I’ll never forget the first time I saw “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” It was on Saturday night. Bad reviews and buzz had kept me away from Broadway’s most disaster-prone production, but I had always wanted to witness the spectacle. I had that chance over the weekend, at the show’s final performance before it closed in New York.
My seat, which cost $160, was in the front row, which turned out to be a huge mistake. Other productions at the Foxwoods Theatre have used that aisle for cheap rush tickets, since the space is so narrow you need to prop your legs up against the stage.
But “Spider-Man,” the most expensive musical ever (with a budget of $75 million and losses estimated at $60 million), clearly needed every last cent it could grab, which explained the influx of mugs, tote bags, pins, shirts, posters, caps and blankets at the gift shop.
Not all the merchandise came from the concession stand. One fan celebrated the closing by arriving to the theater in Spider-Man’s tights. Although the musical never won over critics, it still has its diehard loyalists. A few of them said they had seen the performance more than 100 times.
Gale Vitale estimated 130 to 140 trips to the theater with her friends over the last three years. “I had split feelings about seeing this, because I’m not really into Spider-Man,” said the 29-year-old veterinary technician from Paramus, N.J. “But once I saw it, I fell in love.”
She rolled up her sleeve to show a Spider-Man tattoo on her left arm with the words “Rise Above,” the name of one of the better songs.
“Everyone makes fun of me for liking the show, because most musical theater people don’t like the show,” said Sarah Biddle, 22, back for the fifth time. But she didn’t care; she was giddy when she spotted Reeve Carney, who originated the Spider-Man role in November 2010 and attended the last performance, in the lobby.
“It’s crazy,” Reeve later told me of the groupies who kept coming back. “I guess they connected to the story.”
That still wasn’t enough to keep the web-slinger afloat. The producers, Jeremiah Harris and Michael Cohl, who notified the staff of the show’s ending via mass email, said the costs of operating such an elaborate production in New York was too high to make the show profitable.
“It’s exhilarating and at the same time disappointing,” Harris said. “There’s a time and place for everything, and this was time to close here in New York and move on.” He added, “We’re talking to someone about building a theater in Germany for us,” and they are also considering a Las Vegas run for 2015.
“Turn off the Dark,” in case you missed it, covers some of the origin story from the 2002 movie starring Tobey Maguire. But the plot took a back seat to spectacular behind-the-scenes turmoil and creative bickering.
From the start, the show suffered from technical glitches that turned the production into a national punch line. At least six actors were badly injured, which resulted in lawsuits. The producers kept extending the previews, which stretched over seven months as they launched major overhauls, and its director Julie Taymor was fired. The music written by U2’s Bono was also panned (although some the songs, especially in the second act, aren’t so bad).
Fortunately, none of the actors plummeted from the sky on Saturday’s show. The only injuries were mine. At intermission, I suffered from leg cramps and neck aches from all the looking up. Not to mention my head hurt.
“Spider-Man” still feels like a disjointed mess: half musical, half amusement park attraction. Watching it, I occasionally felt like I was drifting on a Disney cruise ship. Some of this must have come from revamping Taymor’s vision and toning down her eccentric touches. But in the current form, nothing much happens in the first 30 minutes, and Arachne (a new character that was originally pivotal to the show) is merely a footnote.
Whenever a song lags or the story stalls, which is often, the production’s solution is to set Spider-Man sailing into the audience. This live special effect loses its magic as the show trudges on and our hero has taken his sixth or seventh swing.
If Peter Parker (Justin Matthew Sargent) as a character is underdeveloped, at least he has a formidable villain in the Green Goblin (Robert Cuccioli), who is much more entertaining on stage than he was in the movie. When he lets loose with his band of six misfit villains, he’s campy and fun.
At curtain, Reeve joined the cast onstage. He told Variety that he had to audition for three months before eventually landing the part, and tried not to let all the bad press faze him. “The trick I guess is to never pay attention to any of it,” he said.
Sargent, who was currently playing Spider-Man, said that sometimes at the stage door, fans would ask him, “Oh, have you hurt yourself yet?” He explained, “I never subscribed to those comments. I never felt endangered once here in my time as Spider-Man.”
When the producers were asked if they still spoke to Taymor, Cohl responded: “About what? We’re not pouting if that’s what you’re asking.” The two didn’t agree on if “Spider-Man” could ever return to New York for a revival. Harris thought it could. Cohl wasn’t as optimistic. “No,” he said.
While the aerial, over-the-top nature of the show might seem like a good fit for Vegas, it’s hard to imagine “Spider-Man” really thriving there. For one thing, the average running time of entertainment in Sin City is closer to 90 minutes, so tourists can spend the bulk of their evenings drinking and gambling.
And, for better or worse, “Turn Off the Dark” is really synonymous with New York–the city’s DNA is stamped all over the elaborate set pieces. In the second act, the Green Goblin cuts loose in the catchy song “A Freak Like Me Needs Company,” which includes the lyric: “All the weirdos in the world are here in New York City tonight.”
They came to celebrate Spidey’s last bow, even if the show never really got it right.