With word that Mel Brooks’ musical Young Frankenstein is closing right after the new year, insiders are betting that Spider-Man, the Julie Taymor-directed adaptation of the popular comic book hero, budgeted at close to 40 million, might fill the vacancy at the Hilton Theatre.
Superhero pics have become the “event movies” of summer and reliable money makers. This summer saw box-office busting numbers as crowds flocked to see a tortured vigilante dressed like a bat and a former arms-dealing billionaire bedecked in a high tech suit. Even the rebooted Incredible Hulk performed well. But can the same mania capture the Great White Way in these uncertain economic times? Will the teen boys who comprise the salivated-over demographic at the multiplex pay ten times as much to see a superhero not only battle the bad guys, but belt out an 11 o’clock number and do a soft shoe as well? And what of the tourist throngs?
We may have the answer soon if Spider-Man, with music by U2’s Bono and The Edge, swings onstage as anticipated. Theater insiders and bloggers were tipped off to the project when casting notices began appearing in trades like Back Stage and on Playbill.com over a year ago. In addition to the characters of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and his feisty red-headed love interest Mary Jane Watson, the notices called for a Greek chorus of teens, who “meet to ritualistically retell the greatest Spider-Man stories.” If anyone has the chops to fuse the fanboy mythology of Spider-Man to a larger classical sense, it’s Taymor. But no matter what theatrical conceits are employed, will it fill houses and recoup that exorbitant investment? The layman has a hard time accepting that characters in musicals burst into song spontaneously, much less so clad in tights and having ostensibly just saved Manhattan from the throes of the Green Goblin. How big is the overlap in the Venn Diagram of comic book geeks and musical theater freaks anyway?
Spider-Man won’t be the first hero to leave the comic book panel for the footlights, as Superman got the musical treatment in the 1966 Charles Strouse show It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, which played for 129 performances before shuttering. In 2007 The York Theatre Company’s Musicals In Mufti series presented a concert version starring Cheyenne Jackson, he of the matinee idols looks and Herculean thighs. Fellow DC Comics crusader Batman was ostensibly going to have his own musical, which Warner Bros. started developing in 1998 with music and lyrics by frequent Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman. But apparently after the disaster that was Dance of the Vampires on Broadway, which Steinman wrote, Warner pulled the plug and decided to invest in Elton John’s equally execrable vampire romp Lestat, which received its own stake through the heart by critics. (Lesson here: vampires are box office garlic.) Still, Steinman posted some of the demos he’d written to his website, including a Batman/ Catwoman love duet!
Success tends to favor those who approach their source material with tongue firmly planted in cheek, like the George Street playhouse’s world premiere of The Toxic Avenger, a rock musical based on Troma Entertainment’s mop-wielding B-movie misfit. The show even boasts music and lyrical contributions by Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan. Then there was Joss Whedon’s “web miniseries” Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which starred Neil Patrick Harris (himself no stranger to musical theater) as the titular villain, a lovelorn evil genius bent on world domination (but then aren’t they all?). Whedon managed to mix the genres of musical and superhero to successful effect — but that was a three part web series with episodes lasting fifteen minutes maximum. What about sustaining that interest and curiosity for three hours with intermission?
Taymor held a reading of Spider-Man last fall with Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood — the photogenic young stars of her last film, Across the Universe — in the lead roles of Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Mary Jane, respectively. And a few months ago, a blogger who got a sneak peak at some sketches of the set design, as reported by Publisher’s Weekly, posted tidbits on her LiveJournal. According to her, there will be wire work and “lots of LED stuff” (no mention of puppets, though!). And the music: “It’s undeniably U2 in the very best way. There’s a beautiful duet between Peter and MJ that I’m sure we’ll all see at the 2010 Tonys.”
Alright then! So that’s one vote of confidence, based on some renderings and a passing listen to the score. But then, Taymor was able to take an animated children’s movie and turn it into a theatrical event that has run for ten years. What if Spider-Man does indeed manage to deflect critics’ bullets, draw a diverse swath of theater-goers, and most of all, make money? Lord knows producers are a craven lot, and one whiff of the almighty box office dollar will send them scurrying for a masked man who can carry a tune faster than a speeding bullet. Can we then expect Frank Wildhorn’s Aquaman: The Musical to make its debut sometime in the 2011 season? Producers were best heed Spider-Man’s mantra: “With great power comes great responsibility.”