media scrutiny illuminate not only the travails of “Spider-Man” but the changing nature of Broadway theater itself.
C. Randall White, the top stage manager on the show, was approached about “Spider-Man” more than two years ago.
White has moved for years between Broadway musicals and Vegas extravaganzas. He worked on “Starlight Express” and “The Lion King,” and was prepping for the Michael Jackson concert series when the singer-dancer died.
When White met Taymor to learn more about the show, he says, “She described it more as a rock ‘n’ roll show, not a Broadway type musical, and that always attracts me, because I grew up in rock ‘n’ roll. That’s where I started.”
When he signed on in 2008, the sets and effects were still on paper. The two-plus years before opening is more typical of a Hollywood tentpole film, but the lengthy run-up gave White time to put his stamp on safety and logistics and build his team — essential for mounting such a groundbreaking, technically challenging enterprise as “Spider-Man.”
“It’s just too much for one person to do,” White, whose close-cropped hair and hint of a drawl gives him the air more of an astronaut than an artist, says of the hurdles such tech-heavy shows pose.
Balancing that workload is now a group effort for stage managers, a contrast to the days when their primary tasks centered on calling cues and running rehearsals.
“After the British invasion came in, and the shows started getting bigger and bigger and more technologically advanced, that job description just wasn’t working anymore,” White says. “Now, resident directors stay with the show to handle the artistic side, and stage managers focus more on running the tech, overseeing safety and attending to morale and discipline.”
Knowing he’d need a second production stage manager on “Spider-Man,” White enlisted Kathy Purvis, with whom he’d teamed many times going back to 1998. (“At this point,” Purvis says, “we can finish each other’s sentences.”) White tasked Purvis with running the company while he handled the tech.
The duo’s track record proved a boon to the show and a confidence builder to actors not used to such technical productions. Patrick Page, who plays the Green Goblin, remembers that when he signed up to do the show, he stopped by the theater to see what was going on. The first person he saw was Purvis, with whom he’d worked on “The Lion King.”
“I said, ‘OK, now I know I’m supposed to do this. Now I’m comfortable,’?” he recalls. “I have two stage managers I would trust with my life calling the cues.”
In August, as the production’s latest premiere date drew near after a series of postponements, White’s workdays became 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, and he sometimes worked through lunch and dinner breaks. He went as much as five weeks without a day off as he focused his efforts on the technical crew’s work.
Purvis and the entire company adapted to the show’s rigors. Some booked hotel rooms near the theater instead of commuting home, just to get an extra hour of sleep.
“I have a life, but that life is on hold,” Purvis says. “I eat, I eat, sleep, drink, live ‘Spider-Man’ right now, and have been that way for months.”
The show was aiming for November previews and a late December opening, but the schedule began slip even before tech rehearsals. Load-in and flying programming took longer than the schedule had allowed. Then the scheduled five weeks of “dry tech” — without actors — was slashed to just eight days.
Even so, “Spider-Man” had five months of tech rehearsals before previews. Most Broadway shows get four weeks.
Purvis recalls the first time she saw the flying, and the sets and lighting: “It made me giddy like a child,” she says.”I don’t think any (musical stage managers) do this for the money, because the hours don’t get holidays or weekends or evenings off,” she says. “We do it because you get cool toys. And this is the coolest toys in town.”
Playing with those toys, though, is like creating a secret performance the audience never sees. White and Purvis both call cues during performances, because with lighting, sound, scenery and flying, it isn’t possible for one person to speak fast enough to call them all.
Broadway stage managers often work without a view of the stage, instead watching the action on video monitors from somewhere below or in the wings. With performers flying out over the audience, though, White says he felt it was essential that he and Purvis have a direct view of the entire house. So a total of six seats were killed in the lower balcony to build booths for their vantage points. Purvis calls lighting and LED-panel cues from house left. White handles flying and scene-change cues from house right.
Purvis’ booth has as the normal gear of a Broadway “caller,” including communications and monitors showing the stage. White’s booth, though, more resembles a space shuttle cockpit, with an array of video and computer monitors, comm controls and computerized cue lights.
In front of him sits a row of lighted buttons controlling 23 cue lights for prompting scenery moves: light on for warning, light off for “go.” During tech rehearsals, Spidey’s debut scene was broken up into sections. When they tried to run it straight through, he had to stop.
“There were 27 cue lights in three minutes, plus all the flights. I could not get my hands in the right places on the lights and watch the flyers the whole time,” White says.
“I remember going over to Julie, and she asked, ‘Can we run it?’ And I said, ‘I cannot run this. I cannot connect all of this. I have to get an automated cue light system in here.’?”
That took two weeks, and added yet more to the technical budget. But now those scenery cues are run through CueVision software, which White operates through a simple two-button controller at his left hand — though he still has manual overrides for every cue light, in case he needs to improvise if something goes wrong.
And in early previews, plenty went wrong. Flying problems led to several cast injuries, and lead Natalie Mendoza suffered a concussion that put her out of the show for several weeks. It’s up to White to decide when to stop the show, and he often did, including numerous stoppages at the show’s first preview.
By early December, such halts had become rare, but producer Michael Cohl was still taking the stage before the opening curtain to warn the audience that the show might need to be stopped intermittently to address problems.
Says White: “There are certain things where absolutely you have to stop no matter what. There are other things you work around. They’re called B-plans, and it takes about six months, but you learn all the B-plan options.”
A crucial part of the stage managers’ job is safety, and White says that on “Spider-Man” the injury rate is actually far less than on “Starlight Express,” which he worked on, or on “Cats” or “Fosse” before they opened.
Even among the cast, injuries aren’t as great a worry as might be expected.
“I think everybody knows what they signed up for,” says Jenn Damiano, who stars as Mary Jane.
Says Goblin thesp Page: “Being an actor is like being an athlete. It’s a physical thing. If a baseball player gets hit by a baseball, you think, ‘Wow, we should really work to avoid that.’ But we’re not terribly surprised.”
What scares the stage managers is not the flying or the hydraulics or the moving scenery, but the elevators that leave openings in the stage.
Assistant stage manager Jenny Slattery, who works beneath the stage, says, “The flying is scary, but every aspect of it is very controlled. But once that hole is in the floor, there are actors not attached to anything running near it. I don’t think you can stand above it or below (the pit) and watch somebody approaching it at speed and not feel a little clench.”
There’s still tinkering under way, even with Bono and the Edge on tour in Australia, and the crew’s hours remain long.
White admits to being exhausted after almost six months of 80- to 100-hour weeks. (“Hard on the body, hard on the mind,” he says.) Since previews started, he’s working just 12 hours a day. Climbing the stairs to his booth, he says, “is the only exercise I get these days.”
But the stage managers’ diligence and long hours have clearly stirred appreciation from the cast.
“What I’m struck by in this process,” says Page, “(is that) you know this is part stage management, part air traffic controller. That kind of appetite for the challenge has been so inspiring to me.”
Both cast and crew share a sense that they’re blazing a trail that others will follow.
Assistant stage manager Sandra M. Frank says, “There are seven stage managers in the whole world working on the show, and I’m one of them. That’s pretty much what gets me up and gets me here every day.”
Fellow assistant Andrew Neal agrees. “We’re making theater history — stuff that’s never, ever been done before.”