A multimillion-dollar stage adaptation of Spider-Man has been plagued by broken limbs, stage collapses and walkouts. Critics have branded it a joke. But even before it's opened, writes Hermione Hoby, it's already breaking box-office records.
It could turn out to be the biggest disaster in Broadway history. During its eight years in development, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark saw its budget swell from US$25 million ($33.25 milllion) to a reported US$65 million, making it far and away the most expensive musical of all time.
After finally opening for previews in November - amid reports of egos as outsized as the show's ambitions - a welter of well-publicised accidents and cast departures caused further delays and only added to the already mythical proportions of its ill fame.
When people talk about the Spider-Man story in years to come, perhaps it won't be Stan Lee's Marvel comics creation they'll be referring to, but rather the Broadway musical from 2011.
Though banned from the previews, the New York media snuck in and sent out distress signals. The first preview had to be stopped five times. "Act I ended prematurely, with Spider-Man stuck dangling two metres above audience members," the New York Times said. Declaring it "an epic flop" with "a dull score and baffling script", the New York Post warned that "at various points, overhead stage wires dropped on the audience".
Yet the story of this show - created by Julie Taymor, the acclaimed director of The Lion King on stage, and U2's Bono and The Edge - may somehow turn out be a tale of triumph. Though still not officially open, it overtook Wicked in ticket sales last month to become America's current highest-earning musical. Taymor's all-encompassing, theatrical vision has come under scrutiny. The recipient of a US$500,000 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, she has said: "If you have a vision and allow all of this peripheral stuff to get in the way, how will you get to the end of the bridge you're building?"
As one veteran Broadway insider puts it, Taymor "has this big vision in her head and the actors are just like puppets, she moves them around not like human beings but like puppets - if one breaks, you can have it replaced." She even refers to the microphone she uses to issue commands to the cast in rehearsals as the "God mic".
It seems apt, then, that one of her innovations was to introduce the character Arachne, a girl who's turned into a spider, due - as Taymor put it - to her "attitude of 'we're better than the gods'." On the most powerful song from the show's predictably grandiose score, Boy Falls From the Sky, Spider-Man sings: "You can fly too high and get too close to the sun."
And don't the cast and crew know it. Taymor's liberties with the Spider-Man story, the colossal amount of cash swallowed by the show and its ambitious aerial stunts are nothing if not hubristic. As Michael Musto, the New York Village Voice's entertainment columnist tells me: "A flop of this magnitude is just too delicious."
But while the press eagerly awaits Taymor's fall, theatregoers have continued to suspend their disbelief. At the preview performance I attended a fortnight ago the audience was enthusiastic, even cheering good-naturedly when, after a technical hitch, the curtain was clunkily raised again. Such mishaps have become normal, a steward said cheerfully in the interval. And does anyone ever ask for their money back? The steward looked shocked: "Oh no. No. These are previews."
The show opens with Spider-Man perched on the edge of a huge hydraulic ramp, as if ready to jump. A child behind me let out a wail of terror at the sight. The scene has become famous for a video clip captured on phone by an audience member in December last year of Christopher Tierney, the then chief stunt man, falling from the same perch. His safety rope hadn't been secured and he fell nine metres, fracturing his skull, several vertebrae, his shoulder blade, arm and four ribs and bruising his lung. Soon after, he was seen on television in a back brace, smiling manfully and wishing the show the best.
It wasn't the show's first accident. Two months earlier, actor Kevin Aubin had posted a picture of himself on Facebook holding up his hands in casts - after fracturing both wrists.
"I don't know what I'm allowed to say," he wrote in response to a friend's comment, "but something went wrong and I fell on my hands from a high distance. It happens, no one's to blame. I'm alive and okay." It later emerged that another actor had previously fractured his feet attempting the same stunt.
At the preview performance I attended, bits of scenery fell over, there were ominous thuds, and a stagehand came on to fiddle with Peter Parker's harness as he was singing a duet.
Stewards barked mercilessly at anyone who looked as though they might be about to take a picture.
In the interval, Joe Barrett, 24, told me that he was "loving it". He, like many others, had been compelled to buy a ticket "just to see if something goes wrong - which is not necessarily the best reason to see it, but that's human nature".
Also in the audience was Kyle Olson, 25. The show's accidents hadn't bothered him. "I would have seen it anyway," he said. "I'm a massive comic book fan [but] I'm also a little tentative. They've created a new character and that's always weird."
Taymor has loosely adhered to the original "Spidey" story in the first act: Peter Parker is bitten by a spider on a school trip to a science lab and ends up with superhuman powers. But it's the more abstract stylings of the second act that could get purists grumbling.
The first preview was also the first time the show had run from start to finish. Aside from the five stoppages and Spider-Man being left dangling, the worst mishap happened backstage when Natalie Mendoza, who played Arachne, was hit in the head by a cable. She suffered concussion and quit the show a month later. She declined to be interviewed.
She was not the first to abandon ship. Evan Rachel Wood, who was originally touted to play Spidey's girlfriend, Mary Jane, pulled out in March, citing a "scheduling conflict". Alan Cumming, who left last April, recently said: "My God, that was a lucky escape. Talk about dodging a bullet there."
The show's publicist, Adrian Bryan-Brown, quit last summer after three years. Asked why he left, he said: "I don't have anything to say. Well, let's put it like this: I see no reason to talk about it."
Michael Riedel, Broadway columnist for the New York Post, claims: "Producers yell at the cast and say 'don't talk to the press, don't talk to the press'." After the first accident, he says, "there were meetings, they tried to downplay it".
Rick Miramontez, the new publicist, says: "There have never been any attempts to suppress news of any injuries sustained during production. Indeed, it would be virtually impossible to suppress any kind of news where Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is concerned."
The central Spider-Man credo, both in the original and on Broadway is: "With great power comes great responsibility." After Tierney's injury, director Taymor drew considerable flak. Among the outraged was actress Alice Ripley. "This is completely unacceptable and embarrassing to working actors everywhere," she wrote on Twitter. "Does someone have to die? Where is the line for the decision makers, I am curious."
"Art has to be ambitious," Michael Cohl, chief producer, said in defence of the stunts. "We are, by far, the most inspected show [for safety] in the history of Broadway and every single overseeing body, from Government organisations to theatre unions, has agreed that the show is safe."
The show had unfortunate beginnings. In August 2002, a deal had been forged between Marvel and Tony Adams, an established theatre producer who had been approached by the company to buy the stage rights to Spider-Man. The next month, Adams and his business partner David Garfinkle flew to Ireland to ask Bono and The Edge to write the score.
The following Christmas, Bono suggested Taymor as director. By October 2005, the team was assembled at The Edge's apartment to sign the contracts. Just as The Edge went to fetch a pen, Adams had a stroke and died. Garfinkle, who had limited experience in theatre production, was left to struggle on without him as producer.
By August 2009, the production was put on hold. The show's finances were drained, the stagehands had walked out when their pay cheques bounced and the renovation of Foxwoods theatre (the complicated set design called for an overhaul of the listed building) was stopped. Bono called on Michael Cohl, a music promoter, to replace Garfinkle as the chief producer and, with more funding finally secured, the show went on.
After Tierney's accident new safety measures were put in place.
Also in the audience at the preview I attended were Lauren and Nick, a New York couple in their late 20s. "It's one of those things where all publicity is good publicity," said Nick. "I haven't heard about any other Broadway show in the past four months besides this."
"I think they may have done it intentionally," Laura added, laughing. She was expressing a view becoming increasingly common among commentators: the accidents and disaster stories have genuinely helped ticket sales.
Village Voice columnist Michael Musto agrees: "In a very macabre way, it's bringing out the barbarian in audiences."
Miramontez says: "I don't know that we would go so far as to say it's worked out well ... it was a very traumatic matter for the whole company, so I wouldn't want to think that anyone's benefiting from that thing having happened. I think everybody would have preferred for that not to have happened in the first place."
Every story needs its villain, and as far as the producers are concerned that is Michael Riedel, the Broadway columnist for the New York Post and self-styled "Green Goblin" of the show's press. The musical continues to spawn outrageously catty column inches but Riedel's regular snipings have been the bitchiest - and most gleeful - of all.
"It's been great fun," says Riedel. "I think ultimately [the show] will be remembered as the biggest disaster in Broadway history. Unless somebody gets killed, I'm not quite sure what the next dramatic turn in the story of Spider-Man is going to be."
Back in December, February 7 was named as the latest revised opening night. With the show originally due to open a year earlier and countless new opening dates also postponed, Spider-Man now has the longest preview period in history.
It is now due to "officially" open on March 15, but many critics decided to go on February 7 anyway, shattering the Broadway protocol that dictates reviewing takes place only on or after the designated opening night.
The producers are furious about the preview-reviews. "We have one of the world's foremost theatrical artists at the helm of this production, and she is creating something exciting and groundbreaking," says Cohl. "Why any critic would feel that they have the right to determine when the show is ready for review is beyond me. As far as I'm concerned, the show is ready when Julie says it's ready."
March 15, the day that Taymor has decided the show will be ready, is not the most auspicious of dates, being the day that Julius Caesar, having ignored the warnings, was stabbed to death. Might Taymor, who's directed plenty of Shakespeare in her career, be exercising a fatalistic sense of humour?
"If it remains at 100 per cent box office after the reviews come out, I assure you everything will be forgiven and Julie Taymor will be restored as the queen of Broadway," says Musto. "But if the reviews are terrible and the box office tapers off, then it's going to be remembered as the most colossal folly ever."