What Went Wrong With Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?

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“With great power there must also come – great responsibility!” is the infamous quote spoken by the narrator (not Uncle Ben) in the August 1962 issue of the comic book Amazing Fantasy which first chronicled dorky high schooler Peter Parker’s rise to the now instantly recognizable Spider-Man.

This is also the advice that the creative team behind 2010’s rock musical (based on the aforementioned comics) Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have taken into consideration during its difficult inception and subsequent reworkings –  that ended up costing $75 million, the most expensive Broadway musical in history.

Is it fair to call Turn Off the Dark a complete and total flop? Well, no. Not in a traditional sense. It did see a few moments of box office success, such in as January 2012 when it made $2,941,790 in ticket sales – the highest single week gross of any Broadway show. And when Turn Off the Dark finally met its demise in early January 2014, it had played 1,066 performances (including it’s 182 performance preview period, the longest in Broadway history). But there’s no denying that somewhere along the way things went very, very wrong.

It’d be impossible to cover everything that led to Turn Off the Dark‘s place in Broadway infamy, because there’s honestly too much to even begin to wrap your head around. Glen Berger, one of Turn Off the Dark’s co-writers has a great memoir out called Song Of Spider-Man that tells his side of the story – it’s where much of the research for this post comes from and I’d highly recommend it if you’re interested in learning more.

A glaringly obvious issue with the idea of a Spider-Man musical you don’t need a book to lay out for you is this: it’s a brand. One of the most recognizable brands in the world. And when you’re as big as Spidey, you have some people to please: Marvel execs, the fans, and most importantly, a general Broadway audience. Director of Turn Off the Dark, the acclaimed Julie Taymor (best known for her innovative work on the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King), had a vision – she wanted to break ground with Turn Off the Dark‘s abundance of aerial tricks, all while turning up the edge factor of the traditional Spider-Man story to 11, and throwing in a bit of Greek mythology for good measure. With music by U2’s Bono and The Edge, Taymor was convinced it’d be a hit. Needless to say, Marvel execs didn’t agree with many of the team’s creative choices. When word got out about what the Broadway elite was doing to their beloved Peter Parker and company, neither did the fans. And come the show’s very first preview in November 2010, the Broadway crowd made their thoughts clear – when after the show had to be put on hold for the fifth time due to tech issues (such as an awkward moment near the end of the first act when Reeve Carney (as Spider-Man) was literally left hanging over the audiences’ heads), the crowd erupted into boos.

Poor audience response and technical glitches akin to what happened at the first preview continued to plague the show, so much so that it forced the show’s official opening night to be delayed six times, finally opening on June 14th, 2011. Despite all the external issues of Turn Off the Dark, the internal issues were arguably the root of all its problems. Glen Berger, book writer, and others on the creative team had come to the conclusion that revisions to the story desperately needed to be made. Previews were closed for about a month from April to May of 2011 in an attempt to repair the show. Unhappy with how her vision was coming to life, Julie Taymor left the project altogether sometime in March. This, on top of the five accidents causing injuries to actors and stunt doubles before the show had even opened, created a ton of bad publicity for the show among both critics and fans. The average review rating was a F+, with the revised incarnation of the show getting a slight bump up to a C-. But no matter the revisions or the reviews, Turn Off the Dark‘s fate was sealed before opening night. The unprecedented amount of negativity surrounding the show that had previously been much anticipated had taken a toll, and although the show had played for a solid two and a half years, losses were estimated at $60 million by its closing.

The opening scene from the musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" during a rehearsal in New York.
A scene of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that caused many issues during production.

Did Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark become the next huge Broadway hit like Julie Taylor had wanted? Obviously, no. Was it ambitious? That’s a definite yes. Mostly to its own fault. But you can’t really blame someone like Julie Taymor and her fellow Turn Off the Dark creatives for having that ambition, right? On page 139 of Song of Spider-Man Glen Berger asks: “Really, what wasn’t ridiculous on a stage?”. And he’s right. In 2017, the biggest musical on Broadway features founding father Alexander Hamilton rapping through early American history for a full two hours. Perhaps Turn Off the Dark would have done better if it had ran now, when people could actually accept and respect an idea like it. Maybe it would’ve had consistent ticket sales if the media weren’t so harsh on it. Or maybe comics just don’t translate on stage like books and films do, and nothing could have saved poor Peter Parker and company. It’s hard to come to a definitive answer aside from “It was just doomed from the start”.

Whatever combination of factors that prevented Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to “rise above”, the show (and all its mishaps) has left an impact on theatre. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll leave up to you – I’m not really sure what I think. You could interpret it as a cautionary tale; a reminder that not all visions need to be fully realized. Or you could think of it the other way; you’ll never know where an idea will take you unless you pitch it.

Later on page 139 of Song of Spider-Man, Berger says, “Art does voodoo, and we buy it. Except for all the times that we don’t”. Whether or not you buy the messy tale that is Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? That’s for you to decide.

Spring break hiatus!

Hi everyone!

Firstly, I’d like to apologize for the lack of posts yesterday. I’m really busy sorting out other things I have to get done before I leave for vacation tomorrow. I didn’t want to post a lackluster post just to stay on schedule. Hope you all can understand. But in the meantime, check out Tuesday’s post on theatre etiquette!

Secondly, I’ve mentioned briefly in previous posts that there’ll be no posts this coming Tuesday and Friday due to my spring break. But I’ll be back starting April 4th with a post about the controversy surrounding Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and why it failed, then on April 7th with a analysis post on why so many non-theatre fans like Hamilton. That’s actually what I’ll be using the data from my Google survey for! You can still take it until then if you haven’t already.

I’ll try to update you all on the Project Theatricality Twitter, but if not, have a safe and great week! See you in April!