Putting 'Spider-Man' into perspective

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The musical didn't invent the dangers of showbiz

by David S. Cohen, Variety

Monday night's accident during a preview of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" prompted calls for the show to be shut down for good -- or at least for the tech effects to be scaled back.

It appears few of those raising those calls have actually seen the show, though. I have, and I have some thoughts about it.

First, Monday's injury and the three previous injuries suffered by the company during rehearsals and previews aren't a good reason to shutter the show.

And as for shrinking the show's technical effects, you might as well force "A Chorus Line" to be performed without dancing. It'd be a death sentence for the show.

As Variety's Gordon Cox reports, on Wednesday the N.Y. State Dept. of Labor stepped in to force new safety measures and cancelled that night's preview.

Actors' Equity's conclusion that the accident was the result of human error holds both good news and bad for the show. The good news: The really high-tech stuff on the show, especially the flying system from Fisher Technical Services, seems to be working now. Neither Christopher Tierney nor lead actress Natalie Mendoza, who suffered a concussion after being hit by a piece of scenery backstage, were injured performing a flying stunt.

The bad news, though, is that what did go wrong was something as basic as the failure to secure a safety line. It's possible to build in many redundancies and safety systems, but human error can undermine all of that, especially as a show settles in for a run and performances become more routine.

When I was in New York to see the show and interview the stage managers for this week's weekly Variety cover story, I asked "Spider-Man" production stage manager Kathy Purvis about the challenges of keeping everyone focused as the show settles into its run, especially when focus is so critical for safety.

"Yes, like any other job that you go to and you do, whether you're working in factory or on a Broadway show, there is some comfort level you achieve when you do the same thing day in and day out," Purvis said. "Though with performers, part of the job is to do something that is routine and work to keep it fresh, so we actually have an advantage over, say, a manufacturing job where nobody's required to keep it fresh. The actors actually are kind of trained in that aspect of it."

That doesn't apply to stagehands, though. There is only so much to be done through notes, rehearsals and reminders. Any laxity backstage is a real danger to the company and the show itself.

As for the idea of cutting back the show's tech to make it more like a traditional Broadway tuner, and therefore (presumably) safer, well, closing the show might be a better option.

A lot of people seem to assume "Spider-Man" is an attempt to bring vacuous tentpole movie storytelling to the Broadway stage. On the contrary, this show's attempt to interweave classical mythology with comicbook mythology -- Arachne with Spider-Man -- is actually rather intellectual. In that respect, the show feels like an experimental theater piece of the sort you'd find in a limited run at BAM or maybe at an opera house.So the book is actually quite ambitious. "Ambitious," I must caution, is not a synonym for "good." How well that works won't be clear until the show opens.

The real crowd-pleasing stuff comes mainly from the physical production and tech. In that area the show is revolutionary, because it's trying to bring production techniques from other media into a legit book musical.

Broadway long ago borrowed the LED wall that proliferated in sports arenas and rock concerts. In "Spider-Man," though, there are eight LED panels, each huge, and all eight of them move quite a bit.

From Arena Rock comes massive sets, with ramps and hydraulics on a huge scale. From circuses, especially Cirque du Soleil, live flying and acrobatics.

Some of the show's visual grammar owes more to movies and/or comicbooks than traditional theater. Using multiple performers in Spider-Man and Green Goblin costumes, helmer Julie Taymor stages sequences where action "quick-cuts" from one part of the house to another and from one action bit to another.

That works in part because Taymor also uses a lot of environmental staging. She has the show's "Geek Chorus" of comicbook fans (another allusion to the classics) enter from the house, and she brings the flying sequences out over the orchestra, even having Spidey land on each balcony.

I've long been a fan of environmental staging, since something the theater can uniquely offer is the presence of the live actor. In "Spider-Man," those flying sequences out in the house generate some real theatrical magic.

The aud can see the rigging and the harnesses, but even so, watching those performers flying around the theater is jaw-dropping. It gave me just a taste of what the awestruck characters in the show (or the movies, or the comicbooks) might feel watching real-life superheroes soar through the streets of New York. In short, flying is to "Spider-Man" what traditional dance numbers are to classic Broadway: They're what set the audience's heart pounding. (There are a few dance numbers in the show, but it's the flying that really delivers the thrills.)

But with all those open pits and performers soaring around the house, is it all too dangerous?

Maybe, but I'm not sure where we draw that line. Cirque du Soleil performers, who have quite a bit in common with the "Spider-Man" aerialists, are known to fall now and then, and nobody calls for those shows to be shut down. It's an occupational hazard.

On Broadway, legit dancers are subject to both acute and chronic injuries and Broadway as an industry is notoriously lax about attending to long-term health problems. A Google search for Broadway injuries reveals plenty of bad accidents on previous shows.

Beyond that, we routinely watch sports, where major injuries are common, and car races, where people die before our eyes.

One of my colleagues, while insisting to me that injuries on "Spider-Man" are different because it's Broadway, recounted seeing a dancer suffer a compound fracture onstage in a ballet performance.

Patrick Page, who plays the Green Goblin in the show, called all the media scrutiny "an education as to how things have changed." He was in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway, playing Lumiere, with two butane tanks strapped to his back, hoses running down his arm, a stun gun to ignite the gas and 2½-foot flames coming off him.

"And things happen," he said. "There were so many times I hit myself with that stun gun and shocked myself. But hey, you know, it didn't make the newspapers."

A new finale is in the works for "Spider-Man." Doing a little rough math, based on how much rehearsal they seem to have done and how long the show is, it appears there's been almost eight hours of tech rehearsal for each minute of running time. A new five-to-10 minute finale, with flying, could require 40 hours of tech, all happening between previews.

It's no wonder they pushed the opening. If they decide to add or cut scenes or songs, given the complexities of the production, they may have to push it again. If so, I hope they get to do their work in peace and the papers hold off reviewing the show until they've got everything set.

If "Spider-Man" delivers the goods on opening night, and if the company can perform the show safely, it will be worth it.

Contact David S. Cohen at [email protected]

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on December 24, 2010 9:47 PM.

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