RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
It is certainly Broadway's most talked about musical. It's been making news for months during the rehearsals and previews, as its cast kept getting injured, its director was fired and scathing reviews before it even opened. That would be "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which officially opens tonight. The $75 million musical has been almost entirely reworked.
Jeff Lunden has been covering it since the beginning. He reports now on this latest chapter of the "Spider-Man" saga.
(Soundbite of overture)
JEFF LUNDEN: "Spider-Man's" lead producers, Jeremiah Harris and Michael Cohl, knew from the beginning of previews last November that their show - the most expensive in Broadway history - was in deep trouble. Even though audiences were flocking to see the production despite the negative publicity, they knew the story wasn't working. And then, in February, the critics came, unwilling to wait for another postponed opening night, and trashed it. Cohl says he and his partner knew something had to be done.
Mr. MICHAEL COHL (Lead Producer): Jere and I had finally talked to enough people and gotten to the point where we went, this has to be fixed or abandoned. I mean, there were two choices. Three, actually - let it run, but we knew that was going to be a slow death. And we started to talk about who should we bring in.
LUNDEN: So they made some surprising and dramatic decisions. When Julie Taymor, the show's co-author and director refused to make wholesale changes to "Spider-Man," they canned her. She was replaced by Philip William McKinley, who has directed on Broadway and for the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus. He says he identified the problems right away.
Mr. PHILIP WILLIAM MCKINLEY (Director): It was clear to me that the audience was not getting the story; that they weren't understanding what was happening on the stage. And I remember saying there were three things that I thought this show needed. And I said I think it needed joy, and it needed humanity, and it needed characters that you really cared about.
(Soundbite of song, "If the World Should End")
Ms. JENNIFER DAMIANO (Actor): (as Mary Jane Watson) (Singing) Don't think about tomorrow. We've only got today. There's nothing that I want from you, not a word you have to say. You are all I need and all I can defend. All I need to hold on to if the world should end...
LUNDEN: The producers also hired playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who's written "Spiderman" comics, to join the show's co-author Glen Berger in reworking the script. And then, Berger says, the producers announced they were going to do something completely unprecedented.
Mr. GLEN BERGER (Co-Author): No one shuts down a Broadway musical for four weeks and totally revamps it. But yeah, it turned out that was the case.
LUNDEN: Even though the two playwrights and director didn't know each other, they locked themselves in a room for two days, rolled up their sleeves and mapped out a plan. With an enormous production, which features aerial acrobatics over the audience's heads, constantly shifting sets and an elaborate video design, Aguirre-Sacasa says they really had to focus on the essentials.
Mr. ROBERTO AGUIRRE-SACASA (Playwright): There was a ticking clock on it. It was also, like, what actually could we do, given the time constraints, you know, the budget constraints and, it's a finite number of chess pieces on the board.
LUNDEN: They got the show's songwriters, U2 front men Bono and the Edge, who've never written a musical before, to write new material, like a second act opener for the Green Goblin, called "A Freak Like Me."
(Soundbite of song, "A Freak Like Me")
Mr. ROBERT PAGE (Actor): (as Green Goblin) (Singing) If you're looking a night out on the town, you just found me.
CHORUS: A freak like me needs company.
Mr. PAGE: (as Green Goblin) (Singing) I'm a $65 million circus tragedy.
CHORUS: A freak like me needs company...
LUNDEN: And almost every role got expanded and clarified in the rewrite. Reeve Carney plays Peter Parker, A.K.A. Spiderman. He says over 90 percent of his dialogue is new.
Mr. REEVE CARNEY (Actor): I think both versions of the show were fantastic, but this version of the show does make it a little bit easier on the general audience, and I think that is a good thing.
LUNDEN: Still, the new creative team wasn't going to jettison some of Julie Taymor's signature set pieces, says director Philip William McKinley.
Mr. MCKINLEY: I would never get rid of some of the beautiful things that are there; they're Julie's vision and certainly they are present, and never thought for a moment that would not have been a wise thing to do.
(Soundbite of song, "Turn off the Dark")
Ms. NATALIE MENDOZA (Actor): (as Arachne) (Singing) Turn off the dark...
LUNDEN: Stephanie Lee is president of Group Sales Box Office, which handles advance ticket sales for groups of 15 to a couple hundred people. Lee says she and her sales agents spent a good deal of time during the show's six month preview period scrambling to rebook tickets for her clients. But now that she's seen the revamped version and gotten positive feedback from her customers, she thinks the show has all the earmarks of a smash hit.
Ms. STEPHANIE LEE (President, Group Sales Box Office): I've never seen such an enormous gamble and a brave undertaking. You know, drama aside, and who knows where the drama will unfold next behind the scenes, I suspect that they probably haven't heard the last of Julie Taymor.
LUNDEN: And, indeed, just a few days after Lee made that statement, it was announced that the stage director's union had filed a claim for arbitration on Julie Taymor's behalf, for an estimated $300,000 in unpaid royalties. And a call to Taymor's attorney revealed she hadn't been paid her author's royalties, either. So there are clearly more twists down the road on the "Spider-Man" story.
But for the time being, cast members like Jennifer Damiano, who plays love interest Mary Jane, are thrilled that their extra long rehearsal and preview period is finally coming to an end tonight.
Ms. DAMIANO: It's kind of extraordinary to feel like we're on the verge of that being it; of being finished, having this finished product, opening and just kind of running. I mean, that seems like such a dream and it's been so out of reach for so long.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(Soundbite of song, "Boy Falls From the Sky)
Mr. CARNEY: (Singing) Believe, believe, believe, believe...
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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