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Spider-Man turns three on Broadway

Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark. Photo: Jacob Cohl
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If nothing else, the producers of Broadway’s most expensive show of all time Spider-man: Turn off the Dark have proved their own resilience in the face of pressures (including the serious injuries of several cast members and a very public sacking of its original director Julie Taymor that led to a big lawsuit, now settled) that would have defeated most people.

It is finally closing in January after several months of speculation about its fate, as box office income failed to meet its notoriously high weekly running costs. There are plans to re-open it in Las Vegas (but for which no details have yet been announced). It may indeed be the perfect Vegas show: a show with immense title recognition now, not necessarily for good reasons but thanks to that notoriously chequered start to its life which proves, as ever, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

And managing all that publicity has been one of the show’s secret heroes: Rick Miramontez, a PR man who has been able to keep his head when others have been in danger of losing theirs (sometimes literally).

Today his office have issued a release to mark the third anniversary tonight of the show’s first New York performance — “an evening that is now the stuff of Broadway lore”, it states. That’s one way of putting it: I was there, and as I reported here at the time,

The first preview was stopped four times during the first act, and once in the second. A sympathetic, enthusiastic audience was “on side” for the most part, though a longish pause in the first act drew a small slow handclap, and the second act breakdown drew one loud heckle that what we were watching was not so much a first preview as a dress rehearsal. It is, of course, far too soon to start talking critically about the show, and I wouldn’t dream of attempting to review the very rough draft I saw. It is difficult, though, not to feel that the producers are walking headlong into a PR disaster by showing a work-in-progress as palpably unready as this is; and while all may have been forgiven if the much-vaunted effects truly dazzled, they seemed to be in quite short supply and nothing that has not been shown by the likes of Cirque du Soleil and shows like Ka and O in Las Vegas.

That was November 2010; the show failed to meet either of its designated opening nights, and after the second one was cancelled, the press went in uninvited in February – including me, as I wrote here at the time.  As Time Out New York’s theatre editor David Cote put it in a column then,

Any critic worth their salt would want to be part of the conversation. If we don’t enter the fray, we will have earned our obsolescence.

In fact, curiosity in the show, fuelled partly by those early verdicts of critics who were eagerly writing the show’s obituary, meant that critical obsolescence had already been established, and the show started setting other kinds of records.

As Miramonez’s release today informs us, the show is “currently the 16th highest grossing Broadway production of all time, having taken in more than $200 million at the box office.  The show has been seen by approximately two million fans, and will have played 1,268 performances by the time it takes its final bow at the Foxwoods Theatre. The fastest show in Broadway history to reach one million audience members, Spider-Man also shattered the record for the highest single-week gross of any show in Broadway history for the week ending Sunday, January 1, 2012; shattered the Broadway single-week attendance record that same week, playing to 17,375 audience members (100.02% capacity of The Foxwoods Theatre); set the weekly box office record of $2,941,790.20; and shattered the annual box office record of the Foxwoods Theatre by almost $35 million.”

That’s all very impressive, but on Broadway you’re only as good as last week’s grosses – and if your running expenses exceed your income, you’re only adding to your losses, which eventually becomes unsustainable. Last week, the show grossed just $766,811. It was seen by some 9,558 people during that time (75.5% of capacity); but clearly at heavy discounts. (By contrast, The Book of Mormon was seen by fewer people — 8,752 — but grossed nearly $1m more across the week, taking in $1,677,524).

And speaking to the New York Post’s Michael Riedel recently, lead producer Michael Cohl gave his own reason for posting the notices now:

We tried to get on the Web site for Obamacare, but we couldn’t. We don’t have injury insurance, so we have to close the show.

As Riedel writes of Cohl,

You can’t say the man doesn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, throughout the entire Spider-Man saga — cast injuries, cost overruns, backstage intrigue, brutal reviews, lawsuits — Cohl kept a level head, and found the joke where he could.

And he’s taking a long-term view still of the financial investment made so far (which he calculates at “less than $70m”):  each new production will cost a third of the Broadway version. So he says, “I guess we’ll call the money we spent in New York ‘research and development.’ ”

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