How Spidey let $60m (£45m) slip through his web

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The story of Spiderman.

Turn off the Dark is a textbook example of the dangers of hubris. A musical with a score by U2, and a Tony Award-winning theatre director at the helm, the perception was that it couldn’t be anything other than a huge hit. It ended up being the most expensive flop in theatre history, losing upwards of $60m (£45m), according to New York Magazine. The production’s running costs exceeded $1m (£750, 000) a week, but the perception among the show’s producers was that it would inevitably make that money back. “There was always this perception that the show was going to be a massive hit – how could it not be?” says the show’s co-writer Glen Berger, who wrote a book, Song of Spider-Man, about his experiences on the show. “When you look at who was on it and all the material, the discussion was never: ‘What happens if it closes in two months?’ The discussion was always: ‘How soon can we get three more productions up?’”

A web of woes

The musical’s inception dates back to 2002, when theatre producer Tony Adams signed up with Marvel to create the musical off the back of the first Spider-Man movie. Adams first enlisted U2’s Bono and The Edge to write the music for the show, then Julie Taymor, who was celebrating multi-million-dollar success with The Lion King musical. Playwright Berger was hired to write the musical along with Taymor. Speaking to the podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, he explained that the early days of the project were incredibly optimistic: “When we were together, we were so very focused and excited about the material, and we wanted to come up with something beautiful… it was conceived out of naive idealism and there was a lot of high spirits early on.” The problems really started when Adams died of a stroke in 2005. His business partner, entertainment lawyer David Garfinkle, decided to produce the show by himself, despite having no direct theatre production experience. As a result, his approach was very hands-off, and the budget started to skyrocket.

Delaying the inevitable

Numerous delays and problems ran up costs, according to The Edge, of $31.3m (£23.5m). Production was delayed in 2009, with the producers citing “an unexpected cash-flow problem”. Previews were suspended as the production scrabbled for additional investors. Bono and The Edge brought in Michael Cohl, best known as a rock promoter for U2 and the Rolling Stones, as the new lead producer of the show.

By this point, costs had risen to $50m (£38m), and, in an interview with The New York Times, Cohl said this would grow by at least $10m (£7.5m) by the time all expenses were accounted for. But Cohl wasn’t necessarily the best choice for a show that was already racking up excessive costs. His approach to production was ‘more is more’, which, along with Taymor’s ambitious vision for the show, was destined to push costs skywards.

Set to fail

The complex technical requirements led to problems that resulted in a number of injuries on set. Two injuries were caused by a ramp that failed to lower in time for ‘Spider-Man’ to land a backflip. The actor playing Arachne was concussed by a piece of the set and was off the show for three weeks. One of the stuntmen fell 30 feet, sustaining several injuries.

“Our set was so involved and so complicated and so expensive that we had to install it at the Foxwoods Theatre, and we couldn’t break it down out of town and bring it into New York. We had to do everything there in New York, so, instead of going out with our pants round our ankles out of town and slowly pulling our pants up, we had to do it all under the hot glare of New York City,” says Berger. By the time the musical entered its final preview phase in summer 2011, the production had been shut down six times, and Taymor had been fired from the project. According to Berger, she just could not accept that the project was doomed: “When the time came, when it really did seem that the writing was on the wall, I think, for certain people, it was very hard to read that writing. It was very hard to get it into [their head] that actually this show has maybe three weeks of life in it.” The production eventually ran for two years, but it didn’t make enough to recoup its costs. For Berger, it was a gruelling ordeal that is painful to revisit: “It was less of a musical for me and more of a life event that I’m sure I’ll be chewing on for some time.”

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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