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A Web and a Prayer

This week, the world will finally get its first look at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. But the most expensive musical in Broadway history has already had an epic run—battling bankruptcy, broken wrists, unruly technology, and one comic villain disguised as a Post columnist. And at the center of it all, perched over her “God mike,” is the relentless and inventive Julie Taymor.


The Complex Visionary: Julie Taymor, November 17.   

Uplit like a Renaissance virgin by the glow of her iPad, the director Julie Taymor watches with mounting excitement as a gigantic black net unspools from a kind of coffin beneath the stage. The net is supposed to whoosh up, but like everything else to do with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the job takes longer than expected. Indeed, in its first outing, the effect is less special than glacial, but Taymor’s half-smile doesn’t fade, even as ten stagehands scramble to keep the mesh from snagging as it rises. Anything that works beautifully, she knows, once didn’t. Especially anything big. It happened just across 42nd Street at the New Amsterdam Theatre with The Lion King in 1997; surely it will happen again here at the Foxwoods.

That the theater, formerly the Hilton, was recently renamed for a casino is lost on no one working within it these days. Every step seems like a giant gamble—often literally. When the winches stop winching, and the net reaches its full extension, a guy on a wire drops down from the flies to test it. Can he leap from place to place? Can he climb it upside-down? Can he do these while battling an eight-legged, part-human, part-marionette villain called Arachne, who enters the scene through a sky-high portal nicknamed “the A-hole”? A lot depends on the answers, because these movements, if they turn out to be feasible and safe, and if they adequately replicate the vision Taymor had of them so long ago, will be part of the climax of the $400 billion new musical: a scene in which Peter Parker, trapped in his enemy’s web, must learn to embrace his power or die.

Did I say $400 billion? Well, no. “All those budgets that everyone quotes are fantasies,” says Michael Cohl, the show’s lead producer, referring to the obsessive, Schadenfreudish coverage that has greeted every aspect of Spider-Man, especially the financial aspect, since it was first announced. “They are like asking my dog ‘How much is the budget?’ and counting how many times he barks.”

Okay, then: Imagine that Sparky barks 70 million times, and you’ll be in the vicinity. Certainly Spider-Man is by far the most expensive Broadway show ever produced, though not so expensive compared with, say, a blockbuster movie or a stadium rock concert or a Cirque du Soleil spectacular, with each of which it shares DNA. Furthermore, says Taymor, “why should the press care if five or six billionaires want to put out their money and 200 theater people are employed as a result? This is a drama–rock-and-roll–circus, or a circus–rock-and-roll–drama; there’s no word for it. And what do they want? Two-character, one-set musicals? How is that helping the theater?”

Whatever the cost, and the value of that cost, it soon becomes clear that the web isn’t working: It’s not just slow; it’s ungainly. The climber looks trapped all right, but not in a good way. His harness keeps catching on the fabric, his sneakers slip through the webbing. When the shredding noises start, and two-inch metal grommets start zinging into the orchestra, most people might decide it’s time to give up.

But not Taymor. Seated amid a sea of computers that makes the theater resemble NASA mission control, the tiny figure in her giant contraption is not the least bit worried. She turns on her “God mike” and, in the artificially lowered voice she has learned to use in order to sound calm and authoritative, suggests that a narrower mesh might solve the problem, or tighter rigging, or both. If these measures fail, she adds with the microphone off, she’ll come up with something else, just as she did when the huge steel “flying ring” that had been built and hoisted into the rococo dome of the theater turned out to be a dud. (That one lasted two days.) “Let’s wait and see,” she concludes, as designers make notes for ordering a new net and Sparky barks again.

Forget that as she says this, as the net slinks back into its coffin, the first preview, then scheduled for November 14, is just twelve days away. To judge from the conditions in the theater, where tech rehearsals, after seven weeks, are still bogged down in the middle of Act Two, they will never make it. (Most shows, admittedly much less complex, complete their tech in two or three weeks; eventually this one will take nearly twelve.) Recognizing this, the producers, on November 5, announce a delay of two weeks, even though it will cost them at least another million in ticket revenue from thirteen heavily sold houses. (Previews are now scheduled to begin this Sunday, November 28; opening night, also delayed, will be January 11.) “Shows like ours, that embrace the challenge of opening on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout,” Cohl announces, “often need to adjust their schedules along the way.”

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