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Broadway’s ‘Spider-Man’: The Full Story

BROADWAY BOUND: Seven years ago, a little-known Chicago producer acquired the stage rights to Spider-Man and brought along a number of local investors. Now, after a tumultuous journey to Broadway, the $60 million musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is finally ready to fly or flop

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David Garfinkle
Spider-Man
is “certainly the biggest thing Broadway has seen,” says David Garfinkle, photographed in front of the Foxwoods Theatre in New York.

 

“Look,” said David Garfinkle, showing me the screen of his BlackBerry. “It’s a text from Bono.”

We were standing in the middle of Soldier Field, not far from the 160-foot-high stage, shaped like an alien spacecraft, that had been set up for the first North American stop of U2’s 360 Degree tour in September 2009. Garfinkle is an entertainment lawyer from Highland Park. At 49, he has a boyish grin and a buttoned-down appearance that suits his Midwestern geniality, but he also bristles with nervous energy, checking his BlackBerry practically every waking minute. In fairness, the little device constantly buzzes with e-mails, phone calls, and text messages, such as the one from Bono.

Bono? It turns out that Garfinkle is an aspiring Broadway impresario and one of the top producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the megamusical that has become the talk of Broadway, for better or worse. Bono, U2’s main songwriter and lead singer, and the Edge, the group’s lead guitarist, wrote the music for the show, which Garfinkle describes as “part circus, part rock ’n’ roll extravaganza.”

The musical opens this December (UPDATE: Now postponed until January), but on that night just over a year ago, Garfinkle had brought a group of seven or eight Spider-Man investors and their families to the concert at Soldier Field, giving them full rock-star treatment: cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the wine cellar at NoMI in the Park Hyatt; a stretch limo ride; some of the best seats in the stadium; and maybe, just maybe, some special face time with Bono and the Edge before the concert.

Garfinkle hoped to impress his guests as well as reassure them. He needed to. A month earlier, construction on Spider-Man’s stage sets and on its Broadway theatre had ground to a halt because of cash flow problems. Speculation had swirled for weeks that the production’s days might be numbered, and even if the show did go on, its female lead, Evan Rachel Wood, would leave because of the delays. Alan Cumming, another star, was said to be on his way out, too. Though construction had resumed, thanks to an emergency influx of cash, Spider-Man still wasn’t fully capitalized and remained in a perilous state of limbo. If the show folded, its investors—many of them Chicagoans—stood to lose thousands, even millions, of dollars.

For at least one night, however, all that seemed forgotten. Handlers led Garfinkle and company into the stadium’s bowels, where black pipe, drape, and carpeting had turned the cavernous space into a private area. Garfinkle was as giddy as a schoolboy. Bono, in head-to-toe black and sporting wraparound sunglasses, and the Edge, wearing his trademark black ski cap, posed for pictures. More important—at least from Garfinkle’s point of view—the musicians discussed how excited they were about Spider-Man. They assured the group not only that the show would go on but that it would be a fantastic, even revolutionary, production. Bono went so far as to say that the songs in the musical were some of the best he’d ever written. The Edge nodded in agreement.

Garfinkle looked relieved. Somehow, someway, this long, arduous, star-crossed venture was going to work out.

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(UPDATE: After this story went to press, some of the bugaboos that have haunted Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and are described herein, struck the show again, and the producers have pushed back the opening. The first preview is now scheduled for November 28th, two weeks later than previously announced, while opening night has been moved to January 11, 2011, not December 21st. Recently, a Spider-Man actor broke his wrists while demonstrating one of the show’s flying sequences—a daring maneuver in which the actor gets catapulted from the rear of the stage to the front. A month earlier, another performer broke both feet performing the same stunt. State safety inspectors are reportedly looking into whether the acrobatic sequences are safe enough to perform, something that they do for all productions with special effects, says David Garfinkle. “The department of labor sign-off is not related to the injuries. It’s just part of the process.”

Show insiders have complained to the press that Spider-Man’s director, Julie Taymor, has fallen way behind schedule. Key chunks of the show have yet to be completely worked out, including numerous flying stunts and the scene-to-scene transitions. “We’re less than two weeks away, and we have no idea what the running time is going to be,” one Spider-Man insider told the New York Post on November 3rd.

Garfinkle downplayed the latest delay. “Everybody wants to get [the show] perfect,” he says. “It’s really about tweaking the nuts and bolts. That’s what happens in the last part of rehearsals.”

From the sound of things, it wouldn’t be shocking if Spider-Man opens even later than January 11th, especially now that the show will miss the big money-making Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season.)

The only sure thing about Broadway is that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. For every Phantom of the Opera—the top-grossing musical of all time—there’s a flop. Or ten. A $7 million musical version of Stephen King’s 1974 novel Carrie, for example, closed after just five performances in 1988. A 2005 musical based on the life and songs of John Lennon lasted only 49 performances. Similarly, The Pirate Queen, the much-hyped production from the creator of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, reportedly lost $18 million and played just 85 performances in 2007.

The superhero genre has rarely been tried onstage. The last Broadway-caliber musical featuring a superhero, It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman, opened in 1966 to favorable reviews—but closed faster than a speeding bullet, running for fewer than four months. In the late nineties, Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to Batman, had superhero-size plans to bring the caped crusader to a Gotham City main stage. But the musical stalled before ever getting out of the Batcave.

Initially, the prospects for Spider-Man seemed as bright as the neon lights on Broadway. After successfully negotiating with Spidey’s corporate owner, Marvel Entertainment, to get the stage rights, Garfinkle and Tony Adams, his producing partner at the time, put together the theatre equivalent of a dream team: They got two of the world’s biggest rock stars, Bono and the Edge, to write the show’s score and tapped Julie Taymor, the Tony Award–winning creator of the Broadway megahit The Lion King, as the director.

But a series of financial setbacks, ballooning budgets, and casting changes—not to mention an unnervingly uncertain period following Adams’s sudden death in October 2005—delayed the production for nearly two years. The musical is now scheduled to begin previews on November 14th and open on December 21st. When the curtain does finally rise, Spider-Man will be the most expensive show in Broadway history.

Garfinkle won’t divulge Spider-Man’s budget. Estimates have ranged from $45 million to upward of $60 million. In addition, the fixed weekly running costs of the show are projected to be around $1 million, meaning that it needs to be a blockbuster on the scale of The Lion King or Wicked—a mighty tall order, say Broadway observers—to cover its costs and turn a profit.

For Garfinkle, this first trip to Broadway has been a harrowing ride. Fairly or unfairly, the media has blamed him for much of the trouble on Spider-Man’s journey to the stage—and even some involved in the show quietly fault him. Last November, he was replaced as the lead producer. Michael Cohl, the former chairman of Live Nation—the giant concert and theatrical promoter with close ties to U2—who had previously been only a lower-level investor, took over for Garfinkle at the behest of Bono and other concerned parties. Garfinkle has been all but sidelined from the project he has nurtured from the very beginning.

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Photograph: Mark Heithoff

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