The mix of circus, theatre and rock show that is Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark opened for previews on the Broadway stage this past week, with a less-than-perfect performance that had some reporters cringing.
The show, which had been repeatedly delayed because it wasn't ready, had to be stopped five times during its opening preview Sunday night because of technical snafus. Previews later in the week have been smoother.
'It is the most ambitious thing I have ever done, or anybody here on Broadway has ever done, because it is this mixture of drama, rock and roll and circus.'— Julie Taymor, director of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark
Reputed to have cost $65 million US, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark combines the music of U2, the theatrical genius of Julie Taymor — the director who brought The Lion King to the stage — and a story featuring one of the most popular comic characters of all time. It also has a Canadian producer, Toronto's Michael Cohl, a rock concert promoter with ties to the Rolling Stones and U2.
But what has theatregoers excited — and a huge crew of stage technicians working long hours — is how to achieve the effect of hero Peter Parker climbing walls.
"It is the most ambitious thing I have ever done, or anybody here on Broadway has ever done, because it is this mixture of drama, rock and roll and circus," Taymor said in an exclusive CBC interview done in New York. The less-than-perfect preview, which left actors dangling mid-air, means a busy month of fine-tuning before the show opens on Jan. 11.
Taymor described how she returned to the original spider myths to add depth to the show.
"Stan Lee and the original artists, they knew their material. The source of Spider-Man is the [Greek] story of the spider Arachne. We wove, literally, the spinning spider story into a love triangle which really shows the dilemma of our hero, Peter Parker," Taymor said.
The spider mythology is woven through the fabric of the story from the first song, Turn Off the Dark, sung by one of the darkest villains of the stage show, the radioactive spider who gives Parker his powers, played by Natalie Mendoza. The story then pulls a cast of familiar villains, from the Green Goblin to Carnage, into Parker's path.
Parker is a regular kid from Queens High School whose essential quandary is how to have regular daily life yet at the same time be a superhero, Taymor said. He grows up a bit of a loner, raised by his aunt and in love with the girl next door, Mary Jane.
"He is very self-effacing, yet he's bestowed with these supernatural powers and when he puts on the mask, he could be anybody underneath this power."
Taymor said that Tony Adams, the late Irish-born producer and director associated with Pink Panther, talked her into directing Spider-Man.
"He told me it was Bono and Edge and Spider-Man, and I must admit the Bono and Edge part was the biggest draw at that moment," she said. "That was around the first Spider-Man movie — I started to assess what the story was and whether it would be good for sound."
Adams, who died in 2005, approached the U2 members more than nine years ago to write the music for a proposed Spider-Man stage musical. They were attracted by the opportunity to do something new.
"We grew up with Spider-Man like everybody else," Bono said in interview in New York as he prepared for the show. "I read the comic books as a kid. It was my favourite Marvel character for sure.
"But that is not the reason we wanted to do it, to be honest. We wanted to do it because it allowed us to do things in a theatre that had never been done before. Flying, the villains, the very luminous nature of Spider-Man meant you could do musically some very vivid things."
Bono, a man who juggles saving Africa with regularly churning out pop albums, believes the superhero's struggles have a universal appeal.
"I think it's a very contemporary struggle — love versus duty. And the idea that with great power comes great responsibility — that couldn't be more present," he said. "That probably explains the fascination with the Spider-Man character."
Taymor is being stretched at this point between two pop icons — Spider-Man and Shakespeare. The delays in getting Spider-Man to the stage mean previews begin just as Taymor's film version of The Tempest hits cinemas. The latter features Reeve Carney, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from California , who also landed the role of Spider-Man/Peter Parker.
"I am a musician more than anything else, I suppose. At least I was until Julie Taymor found me," Carney said. "Juggling that with acting and just my life and wanting to just be there for as many people as I can, it is a struggle. It's nothing like what Spider-Man has to go through, but I think the root emotion is there. It's just great to be able to experience that emotion on stage every night, which is what we will be doing."
As a musician, Carney is thrilled at the opportunity to work alongside Bono and the Edge, and fascinated with the process of making a show like Spider-Man work. He reserves his greatest praise for Taymor.
"I like that she doesn't follow some structure she has in her mind. She doesn't say, 'All right, this is how we are going to do it.' She is an artist, so things are constantly changing, and that's what keeps it exciting. She follows her muse — it's exciting to watch," Carney said.
Jennifer Damiano, 19, who plays Mary Jane, is more of a Broadway veteran, having begun her career at age 15 as an understudy in Spring Awakening. She was nominated for a Tony Award last year in Next to Normal. She's still in the "eye of the storm," wondering if audiences will like her as Mary Jane Watson, the girl-next-door role already filled by other actresses such as Kirsten Dunst.
"I'm trying to keep her as true to myself as possible," Damiano said.
But she says she believes audiences will respond to the wow factor of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
"In rehearsal, I can't keep my mouth closed and I know what's coming. To someone who doesn't know what's coming, it … will probably prove to be a spectacular night at the theatre," she said.
CBC News has exclusive Canadian access behind the scenes of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. A feature segment on the show and its Canadian producer, Michael Cohl, will air on The National on Friday, Dec. 3.