Broadway's 'Spider-Man' Is All About Superlatives

The musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is the most expensive musical ever, logged the most preview performances, the most injuries to cast members and the most negative reviews before the show officially opens. Audiences, however, are paying premium ticket prices and packing every performance.

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The new Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" seems to be in the news constantly, though it doesn't officially open until next month. So, in the midst of all that publicity, a dozen critics decided - more than a dozen critics - decided to review the show while it's still in previews, and many declared "Spider-Man" dead on arrival - or maybe not.

Reporter Jeff Lunden looks at the long, strange phenomenon of the show.

JEFF LUNDEN: Last November, before the first preview, there seemed to be a genuine curiosity about "Spider-Man." Here was a show with a pop culture pedigree, based on a phenomenally successful comic book and movie franchise. It was written and directed by Julie Taymor, whose stage version of "The Lion King" is one of the biggest Broadway hits ever.

U2's Bono and the Edge wrote the score. Even the budget was spectacular, at $65 million, more twice the sticker price of any previous Broadway show. It was like a wrapped Christmas present. What was it going to be? Was it going to be good?

Certainly the Edge thought so, even if he had a hard time explaining what Spider-Man was.

THE EDGE (Guitarist, U2): It's been impossible to find a way to describe what this thing is, 'cause it's not straight musical theater. It's not rock and roll. It's not opera, and it's not circus. But it is elements of all of those things. So we, in many ways, are kind of doing something that is highly ambitious and unprecedented.

LUNDEN: But even if they couldn't pin it down, the songwriters were genuinely excited about seeing it come to life. During our interview, Bono sang one of his favorite tunes.

BONO (Lead Singer, U2): (Singing) And you can rise above, swing through the skies above, and you can rise above yourself.

LUNDEN: But once previews began, some of the actors would rise above the audience and just dangle because of technical glitches. And worse yet, some of them were injured in backstage and onstage mishaps. The saga of "Spider-Man" the musical took on comic book twists and turns. Audience members tweeted about it during performances. It showed up on Gawker and the Huffington Post, and it started to become the butt of jokes on late-night TV.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): Finally, a tip of my hat to the new musical, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which, due to all the recent injuries to actors, may soon change its name to "Spider-Man: Notify Next of Kin."

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Fox News's Glenn Beck came to the show's defense, saying he'd give a kidney to get tickets.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Glenn Beck")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Political Talk Show Host): This is the best show I've ever seen. You've never seen anything like it. It was breathtaking.

Mr. JESSE GREEN (Journalist, New York Magazine): When was the last time there was a show that the whole country knew about from watching talk shows?

LUNDEN: Jesse Green wrote a profile of Julie Taymor and "Spider-Man" for New York magazine.

Mr. GREEN: Maybe the 1950s? Maybe Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's really perhaps - strangely - good for the theater.

LUNDEN: But is it? Much of the conversation has been negative, and most of it is centered on writer-director Julie Taymor, who told "60 Minutes'" Lesley Stahl...

(Soundbite of TV show, "60 Minutes")

Ms. JULIE TAYMOR (Producer, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark"): I love when people say what a horrible, lousy idea. I think that's great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TAYMOR: I hate the comfort zone. Let's put it that way.

LUNDEN: The rap on Taymor is that she's a spendthrift whose artistic ambitions are out of control.

Jesse Green says he was struck when he spoke with her by how little commercial considerations concerned her.

Mr. GREEN: She spoke about combining her interests in Greek myth and world theater and puppetry and comic books and all of these things - which were very high-minded and, I have to admit, although they were very interesting, one wondered how they could ever possibly come together in something as tawdry and lowdown as a Broadway show.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark")

(Soundbite of song, "Boy Falls from the Sky")

Mr. REEVE CARNEY (Actor): (As Peter Parker/Spider-Man) (Singing) You can fly too high and get too close to the sun. See how the boy falls from the sky.

LUNDEN: And while Taymor tinkered and the New York State Department of Labor ran safety inspections, the critics silently sat on the sidelines waiting for a constantly delayed opening night. Finally, they said enough.

Jeremy Gerard is theater critic for Bloomberg News.

Mr. JEREMY GERARD (Theater Critic, Bloomberg News): Julie Taymor was talking about how she was going to create this great American myth about Spider-Man as this iconic figure, a real American kind of superhero. And what we got was gibberish.

LUNDEN: Most of the other critics agreed. Ben Brantley in the New York Times was particularly harsh. He referred to the show's sheer ineptitude, but he says ultimately...

Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Critic, New York Times): I think that if anything kills "Spider-Man," it'll be word-of-mouth.

LUNDEN: But the evening after his review - and all the others - came out, word-of-mouth was, if not stellar, pretty good. Karen Sass from Yonkers, New York brought her two boys to see the show.

Ms. KAREN SASS: We had one little glitch at the end, but my kids enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it. They need to cut about 15 minutes out of the second act, but it's perfect.

LUNDEN: What did you like best about it?

Ms. SASS: Oh, the flying sequences were just amazing.

LUNDEN: So, despite all the brouhaha, "Spider-Man" may well fly for a while. Or it may be the biggest bomb in the history of the Broadway musical. Regardless, New York magazine's Jesse Green thinks a little perspective is in order.

Mr. GREEN: The future of America is not at stake. It's not a terrorist hive. It's just a show.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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