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Thursday, March 26, 2009


Stage Addiction: Inside the Preview of "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" With U2's Bono and The Edge

You know, some days I really like my job.

This evening, after seeing a matinee of Exit The King (more on that challenging, exciting, difficult, witty, utterly brilliant production later), I headed down to The Times Center on 41st Street for a special sneak preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the new mega-musical opening next January at Broadway's Hilton Theatre. The talent is tremendous -- Julie Taymor (The Lion King) directing, Eiko Ishioka (Coppola's Dracula and the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony) on costumes, and, of course, U2's Bono and The Edge, composing their first-ever score for the stage. I think it's safe to say that no other musical this decade has generated more excitement or interest, and its pre-sales -- currently available only through specialty groups -- are through the roof.

But is it any good? Are the casting rumors true? Will Taymor's vision please both fanboys and theatre queens? Your intrepid editor was about to find out...and perhaps shake hands with Bono. (Hot!)

The presentation began with Taymor, who spoke at length about the elements that drew her to the project...essentially, the classical structure of Peter Parker's journey from everyman to hero. Unlike Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films (which moved from the story's comic book roots toward a more naturalistic, real-world interpretation), Taymor is, unsurprisingly, going the other way -- embracing the webcrawler's inherent theatricality, and placing him inside a stylized New York City populated with heroes and (multiple) supervillains.

The set designs, displayed on the huge projection screen in the photo above, drew inspiration from the pop-art colors and the lines of comic book panels while playing with multiple perspectives. Ishioka's costumes were breathtaking -- a rogues gallery of the villains that appear onstage in the musical received audible gasps from the audience, including the Green Goblin, Lizard, Kraven, Swarm, and a new female villain created at the behest of Taymor, Swiss Miss (dressed in immaculate white dominatrix gear and multiple knives...hot!). Fans of Dr. Octopus and Sandman should know, however, that neither made an appearance in the presentation, although Taymor hinted at a special villain yet to be identified who appears in the piece.

Taymor addressed the question on everyone's mind right away: will Spider-Man spin webs and fly through the air? The answer was a resounding yes...the character will swing through the theatre and over the audience. She then showed a video from last year's top-secret "flying workshop" in Los Angeles, where she, stunt designers from the Spider-Man movies, and aerialists from Cirque du Soleil spent two weeks in a studio lot working on "webslinger technology" for the musical. The results were pretty impressive...the wires are visible, but the moves are so stunning you forget them very fast. I'm only one opinion, but I loved the effect. Can't wait to see it with all of the production elements next January!

After a rambling, geektastic speech by book writer Glen Berger, there was nothing left but to hear the songs. To wild applaus, Taymor introduced Bono and The Edge, and the two men ambled out onto the stage. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day -- these two global superstars, who have played stadiums all over the world and won every award imaginable, actually seemed a little nervous playing these songs to an audience for the first time! They were, if you can imagine it, even a little adorable, like kids with a new toy...playful, smart, interesting, and genuinely excited to be working on a stage musical. (Bono mentioned that they first got the idea to do a musical from Andrew Lloyd Webber, and name-dropped Rodgers and Hammerstein in their opening remarks.)

Bono and The Edge previewed eight songs (five in their entirety and three snippets) over speakers in what sounded like prerecorded studio demos. The vocals, however, were sung live by five unknown actors who, Taymor mentioned, had only had one day of rehearsal. (This quintet was not, necessarily, part of the cast; she also mentioned that they had just started the audition process, and throughout the day there was never a reference to ANY possible cast members...not even the oft-mentioned Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess.)

My favorite songs included two beautiful ballads written for Peter Parker which bookended the presentation, "Rise Above" and "Boy Falls From The Sky." Both were incredibly successful at marrying story to lyric; they also managed to simultaneously sound like U2 rock tracks AND Broadway classics. I also liked the title ballad, "Turn Off The Dark," a minor-chord metaphor for heroism, and an uptempo rocker, "Bouncing Off The Walls," which will have Peter taking the title literally...with walls that move to accomodate his bouncing!

Less successful were a character number called "Bullying By Numbers," a percussive track called "Pull The Trigger," and a ballad that (I think) was called "If The World Should End." The latter might have just been the female performer, who had breathing problems and sang out of tune for long sections. It's hard to evaluate songs that haven't yet been taken to the production level, so I reserve the right to change my opinions, for good or ill, once it opens!

All in all, though, I was thoroughly impressed...energized, even, by Taymor's thoughtful approach to the material, the dynamic execution of the designers, and the palpable energy of the production team. Can we dare to hope that Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark might be a great musical in the making? A week ago, I didn't imagine such a thing was possible. Today, I'm not only thinking it. I'm betting on it.
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Blogger William said...

Thanks for the info. Sounds very exciting & promising!

3/26/09, 5:34 PM  
Blogger Esther said...

Wow, thanks for the detailed report. This does sound great! I love flying in the theater and Julie Taymor and U2 (at least the older stuff.)

3/26/09, 11:33 PM  
Blogger The Captain said...

EXCITED. more on 'exit' soon?

3/27/09, 7:36 AM  
Blogger JDM said...

U2 has written for stage once before, for the RSC's production of A Clockwork Orange. The only track to be commercially published is "Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova I," as a b-side to "The Fly" in the early 90s. I'm told there is a videotape of the production in the RSC library. The show was generally disliked.

4/4/09, 2:26 AM  

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