Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Philip William McKinley take a...

Playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Philip William McKinley take a break from "Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark" rehearsal. (May 11, 2011) Credit: Ari Mintz

In his old Marvel Comics "Bullpen Bulletins" homilies, Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee would sometimes wish for his readers, "May thy webs be ever untangled!"

With any luck, that's exactly what the producers of the much-maligned Broadway musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" have achieved with the revamped version returning in previews Thursday night: Untangle the spectacular stagecraft of departed director Julie Taymor from the obliviously convoluted and self-indulgent web of co-writer Julie Taymor.

"We have not spoken with her," says the show's new book writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, sealing the break between the old show and "Spidey 2.0."

That break may lift what seems to be a curse on the show.


'Spider-Man' as punchline

Aside from the near-unanimous brickbats it suffered when critics reviewed the preview of Feb. 7 -- the fourth announced and delayed opening night -- enough performers suffered injuries that the show became a punch line. Stunt Spider-Man Christopher Tierney was hospitalized after falling at least 20 feet, and Natalie Mendoza, the first to play the spider-goddess Arachne, suffered a concussion during the first preview. Her replacement, T.V. Carpio, was later injured and had to sit out the show for two weeks.

"It's great to have spectacle, but the heart and soul is the story, first, then that combined with music. And then you fill in around it," says co-producer Jeremiah Harris, echoing the view, he says, of composers Bono and The Edge of U2. "That's where we struggled," he admits, "on the story side."

Though doing mega-box-office, it was clear the musical was in danger of becoming a laughingstock. Aguirre-Sacasa, director Philip William McKinley and creative consultant Paul Bogaev all came in at the producers' request. In early March, Taymor agreed to step aside.

Harris and fellow producer Michael Cohl saw the crisis "at almost exactly the same time, during the Christmas break," nearly a month after the show's initial preview on Nov. 28. "And we didn't know exactly what we had to do, but we knew we had to do something."

"It was tough," agrees Cohl. "There was so much publicity, and you tell yourself you don't want to read it all and then you just do. And your friends and acquaintances tell you what they've read, and everybody has an opinion -- what's wrong, what's right, how to fix it. It's hard to keep a clear head, but we think we've done it."


Expect major changes

The changes to the show involve wholesale deletions of scenes and characters (see sidebar) and a new emphasis on the human factor that has made Spider-Man so popular since Lee and artist co-conceptualizer Steve Ditko devised the character in 1962.

"Flash Thompson, Aunt May, Uncle Ben -- the classic [supporting] characters -- have all had their stories deepened, and they have more to do," says Aguirre-Sacasa, an established playwright and screenwriter (HBO's "Big Love") who in 2006 and 2007 wrote 18 issues of "The Sensational Spider-Man," a spinoff of the flagship series "The Amazing Spider-Man."

One big change in particular, Aguirre-Sacasa reveals, has been to the pivotal moment when, in the classic telling, Peter Parker selfishly lets a robber escape whom he could have easily stopped -- a robber who, as fate would have it, later kills Peter's Uncle Ben, triggering Peter's desire to take responsibility for his power and become the superhero Spider-Man. In the musical, Peter, more or less, simply didn't yell loudly enough to keep high-school bully Flash Thompson from -- quite accidentally -- running Ben over. Not exactly the same thing.

"It's always hard to kill someone onstage and carry that moment through," Harris says. "Clearly the staging of that was probably not our best moment: Him running out in front of the [car] pop-out, which is a great piece of art, but it just had no impact," either physically or emotionally. "So we've come up with a new way of doing that critical moment in Spider-Man's life."


Going to the source

It didn't hurt that the producers, in addition to bringing on McKinley and Bogaev, actually drank at the original creative fountain for help. "We went to Marvel," Cohl recalls, "and said, 'We need one of your writers. Who do you recommend? Someone young and energetic.' And they said Roberto, and we met with him and it clicked."

He wasn't the only Marvelite directly involved, says Aguirre-Sacasa. The company's chief creative officer, former editor in chief Joe Quesada, pitched jokes for the new script, and more seriously "helped us with one of the things we did for this iteration, which was expand the role of the Green Goblin" -- Spider-Man's arch-nemesis, who had anticlimactically died at the end of scene one.

It is a tangled web that Taymor wove. But perhaps by the time this new version of "Spider-Man" opens officially on June 14, true to Lee's dictum, yon webs will be untangled.




What's different


Here are some of the changes between the original and the revamped versions:

GONE The Geek Chorus of four teenage Spider-Man fans who framed the story.

GONE The mind-boggling musical number "Deeply Furious," in which Arachne and her spider-women minions do a dance with designer footwear that these powerful mythological beings have, well, stolen from New York City shoe stores.

REDUCED The role of the spider-goddess Arachne, widely seen as a Taymor manqué, who manipulated the actions of the story and created illusions that only made a labyrinthine script even murkier.

EXPANDED The role of Spider-Man's arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin, played with brio by Broadway wonder Patrick Page.

EXPANDED The roles of such supporting characters as Peter Parker's Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and his sweetheart Mary Jane Watson

CHANGED The pivotal death that causes Peter Parker to realize that, "With great power there must also come great responsibility."




A free LIRR ride to the show


Long Islanders can get a break on travel expenses when going to see "Spider-Man": The Long Island Rail Road is offering promotional codes on platform posters and in fliers at the stations that theatergoers can present when buying a ticket to the show. In return, they'll get a free LIRR round-trip ticket, good for anywhere on the line.

If you buy through Ticketmaster, you need to purchase show tickets 10 days in advance for Ticketmaster to mail you the train tickets. Those who purchase at the theater box office will be handed LIRR tickets there.

Top Stories

Newsday LogoYour Island. Your Community. Your News.Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months