The tryout of Julie Taymor and U2’s Spider-Man musical is, if nothing else, the first Broadway musical in a while to become part of the international cultural consciousness. You don’t hear Conan O’Brien and SNL making many jokes about Elf: The Musical. The fact that performers are getting hurt makes the story less funny than it was, but it’s not the first show to suffer special effects failures or injured performers. Some of them even happen after the tryouts. (On the opening night of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro, one of the most technically complicated productions in Broadway history, a supporting performer supposedly fell into the orchestra pit while singing.) The news that the stuntman who fell last night is in “serious condition” makes the story even less funny; I thought we’d be able to go back to laughing at the production eventually, but it may have crossed the line from “funny” to “upsetting,” particularly given Taymor’s apparent problem recognizing — or at least admitting — that something is wrong. (Update: However, as pointed out in comments, the CBS story exaggerates this problem of Taymor’s by making it seem like something she said two days ago, about “danger” and “risk,” was a direct comment on last night’s accident. It wasn’t.)
Spider-Man is yet another in a long line of examples of why it’s dangerous for Broadway shows to hold their previews in New York, opening “cold” as it’s called in theatre terminology. Traditionally, out-of-town tryouts are considered preferable: you open in another city, fix it on the road, and come to New York with the final version. The out-of-town tryout has been periodically endangered because it’s very expensive, and more recently, because the internet has made it possible for bad word of mouth to trickle in from any city. Camelot opened in Toronto at the O’Keefe Centre and was incredibly overlong, but not many people outside of Toronto knew how much work it needed. Today, many more people would know, and it would limp into New York with a ton of bad publicity — even if the show had been rewritten and improved.
But the internet hasn’t changed the world quite as much as we may think, and there’s still a big difference between bad word of mouth from out of town and bad word of mouth in New York. Shows that open cold in New York are frequently savaged — because there’s no sense of separation between the previews and the official opening. The last Stephen Sondheim/Harold Prince musical, Merrily We Roll Along, had to be revised from top to bottom during its previews (the costumes and choreography were replaced, along with the lead performer), but because it was all happening in New York, the revisions — aimed at improving the show — actually created bad publicity for the piece.
There have been shows that opened cold and managed to become hits, but it creates an extra layer of difficulty: the 1952 musical Wish You Were Here had to try out in New York because the whole set was built around an onstage swimming pool, and it became a city-wide joke that had critics ready to attack even before they saw it. That show succeeded, but it had to fight back against weeks of terrible publicity. The point of previews is to fix things, but when it’s happening in the same city as the opening, the word of mouth will emphasize that the show is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if the final version turns out better or not.
Now, Spider-Man doesn’t really get much sympathy from me, not so much because of the subject matter as because Taymor decided to co-write the book herself (something that has worked exactly once, with Chicago, which Bob Fosse co-wrote) and to hire superannuated pop songwriters instead of theatre songwriters. Also, it’s using the New York tryout to its own financial advantage: it’s selling lots of tickets for previews, so by extending the tryout, it guarantees itself an extra month of sold-out performances that critics are not allowed to review. It’s a good racket. There’s even a slight amount of positive publicity value in all these stories about the technical disasters and injuries: it focuses attention on the stuff that’s relatively easy to fix. The negative reports about the book and score are almost getting submerged, even though in the long run, the book and score are going to be much bigger problems for this thing.
Still, the fact that the show is in trouble during previews does not, in itself, mean that the show is doomed. It’s doomed because it spent so much money that it can’t make it back. That’s a different thing altogether. But the stuff that’s happening during previews is… stuff that happens during previews. It’s just that it’s happening in the biggest city in North America instead of some other town where the publicity is less vicious.
Also, about Taymor, I should add that a lot of the blame for what’s going on with this show has to rest with the producers, rather than her. (In fact, a lot of stories have heaped apparently-deserved blame on the original producer, David Garfinkle, who ran out of money; he was replaced by Michael Cohl, who kept the production afloat.) She has a reputation as a perfectionist and a megalomaniac, but there’s an element of megalomania in the very act of directing. Directors are supposed to want to do the impossible, no matter how much it costs. The producer’s job is to say “no” or to find a way for the director to do what he or she wants without killing the show’s financial prospects.