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At Long Last, Curtain To Rise On 'Spider-Man'

Reeve Carney (left) as Peter Parker and Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson on the <em>Spider-Man </em>set at the Foxwoods Theatre. Carney previously starred in Taymor's film  <em>The Tempest</em>; Damiano earned a Tony nomination in 2009 for her performance in <em>Next to Normal</em>.
Jacob Cohl
Reeve Carney (left) as Peter Parker and Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson on the Spider-Man set at the Foxwoods Theatre. Carney previously starred in Taymor's film The Tempest; Damiano earned a Tony nomination in 2009 for her performance in Next to Normal.

After months of previews, cast injuries, scathing reviews, innumerable jokes and the firing of its creator and director, the $75 million musical Spider Man: Turn Off the Darkofficially opens Tuesday night on Broadway. The show — the most expensive in Broadway history — has been almost completely revamped.

Spider-Man's lead producers, Jeremiah Harris and Michael Cohl, knew when previews began last November that their show was in deep trouble. Audiences were flocking to the theater despite all the negative publicity, but the story just wasn't working. The production suffered through delay after delay to deal with budget and rehearsal issues, until, in February critics reviewed the show while it was still in previews — and trashed it.

Cohl says he and his partner knew something had to be done:

"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 gonna be a slow death. And we started talking about who should we bring in?"

Carney and Damiano recreate an iconic scene from the 2002 film.
/ Jacob Cohl
Jacob Cohl
Carney and Damiano recreate an iconic scene from the 2002 film.

They made some surprising and dramatic decisions. When Julie Taymor, the show's co-author and director, refused to make wholesale changes to the production, they fired her. She was replaced by Philip William McKinley, who has directed on Broadway and for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. McKinley says he identified the show's problems right away.

"It was clear to me that the audience was not getting the story, that they weren't understanding what was happening on stage. And I remember saying there were three things that I thought this show needed," McKinley says. "I think it needed joy, and it needed humanity and it needed characters you really cared about."

The producers also hired playwright Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, who has written Spider-Man comics, to join the show's original co-author, Glen Berger, in reworking the script.

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 that features aerial acrobatics over the audience's heads, constantly shifting sets and an elaborate video design, the new production's team focused on the essentials.

"There was a ticking clock on it," Aguirre-Sacasa says. "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."

They got the show's songwriters — Bono and The Edge of U2, who had never written a musical before — to come up with new material, including a second act-opener called "A Freak Like Me" for the play's villain, the Green Goblin.

And then the producers did something completely unprecedented. On April 19, they closed the theater's doors to incorporate all the changes.

"No one — no one — shuts down a Broadway musical for four weeks and totally revamps it," Berger says. "But yeah, it turned out that was the case!"

Almost all the main roles got expanded and clarified in the rewrite. Reeve Carney, who plays the title role and his mild-mannered alter-ego Peter Parker, says over 90 percent of his dialogue is new.

"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," Carney says.

Still, the new creative team wasn't going to jettison all of Julie Taymor's signature set pieces.

"I would never get rid of some of the beautiful things that are there," McKinley says. "They're Julie's vision and certainly they are present. And [I] never thought for a moment that would not have been a wise thing to do."

Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, which handles advance ticket sales to groups of between 15 and a couple hundred people, says she and her sales agents spent a good deal of time during the show's six months of previews 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.

"I've never seen such an enormous gamble and a brave undertaking, you know, drama aside," Lee says. "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."

Indeed. Last week, just a few days after Lee made that statement, it was announced that the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society had filed a claim for arbitration on Taymor's behalf for an estimated $300,000 in unpaid royalties. A call to Taymor's attorney revealed that the director hadn't been paid her author's royalties either.

There are clearly more twists down the road on this Spider-Manstory, but for the time being, cast members like Jennifer Damiano, who plays Peter Parker's love interest, Mary Jane Watson, are thrilled that their extra-long rehearsal and preview period is finally coming to an end.

"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," Damiano says. "I mean, that seems like such a dream and it's been so out of reach for so long!"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.