Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has taken a long and winding road to the top, but for once it’s been worth it. The Bono and Edge-penned musical may be the most spectacular show ever seen on Broadway (and that’s really saying something). CAHIR O’DOHERTY is surprised to find himself dazzled and amazed by the daring stunts and the mind-blowing artistry of this incomparable show.
Look, I admit it -- I arrived expecting to scoff.
Settling into my ringside seat at the Foxwoods Theatre on Saturday night for a preview of the new musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, I was gleefully reminded by my buddies that this was the venue that in 2007 had staged The Pirate Queen, the budget-busting bomb produced by Riverdance creators Moya Doherty and John McColgan that the Broadway community had despised.
There’s been a lot of talk, to paraphrase Bono, about Spider-Man on Broadway. Let’s start with its $72 million budget -- that’s a lot of bucks to bury in a bottomless pit. With a price tag that astronomical it’s inevitable the show has already been picked over and over again by the press, and that much of what was written was utterly devastating.
In The New York Times in February, chief theater critic Ben Brantley called the show a “national joke.” In fact, he wrote, “This show is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway, but it may also rank among the worst.”
Cracks that pointedly heartless prove that while Broadway may be filled with gay directors, designers, actors, singers, dancers and promoters one thing never changes -- it ain’t for sissies.
Forget the Marines. The test of a real man is can he survive an opening night on Broadway?
Note, by the way, that Brantley called Spider-Man a “show” and not a “musical.” Perhaps he’s a Broadway purist, or perhaps he was simply at a loss for words to describe what Spider-Man actually is -- a genre-busting, live action extravaganza, a musical theater rock concert film, a boundary pushing collage of unruly elements that’s unlike anything that Broadway has ever staged or witnessed before.
And this might be the moment to say -- it’s also really good!
It’s practically an article of faith in the New York theater community now to say that Spider-Man sucks -- perhaps especially if you have yet to see it.
But when you stop worrying about whether it’s a concert, a musical or a movie then you can actually start enjoying it for what it is -- good, wholesome, swash-buckling fun.
It is also, occasionally, jaw-droppingly beautiful, thanks to the soaring music of one half of U2 and the dazzling theatrical magic created by the show’s original director Julie Taymor, who was dumped from the original version of the musical in March when she wouldn’t sign off on the drastic changes that the producers, and Bono and The Edge, felt the show desperately needed to save face.
Brantley might want to consider who exactly will have the last laugh when this “national joke” finally opens this week. Months of rewrites have made the storyline clear and simple, and the show steps out now with just the right amount of visual thrills and with a much better dramatic payoff. There’s no question it’s finally ready for opening night, which took place with a star-studded red carpet on Tuesday, June 14.
At the center of it all is young Reeve Carney, 28, a preternaturally beautiful young Irish American lead actor who plays Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man with so much conviction you start to root for him from the first scene.
Carney can channel Bono’s vocal stylings as though he has been doing it all his life (and apparently he has). He can alternate between playing the nerd with the crush on Mary Jane, the dutiful son, the gifted scientist and the Broadway belter with an ease that suggests he’ll be leading man material for the rest of his life.
In particular, Carney has found a way to convey the grandeur and sweep of Bono and the Edge’s often epic music in a way that feels organic rather than contrived. U2 haven’t written ballads this affecting in years, possibly because they were busy being U2 the rock gods and not U2 the songwriters?
Maybe the creative freedom from the business of being the biggest rock band in the world freed Bono and Edge up because, it must be said, this is the best stuff they’ve done in years.
In writing “Rise Above,” the signature song of the whole show, Bono appears to have written a new national anthem for post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
“When the ones who run the firehouse are the ones who start the fire/
And the lawless make the laws and every preacher is a liar/
When the ones who damn the innocent/
Are on the nightly news and front page…”
Listening to this song for the first time on Saturday night, I knew instantly it was completely outstanding because it touched every sore spot in the modern Irish psyche. It made the hair on the back of your neck stand up and it brought the entire house to its feet for an ovation at the end.
A searingly powerful song, “Rise Above” is also one of the most emotionally affecting things that Bono has ever written. And Carney, who got his start as a singer in a band with his siblings in a band also called Carney, really sings like he means it:
“And you said rise above, open your eyes of love/
And you said rise above? But I can’t, I can’t.”
Bringing these new and still unknown songs to the public Carney, who has been playing instruments since before he could talk, is a natural salesman.
There are two things that you just can’t fake on Broadway -- musicality and heart -- and thanks to his abundance of both Carney carries the whole show on his fairly slender shoulders.
And whenever proceedings threaten to become a little too sweet there’s the Edge’s sonic wall of electric guitar to remind you that Irish rock and rollers wrote this score, and they’ll be having none of that lovey dovey stuff (well, all right, maybe just a little -- but that’s it, right).
And while you’re sure to enjoy (most) of the music, remember that important as it is, it’s just one part of this extraordinary show.
Along the way there are battles that bring us to the 7 train into Queens, the 59th Street Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, and even the Chrysler Building. Believe me, you can expect to be knocked out by the staggering scale of the thing.
And as it dashed from set piece to spectacular set piece, a question I started asking myself is who came up with the idea for this ridiculously ambitious show in the first place? Who thought, “Hey, I know, what Broadway really needs is comic superheroes hanging from spider’s webs and having complex aerial battles over the audiences’ heads?”
Who, in other words, was mad enough to conceive of it?
Records show it evolved from conversations between Taymor, Bono, Edge and others, but since the show has already achieved legendary status for all the wrong reasons the permutations of that effort may never be fully told. Stories become legends on Broadway faster than anywhere else on Earth, after all.
So what can you expect when you take a deep breath and pay the astronomical ticket prices? If you imagine, as I did, that the spider’s webs on view will be of the ropey variety we associate with Peter Pan you will have your mind blown when you see what actually happens.
Spider-Man and the Green Goblin will have complex midair battles right over your head. This Spider-Man shoots webs, dances on the walls and even ceilings, he flies about the theater and the main stage, he suspends himself from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building, and at other times he floats gently through the air in dream sequences so gorgeous they’ll melt your heart.
Watching the musical on Saturday night, it was hard to imagine how this massive show will play six days a week, month after month without some kind of incident since the timing, athleticism and technical know how all seem to turn on a dime.
Just one false move – even the tiniest one – and the whole thing could come crashing, as some of the actors found to their horror during the show’s initial previews starting last November, when set malfunctions and injuries to the actors turned Spider-Man into a running national joke.
The technical wizardry of the show brings the audience to a level of attention that they might not otherwise pay to a production of this kind, and the marvelous thing is that your attention is rewarded.
When you hear Edge’s soaring guitar I defy you to remain unmoved. Music in the hands of this Irish pair becomes something rich and strange, far greater than the sum of its parts, as any U2 fan has known for decades. Taymor makes magic, but so too does Ireland’s greatest rock group.
Don’t think there aren’t some false notes in a show this ambitious. The Scissor Sisters disco beat of the act two opening number “A Freak Like Me” is one of the least successful songs in the show, for my money, but it’s given one of the biggest billings. Longtime fans know that U2 have always had a bit of a problem with cool and with disco in particular, which the Pet Shop Boys once noticed and lampooned them mercilessly for.
U2 are many things, but they have never been hip, exactly. It’s just not what they do.
U2 are about transcendence and yearning. They’re not about the East Village. And that fact hasn’t changed since Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant crossed the massive U2 hit “Where the Streets Have No Name” with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
So when they try to come off as ironic and knowing in Spider-Man they instead just sound caustic and a little sour – like your older brother who’s miffed he didn’t get the invite to the wacky party.
“All the weirdoes’ in the world are here right now in New York City,” Bono writes. That’s the kind of sentiment that’ll play well to the tourists just in from Kansas, but it sounds more than a bit lazy to the kids from New York. You wish he’d just leave it Lady Gaga, because it’s her style, not his.
One or two other numbers in an overall wonderfully successful score miss their mark emotionally too.
“Bullying By Numbers” is potentially as political a statement as Bono has ever made in his songwriting, but it still hedges its bets when it should reach for the juggler.
Bullying is bad, the song says, but it shies away from exploring why anyone would decide to become a bully in the first place. And that’s the kind of creative opportunity that no experienced Broadway songwriter would have overlooked, and it’s a bit of a shame Bono didn’t pursue it further.
What he does get right, in spades, is all the hurt and anguish of lovers who can’t quite tell the whole truth to each other. Bono writes about love and yearning with the authenticity of someone who’s had his heart scalded (and who’s scalded a few of his own) over the years.
It’s why he’s still famous, why his band is still such a force in rock. He can wrap bitter experience up in songs that are so sweet or so affecting that you’ll be powerless to resist.
Now, what about that $72 million spent on the show to date? Well, it was right up there on the stage, in those epic overhead battles, in all the dazzling theatricality and the rock concert flashiness.
Quite simply this show has the most amazing scenic design, costumes, lighting, and aerial rigging that you’ll ever see, period.
Sure, you can argue, the money might have been better spent on the refugees from the massive tornado in Missouri, but you could say that about the price of your last meal too. This is Broadway, where it’s go big or go home.
On Saturday night the audience roared its approval, and even the hardest hearts had to give the cast their due. America loves a comeback kid, and this may be one of the biggest comebacks that Broadway has ever seen.
Do yourself a favor. Get back in touch with your inner kid, go and see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and be prepare to be amazed.
(For ticket information and showtimes, visit www.spidermanonbroadway.marvel.com).