Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to close in January

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is going where it belongs: Las Vegas.Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 10.58.59 AM

According to the Wall Street Journal, the $75 million blockbuster show will be closing in January after a troubled three-year run. “Troubled” was the word most-often attached to the show, and the show’s deep-pockets investors are likely feeling the same. But they know when to cut their losses.

Much of Spider-Man‘s run was spent in previews. The show did a staggering 180 previews – nearly six months! – before it opened. I saw preview No. 8, and was not inspired to go back again, though according to Ben Brantley in the Times, it got better. A tiny little bit better.

But it was always a mess, despite – or perhaps because of? – the big names attached to it: Director Julie Taymor of The Lion King, who left acrimoniously before it opened, and Bono and The Edge of U2, who delivered a few decent songs and a batch of unexceptional ones.

As a lifelong rock fan whose childhood music, pre-Beatles, was musical theater, I’m a potential fan of rock in musicals. But the combination often fails. Rock songs at their best are simple but powerful, while the requirements of musical theater need the songs to do more than they often can. There are exceptions, Rent being primary among them. But in some ways, Rent was the exception that proves the rule. And even Rent was more musical theater than rock.

And it’s interesting that the guys who are attitudinally most likely to produce a rock musical – Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park – chose to go with traditional Broadway styles when they created The Book of Mormon. In going that route, they ended up creating something revolutionary and profitable.

But my biggest problem with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark wasn’t with the music – I really love the opening song, “The Boy Falls From the Sky” and the almost Public Enemy groove of “Sinisterio” – or even the staging, which is spectacular. It was with the story: I know people consider the story of Spider-Man to be somehow profound – or at least, dark and moody, which often gets mistaken for profundity – but the source is a comic book. Or, at best, a movie based on a comic book. When even a great movie like Tim Burton’s Big Fish strains the resources of top-notch talents when they try to turn it into a great musical, what chance does a comic book movie have?

I can imagine Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark doing well in Vegas, which would probably not bother at least Bono and The Edge, who have had a soft spot in their hearts for the Heart of Mammon since they filmed the videos for The Joshua Tree there. And Spider-Man has the sort of glitzy, acrobatic spectacle that goes over well in Vegas. One can see it sliding quite comfortably into a slot somewhere between that city’s many Cirque du Soleil shows.

But I have to say that I’m relieved that Spider-Man has now officially failed on Broadway, financially as well as artistically. Perhaps this might slow the Disney-fication of Broadway into ever-bigger, ever-more-crass event productions. It wasn’t the first, and it was by no means alone: Broadway is chock-a-bloc with silly, derivative, lame musicals. They are, sadly, the rule. And very few actually rock.

But it would be nice to see Big Money rethink such over-the-top, yet uninspired gambles as Spider-Man. Money can’t buy you love, and it can’t buy you art. Spider-Man may now serve as a cautionary tale about the limits of big money, big names and a supposedly-can’t-lose “synergistic,” Hollywood-style franchise.

With smaller, more intelligent shows such as Natasha, Pierre and the Comet of 1812, David Byrne’s Here Lies Love and the new A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder proving that you don’t need to fly someone around a theater to win hearts and put butts in seats, perhaps a flop this big will cause Broadway to look less to big names. Maybe, just maybe, Broadway will get back to growing great musical theater from the ground up, rather than from the Hollywood-style “high concept” down.

Then again, according to today’s Guardian, the show may be replaced in the enormous Foxwoods Theater by King Kong: The Musical.

– David Watts Barton

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