PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark — I Spy a Spidey on Broadway
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of the new Broadway musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.
It's a bird . . . it's a plane . . . no — believe it or not, folks — it's actually Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, officially bowing on Broadway June 14 at the mammoth Foxwoods Theatre.
After 183 times at bat — an unprecedented protracted preview period that grossed northward of $60 million — the world's most expensive musical (northward of $70 million) is now frozen and fully functioning, like any other kid on the Broadway block.
His gestation period was exactly that of a child, and the labor pains were screamed out with regularity in international headlines, often drowning out the noise made by the regular Broadway class of 2010-2011, which just wrapped its season with the Tony Awards ceremony two days before Spidey opened.
You gotta hand it to the web-slinger. Circling and soaring and spinning around the cavernous Foxwoods, he really knows how to work a room. And to the star-centric, eclectic group of first-nighters, he was received as the Action Hero they'd been waiting for.
It was as though its creators had finally heeded their own subtitle and turned off the dark to deliver a comic-strip stalwart in all his primary colors and glory. And the NYC-saving course of action he pursued was properly broad-stroked and easy to follow, contrary to the confusing and contorted storyline the critics last reported.
Fittingly, the stars came out in packs and posses for The Event. After working the press line to distraction, cheered on by a block-long throng that lined four-deep the north side of the sidewalk on West 43rd, nobody seemed in any particular hurry to find their seats so they just hung out in the rotunda, making small talk and glamorous spectacles of themselves.
Seen forming star-clusters: Harry Belafonte, Lesley Stahl, Cindy Crawford, Ben Vereen, Countess LuAnn de Lessups, Harriet Storm, Paige Davis, Deborah Cox, Senator William Cohen and Janet Langhart Cohen, Howard Stringer, Vito Roccoforte, Hinton Battle and Julian Casablancas.
"What time does this show begin?" Harvey Weinstein gruffly asked at 6:45. "6:30," he was told. The preshow buzz was so intense no one noticed or cared that the curtain was being held so a U.S. President could join the festivities. At 7:15, the silver mane of Bill Clinton rippled across the crowd and stopped at his aisle seat on Row N — the biggest political figure to show up at a Broadway opening since his veep, Al Gore, surfaced at Dance of the Vampires.
At intermission, Clinton sat on the arm of his aisle seat and held court, creating an aisle congestion not to be believed. When he wasn't signing autographs, Jimmy Fallon was kibitzing with Fran Lebowitz over only-God-knows-what.
Salman Rushdie, one of the more unexpected first-nighters, turned out to be a self-confessed "big Spider-Man fan. Actually, I'm a major comic-book freak. I grew up in India reading comics — Superman and Batman, I know a lot about." Equally surprising was the appearance of Dublin's Glen Hansard, whose visceral vocalization of "Falling Slowly" in "Once" won the 2007 Oscar for Best Song. Right now he's touring with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, dropping by only for a third look-see at Spider-Man. He plans to be back in New York by fall when the stage version of "Once" goes into rehearsal at New York Theatre Workshop. "We start working on it in October or November, and it'll officially open in December."
A-listers pressed on with Barbara Walters, Spike Lee, Liam Neeson, Julian Lennon, Cindy Crawfrord, Amy Irving, John McEnroe, Gina Gershon and Helena Christensen.
With a willowy blonde decoy, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber was clearly on reconnaissance to see what an American musical spectacle looked like and if the Foxwoods acreage was big enough to accommodate his future musical dreams.
The second act told the British composer all he needed to know. By the final curtain, the audience was meshed in the paper webbing that Spidey had used to stop The Sinister Six in their nefarious tracks. Tangled in the shredding, we watched while Spidey met their leader, The Green Goblin, above us for an aerial showdown that dipped and dove like an old World War I dogfight, only with people playing planes.
First out for curtain calls after the happy landing were a dozen guys in Spider-Man suits. About three-fourths of them flew at some point in the evening; the rest were tumblers and gymnasts who worked on the terra firma all evening. The rest of the players were followed by a man with a microphone, Philip Wm. McKinley, the designated director of the evening whose official title is "Creative Consultant."
"There are a lot of people with Turn Off the Dark that are in the dark who are making those of us who are in the light possible," he said, by way of introducing the next tidal wide of humanity that would sweep across the sprawling Foxwoods stage. "Please welcome all the staff and the crew that are behind the scenes." Capping that wave were Bono and The Edge, the show's tunesmiths from U2.
When that response subsided, McKinley brought on the person who zealously held on to the "original direction" credit and whose work is most plainly apparent in the show: "Please welcome a collaborator that none of this would have been possible without — would you please welcome to the stage Miss Julie Taymor?"
Dressed in black and flashing a broad, pearly smile that hadn't been seen in some time, Taymor took center stage like it was hers (it was, too), causing the audience to explode with applause and long, loud roars of approval. "By the way, you're looking hot, Julie," cracked Bono, taking the mike for a round of thanks which ended with the audience: "Really, thanks for your patience, and thanks for standing by us. We couldn't give up. We had to save Spider-Man because Spider-Man has to save New York."
The Edge then gave his two cents' worth. "In order to persuade me to do this project in the beginning," he said, "Bono told me that it took Elton John just three weeks to write the music for [Lestat], so he said, 'Edge, at the very outside, this will take us . . . six weeks.' It took a lot longer than six weeks, but I think, as they say, good things come to those who wait."
Taymor, rightly, had the last words. Though tame, those words were at least very heart-felt: "I just want to thank everybody, especially this cast, this crew, these musicians and these incredible creative teams that I had to work with for a long time."
The after-party was held a couple of blocks away at Bowlmor Lanes, a new opening-night party site used only once before (for Baby It's You!). Plastic cups of champagne greeted you at the door while you waited for the elevator that would transport you to three or four different floors of alley-booth buffets and drinks. The line to get in stretched from the Bowlmor entrance down 44th Street to Broadway.
Meanwhile, back on 43rd Street, the real party was going on backstage and in the dressing rooms with the starry, starry guest-list mixing it up with the creatives.
Eventually, the cast was sent outside to do their duty in the press lines. When the camera lights came on, all signs of fatigue miraculously fled from their faces. That's show business, and it photographs for the television cameras.
Sound technicians with boom mikes got static from faithful fans still standing in front of the old New York Times building, squealing and cheering when a Brand-Name Star left the theatre for a waiting van — Robert DeNiro and Grace Hightower, a shy Matt Damon and wife, Steve Martin egging on the noise, Gayle King and Cory Booker. Faced with the interviewers or the fans, Bono and The Edge opted for the latter and broke free from their bodyguards to rush across the street for some impromptu glad-handing with the fans who had come out for them.
The "rumor" that Anthony Weiner was in attendance turned out to be the wicked handiwork of Michael Mulheren, an aggressively funny actor who presents much that same impression on stage as the Daily Bugle's blowhard publisher, J. Jonas Jameson. The actor claimed he was not channeling J.K. Simmons, "a dear friend" who did the role in the "Spider-Man" movies, but rather "my deceased brother, John, yelling at employees. We veered away from J.K. because we're a little bit, possibly more over-the-top than he was in the films."
Mulheren enjoyed brandishing an imposing cigar in the press line, something he's not allowed to do in the show. "You can't smoke a cigar on stage in New York. It has to be the herbal stuff so we cut it out completely, but I'm glad to have one now."
In the revised script, his character has been thoroughly reshuffled into the plot. "I'm in only one scene in the first act and in five scenes in the second act. It's a little busier show for me in Act Two, but I don't mind. I'd rather be on stage than off.
"I wanted Bono and The Edge, those ungrateful bastards, to write me a song, but they haven't done it yet. The show works now. The audience gets it. It's a big musical spectacle. Whatever folks say it, the audience really likes it, and that's what counts."
Like Mulheren, Isabel Keating appeared in director McKinley's previous Broadway outing, The Boy From Oz, turning in a Tony-nominated portrayal of Peter Allen's mother-in-law, Judy Garland. And, yes, she was invited to attend the 50th anniversary celebration of Garland's Carnegie Hall concert — by Albert Poland, producer of The Boy From Oz and president of the Judy Garland fan club back in the day — but her roles in Spider-Man prevented her from going.
"I'm having the most A-mazing time, I'll tell you why: We've been doing this almost a year, and this is the most resilient, incredible, full-of-heart-and-soul company of kids and creative teams," she declared. There was once a low-ebb point where she pep-talked the company back into place. "It was a moment where some bad decisions were just about to be made, and I had to put my foot down and say, 'You're going to be shooting yourself in the foot.'" Her voice of reason cooled the revolt-in-the-ranks.
Fast-forward to her first official curtain call only a few hours before where tears came to Keating's eyes. "It was a huge relief," she allowed, "and it was doubly emotional because of the return of Julie. We hadn't seen her in a long time, and we love her. She's the mother of us all, and we love Phil and the work he has done."
Counting a cartoon-faced little old lady who has her purse robbed, Keating figured she does at least five different roles in the show — but Laura Beth Wells figures she her beat by one. She spends the first act as Emily Osborn, the wife of mad scientist Norman Osborn, who goes Green Goblin in Act Two. (Patrick Page does both roles in the show's liveliest, live-wire performance.) Only he is visible in their funniest scene — a sign-of-the-times moment where the Goblin is ensnared by voice mail trying to phone in a threat to newspaper publisher J.J. Jameson.
"Patrick and I do that live so that we can hold for laughs," Wells explained. "It was in the script the first day when we read the revised version. And, as 'character-actress du jour' of the show, they said, 'You're free. Do that.' He and I look at each other. I do both voices actually and the recording as well. We know each other's timing so well that we can really just play, even though I'm not on stage with him. I love that we do it live. Some nights they laugh harder on other parts. We can keep it fresh that way."
His Green Goblin was originally killed off at the end of Act Two, but in the script Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa revised with Glen Berger, he lives to wreak havoc another act. Bono and The Edge created a new song to sally forth with, "A Freak Like Me Needs Company," and Page was delighted. "I don't think you'll ever talk to an actor who wants his role shorter. This song's great fun for me. It's the kind of song I would never get to sing otherwise — a Lady Gaga-Boy George type of club song. It's a blast. To work with Bono and Edge was great."
The choreography on land and air is by Daniel Ezralow, who is racking up his fourth collaboration with Taymor. Together, they've done film ("Across the Universe"), Broadway (The Green Bird) and opera (The Flying Dutchman). For him, the hardest thing about this project was the time it took.
"It was four years of development. I think the concept was that we wanted to push Broadway…we wanted to expand the vision of what could happen with three-dimensionality, with George Tsypin's sets and the things in the air. It was a real coup to be able to do this kind of flying. I'm very happy with the way the audience reacts, and I'm really happy that I have the ability to choreograph dances and aerial work. I started experimenting with aerial myself with bungees about 15 or 20 years ago and made many pieces and understood rigging and flying.
"But the team effort together was Scott Rogers and Jaque Paquin — Scott from the 'Spider-Man' movies and Jaque from Cirque du Soleil. I knew we needed both the movie accuracy and we needed Jaque to know the theatrical thing. We had to trigger one Spider-Man into another Spider-Man.
"I'm very sad about the accidents. Everybody is. When you look at a circus show, there are accidents. You just never hear about them, but we were under the scrutiny so much of the Broadway world. I've to forgive and give blessings we got through it."
Chris Tierney, who took the big fall in the early previews but bounced relatively like new for the opening, looked very much like the poster boy for getting back on the horse — or, at least, in the harness. "I did all the major flying aerial stunts inside the theatre. I fought Green Goblin at the end of the show. I am Kraven the Hunter, one of the super-villains, and I'm one of the bullies at the beginning," he crowed. "I come from good, healthy stock. My body tends to heal quite quickly. I have a strong fortitude. I like to get back and in shape. I kinda like to say, 'I got you,' to anybody who tries to tell me that I can't recover that fast." Boeing-boeing, buddy!
Jennifer Damiano, who's Mary Jane Watson, girlfriend of Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, also has a touch of flying fever — a mild touch. "My favorite part of the show — definitely — is the end where I fly in with Peter. It's a lot of fun."
Otherwise, the character is pretty grounded and focused on her acting career, but a certain sweetness seeps through that's new to Damiano, who climbed aboard from the dark cloud of Next to Normal. "I guess I am a little used to the darker, more antsy characters," she conceded, "but it's so much fun to access that part of myself. I don't know where to begin comparing this to my character in Next to Normal, but I've been lucky to kinda stretch myself in this other direction."
For a Broadway first-timer, title player Reeve Carney is being accorded a privilege allotted to stars like Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice and Linda Ronstadt in The Pirates of Penzance: The degree of difficultly demands that he only do it six times a week instead of the usual eight.
"I wouldn't want to have to do eight performances in this show," he readily admitted. "This show is pretty demanding. The rock 'n' roll singing style is pretty taxing on the vocal chords. And then the acrobatics! I do a lot of acrobatics, but still we need nine other guys to do the whole show. And I do a good deal of the flying in the show. Yeah, it's physically exhausting, but it's very rewarding as well."
Taymor tapped Carney to play Prince Ferdinand in her film "Tempest" last year and tapped a second time for Spider-Man. "That film was why I wanted to work on this. I had such a good time working on 'The Tempest.' When she called me in for this audition, I thought, 'Oh, man, it would be such a joy to work with Julie again.' And I've gotten that chance. I hope I get to work for her for years to come. And I hope I get to work with Phil for years to come. He was a great addition to the show."
Broadway debuts have been much easier than Carney's. He went into rehearsal for this July 19 and only June 14 officially turned into a Broadway actor. "I don't know if it's all sunk in yet, but it felt like we've really opened. And it's my first time being in a show that's opened, even though we've had 184 performances. We did it, all of us, and we did it as a team. It definitely feels like winning the World Series tonight."
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