It may seem hard to believe at this point, but the creatives involved in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” do recognize the value of simplicity.
In fact, it’s the tension between that understanding and the technological complexity required to stage the show that has so far characterized the tuner’s long, bumpy tech process and preview period.
“What really amazes an audience isn’t a big set piece,” says Glen Berger, who co-writes the musical’s book with director Julie Taymor. “It’s how you can theatrically overcome narrative challenges. A simple, elegant solution is where the spectacle lies.”
Still, there’s no shortage of big set pieces. By now it appears as if “Spider-Man” may have to settle for the occasional illusion of simplicity in a production that’s working hard to cram a complicated, arena-style spectacle into a Broadway theater.
In the midst of all the challenges of aerial staging and heavy design demands are a group of creatives grappling to fit more traditional legit roles into a show that’s been described as part theater, part rock concert, part circus.
“It’s an unbelievably complicated clockwork mechanism,” says set designer George Tsypin (“The Little Mermaid”). “My design had to be packed with effects. Every two or three minutes of running time, I have to come up with something very impressive.”
Taymor and Berger (“Underneath the Lintel”) hammered out the show’s narrative beats some 5 1/2 years ago. While the overall story arc has remained largely unchanged, elements have shifted to match technological feasibility.
Take the inclusion of comic-
book villain Green Goblin.
“We wanted to use the Green Goblin, but he rides a glider, and we just can’t make that work onstage,” Berger says, referring to the impossibility of rigging an actor to fly above an auditorium while perched on the baddie’s signature mode of transportation.
That obstacle necessitated some Marvel-approved changes to the Goblin’s origins. Scientist Norman Osborne’s transformation is now attributed not to a strength serum gone awry, as in the comics, but to a botched experiment with DNA-splicing that endows the Green Goblin with the attributes of various animals — including a pair of wings that allows him to fly around the Foxwoods Theater.
The high-flying sequences are co-staged by choreographer Daniel Ezralow, the dance-world vet who shaped both the hoofer routines on the floor and what happens overhead.
He worked with aerial designer Scott Rogers, the stunt coordinator of two of the “Spider-Man” films, and aerial rigging designer Jacque Pacquin, a Cirque du Soleil alum.
“Among the three of us, we created a kind of brain trust for flying,” Ezralow says. “I’ve never had so many meetings.”
Per the choreographer, it’s not easy looking comfortable while flying. He recruited a number of performers he’d frequently worked with for the dance corps of about 20. “I interviewed them and said, ‘OK, are you fearless?’?”
For airborne performers, costumes had to tread a line between design and utility. “It is not enough for a design to be sensational visually; it must also be functional and safe for the actor,” says costume designer Eiko.
A further tension in the production comes from a Taymor-created plot thread that traces the roots of Spidey back to Greek mythology. It’s an unfamiliar twist on a world-famous character that, in order to get across, requires a storytelling clarity the creatives are still working to perfect.
“Sometimes certain things can’t be figured out technically, so you come up with a makeshift plan,” Berger says. “And then sometimes the makeshift plan doesn’t work either, so then you’re forced to come up with a different narrative beat, or you have to come up with a script patch to help the audience out.”
The literal transformation of one character, who morphs from a creature into a human, has proven particularly ornery. This late in the game, collaborators must work to solve the problem with the tech resources already available to them.
Now a key tension lies in continuing to sculpt and refine the production with the elements already in place.
“At this point, you can’t build anything new,” Berger says.
In that, at least, “Spider-Man” seems likely to turn out like any other Broadway musical. As legit veterans will tell you, creatives don’t stop working on a show because they’re finished. They stop because they’ve run out of time.