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Pull the plug on Spider-Man's Broadway musical

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Time to turn out the lights on 'Turn Off the Dark'...

Spidey's stunt double en route to hospital

The news keeps getting worse for Julie Taymor's ambitious theatrical re-imagining of Spider-Man's origin and subsequent adventures. Last night's preview performance of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' was cut short when one of its many publicized stunts went haywire, leading to a stuntman suffering several broken ribs. The performer, reported to be Spidey stand-in Christopher Tierney, was on stage during a scene that called for a quick leap to the ground from a raised platform when the rope tied to his safety harness failed and he plunged an estimated 25 feet. Tierney was rushed to New York's Bellvue Hospital (pic above) and is in stable condition.

The accident is the latest in a series of gaffes and problems that have plagued the Broadway production since its outset. Early reports and reviews of the script were less than favorable, as preview attendees bemoaned the clunky dialogue and strange character selection (one of Spidey's nemeses is Arachne, a character that never appeared in the comics and was created specifically for this production). These rumblings prompted Taymor, director of Broadway smash 'The Lion King', and co-writer Glen Berger to go back to the drawing board and perform a substantial rewrite of the script, ballooning the play's already massive $65 million budget, by far the most expensive Broadway musical in history.

Tierney's injury isn't the first calamity to befall a cast member. Just two weeks ago, Arachne actress Natalie Mendoza (The Descent) suffered a concussion when a heavy stunt rope snapped from its moorings backstage and struck her in the head, necessitating a temporary exit from rehearsals to recover. In addition to two earlier stunt mishaps, Tierney's injury yesterday evening brings the total of cast accidents to four, with the production yet to begin its official run.

These problems, along with reported cuing issues between the soundtrack provided by U2's Bono and The Edge and the production's scene transitions, have led to repeated postponements of the start of the aforementioned official run. Originally slated to open in November, 'Turn Off the Dark' has been subsequently pushed off to December, January, and now 7 February in order for the crew to make 'creative changes' and fix the bugs that appear to be plaguing the stunt team and its equipment.

"Via a few crucial missteps along the way, Julie Taymor appears to have unwittingly backed herself into a corner with her latest Broadway effort."

So there are the facts. For all intents and purposes, 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' looks to be on a collision course with "disaster in the making" status. Via a few crucial missteps along the way, Julie Taymor appears to have unwittingly backed herself into a corner with her latest Broadway effort. Worryingly, these missteps could easily lead to anything from a flood of scathing reviews and an early Broadway exit to tragedy onstage in front of hundreds of paying customers.

Firstly, Taymor's grasp of the Spider-Man ethos and origin story, according to fans of the comic who have been privy to an early screening, is tenuous at best and non-existent at worst. Granted, a narrow focus on the fanboy demographic would hardly recoup such a mammoth budget, but it would stand to reason that a basic understanding of the source material is the least that Spider-Man fans could ask for. If early reviews are any indication, the Taymor and Berger writing team has come up short of that modest task.

If a dearth of interesting characterizations and a lack of bright script moments isn't troubling enough, the production's massive budget paradoxically threatens to both sink the entire operation and make it impossible to do anything but push valiantly on. At $65 million (and growing), the budget for 'Turn Off the Dark' is nearly triple the second most expensive Broadway musical ever made ('Shrek: the Musical' clocked in at $25 million). As it is becoming quickly apparent that no amount of money has been able to stem the tide of production problems thus far, the knee-jerk reaction might be to institute a massive retooling or to just scrap the project entirely before it gets completely out of hand. Such a move is extremely unlikely, however, for the exact same reason - money. 'Turn Off the Dark' nearly didn't get off the ground because of the difficulty in financing such an expensive show. Now that it is nearing completion, its financiers are expecting a return on their investments. The show, for better or worse, will almost certainly go on.

Lastly, and most importantly, is the safety of the production's cast and crew. Taymor's big audience hook is her ambitious and awe-inspiring use of stunts in mimicking Spider-Man's comic book abilities. From what I've seen, these are certainly gasp-inducing and incredible, but at what cost? Every two to three weeks, there is another stunt gone wrong, and another month added to the show's "preview period" in the hopes that the wrinkles can be smoothed once and for all. Only by sheer luck, though, has the team behind 'Turn Off the Dark' not already been faced with a crisis of conscience. Many people, including stuntmen, have died from falls less sheer than the one Tierney suffered last night.

"With closing down the project a near-impossibility, the production is in a dangerous position in that it can only move forward..."

To make it clear - nothing illegal is being done here. Per regulations, the crew of 'Turn Off the Dark' is working closely with the New York Department of Labor, who must inspect safety equipment and give the go-ahead for public performances to be allowed. Actors' Equity, the theater actor and stage manager union, seemed less than pleased with the mishap, however. In a brief statement, the union said that it would be "working with management and the Department of Labor to ensure that performances will not resume until back-up safety measures are in place". A worthy delay, certainly, but one wonders why such a high-risk show was not already making use of such measures.

At this point in production, I think it necessary that Ms. Taymor and the rest of the cast and crew ask themselves a very important question: is groundbreaking spectacle really worth rolling the dice on a human life? With an out-of-control budget, shaky script, middling reviews, and a succession of bizarre stunt injuries, the public perception is that Taymor and her team appear to almost be throwing caution to the wind in a desperate attempt to avoid a failure of epic proportions. With closing down the project a near-impossibility, the production is in a dangerous position in that it can only move forward, while being dogged by the spectre of possible critical revilement, looming deadlines, and the necessity of consuming more and more money all the while. Inexorable and forced progress does not a comfortable and positive work environment make, especially when the players in such an environment are already under tremendous pressure to succeed. One nearly hopes that 'Turn Off the Dark' is indeed the debacle that it appears on the surface and beats a hasty retreat from Broadway. That way, its infamy will only encompass wasted money, sub-par plotting, and disappointing sales, instead of far worse. Better a lost opportunity than a lost life.


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