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Costly ‘Spider-Man’ Can’t Get Off the Ground

It’s supposed to be the biggest, costliest, splashiest show of the Broadway season, but so far it’s just the most troubled. Executives with “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” said Thursday that the opening of the oft-delayed, $60 million musical would be set back once again, this time by three weeks, meaning it will miss lucrative Thanksgiving week, forgo an attention-getting bow over Christmas, and open during the box office doldrums of January.

Spider-man
Marvel
Spider-man

The first performance was supposed to be in nine days, on Nov. 14, but this is a show that its famous creators — the director Julie Taymor and U2’s Bono and the Edge — are laboring to finish. The two-dozen flying sequences are being worked out and still require safety approval from the state Department of Labor. The music, marking the Broadway debut of the U2 frontmen, still isn’t synchronized with special effects, plot and dialogue. Scene-to-scene transitions, essential for rhythm and safety, aren’t complete. Two actors have been injured hurtling through acrobatic rehearsal sequences.

No one can even say for sure if the musical will be two and a half hours long, as expected, until run-throughs start.

“It’s all about tweaking nuts and bolts now, and we’re slightly behind, but really it’s finally coming together at long last,” Michael Cohl, the show’s lead producer, said in an interview Thursday. Indeed, “Spider-Man” was originally supposed to begin in February before production shut down when the previous lead producer ran out of money. Beyond the potential loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales, the latest delay raises the stakes for “Spider-Man” — already the most expensive Broadway show of all time — to demonstrate that movie-size budgets and theatrical art can succeed on commercial Broadway. “Shrek the Musical” — to this point Broadway’s most costly show, at a reported $25 million — played 14 months but didn’t earn back its investment. (See the highest-grossing broadway shows in our slideshow.)

Ms. Taymor, a Tony Award winner for “The Lion King” and a film director, has said she wants to “create a spectacle like nothing we’ve ever seen on Broadway before.” But in doing so, she, her fellow creators, and the producers have set a higher bar than any show has faced: It would need to sell tickets, which will be at average Broadway prices, on par with “Wicked,” Broadway’s monster hit, to ever have a real chance of earning profit.

Ms. Taymor has a reputation for perfectionism, artistic ingenuity, and creating corporate-subsidized art without obsessing over costs and deadlines; accordingly, she has spent chunks of the relatively long 11-week rehearsal period experimenting with the flying and other special effects and taking care putting all the pieces together. Bono and the Edge have been at the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd Street this week preparing for a signal moment in the show’s gestation: the first time the orchestra and the cast will perform the score together in the theater, on Sunday.

Members of the creative team say that Ms. Taymor, who declined to be interviewed Thursday, is keeping her cool. “It’s crunch time, no doubt,” said Glen Berger, who collaborated with Ms. Taymor on the show’s book. “Julie can’t wait to get it up so she can show people what we’ve all done, and she is trying to stay focused on the tasks at hand. And it’s hard, because there’s so much negativity out there about the show. It’d be a lot worse for us if the show didn’t work, but it does, as people will soon see.” Delays are common for new musicals opening on Broadway without out-of-town tryouts; “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” which opened on Thursday night at the Belasco Theater, twice delayed the start of preview performances to deal with an elaborate array of moving scenery and projections.

“Spider-Man” is now set to begin performances on Nov. 28 and open on Jan. 11, 2011, instead of Dec. 21, a change that Mr. Cohl chalked up to “getting it right.”

“It’s really no big deal if it’s Nov. 10, 14, 20 or 28,” he said. “I mean, it’s a big deal to the people whose shows are canceled, I feel terrible about that, but we’re doing the best we can.”

Indeed, the delay scrambles options for theatergoers looking for a critic-tested Broadway extravaganza during the holiday season. The delay came as a sharp disappointment, for instance, to Samuel Moulton, a Harvard University lecturer who had bought tickets for Nov. 14 as the high point of a New York getaway with his girlfriend, who is flying over from England.

“She’s a big theater fan, and I’m a big U2 fan, so this seemed like the perfect convergence of interests,” Mr. Moulton said. “There’s too much planning required to rebook. I’m just annoyed that they couldn’t decide all of this earlier, since it seems obvious that this show would be a technical monster.”

While the producers may be publicly shrugging off the delay, envisioning “Spider-Man” as a years-long profit maker, the show has developed a problematic reputation, at least in the short term. Questions have been raised, and a state investigation is under way, about the safety of the flying. All of the attention on special effects may ward off traditional theatergoers who want a good score and story; some older people, for instance, have asked group sales agents if there is anything in the show for them.

As much as anything, though, the delay and technical difficulties may make people reluctant to buy tickets until critics’ reviews and word of mouth begins, something that the famous “Spider-Man” brand in comics, movies and the American culture has never had to rely on before.

“There’s no doubt that the delay is a big problem in building and buffing the brand, and building up excitement and anticipation for the show,” said Rick Kelley, vice president of Maxwell Group Entertainment, a theatrical group sales firm. “The Spidey icon has never needed buzz before, but this show needs more of it. I feel sorry for the box office folks — they’ll be losing money at the same time they’re rebooking tickets like crazy.”

Mr. Kelley and other group sales agents said that they would have to rebook a few groups that had mid-November dates, though most of their business begins in December. The bigger draw over the holidays are families and day-of ticket buyers who are visiting New York, rather than groups that wait for discounts during slower months.

“They’ll take a hit, losing Thanksgiving week and probably fall-off during Christmas and New Year’s because some people want to read the reviews before they buy tickets,” said Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, another ticket agent. “But, of course, if the show is a hit, they’ll have no problem making up that money.”

The producers and creators are partly banking on the delay stirring interest in the big-budget special effects among the media and especially theatergoers, who thus far have shown modest interest in buying tickets, according to two executives involved in the production. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they had either signed nondisclosure agreements or feared being fired if their names were published.

The show’s advance ticket sales so far total about $8 million in hard cash with an additional $2 million to $3 million in unpaid group orders; that advance will likely decline because of the canceled previews this month. The dollar amounts would be healthy for a standard $10 million Broadway musical, but is low against the $60 million capitalization and the likelihood that the show will cost upwards of $1 million to run each week.

Most Broadway musicals keep costs below $10 million in order to have a chance to earn a profit, because most of the 40 Broadway theaters do not have enough seats to sell at regular or even premium prices to make enough money to cover weekly costs and begin paying back investors — let alone turn a profit.

When or whether “Spider-Man” reaches profitability is difficult to project; for one thing, it needs to open first.



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