Last month when Miles and I were hunting around for shows to see while in New York City, a theater journalist mentioned Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark among the possibilities. I asked whether it was any good and he snarked: “Oh, it’s crap and nothing you haven’t seen Cirque do better.”
Or, it turns out, a heck of a lot safer.
This exchange occurred before a highly publicized rash of horrific accidents in front of audiences during previews turned an already troubled $60 million Broadway production into a full-scale catastrophe-in-the-making. One stunt double broke both wrists; another broke a toe; an ensemble member fell more than 20 feet into the orchestra pit when his cable detached from his harness; and a lead actress quit on December 30, a month after enduring a concussion when smacked in the head by equipment.
It’s an astonishing turn of events for the Great White Way’s most expensive show ever, one that was already producing pretty awful buzz. A veteran Vegas actor who saw it last week told me that he desperately tried to find something good about it—maybe some of the staging by Julie Taymor of Lion King fame, or the music by U2’s Bono and The Edge—but ultimately he declared it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
And then he said this: “It just looks so unsafe. My palms were sweaty the whole time.”
That’s a huge problem. It’s not supposed to look that hard or that scary. New York Magazine reports that show goers are actually attending Spider-Mess in macabre anticipation that something might go wrong; does anyone do that on the Strip?
Accidents have happened here. The 2003 tiger attack that maimed illusionist Roy Horn and ended the Siegfried & Roy show is the most famous, but there’s also the 2007 Zumanity case, when performers flying in the air on a long piece of white silk fabric fell and suffered critical injuries. Also, a half-ton prop in O fell on a Bellagio electrician, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Horrible incidents, all. But that’s a handful over the course of a decade spread across thousands of performances involving thousands of performers. Spider-Man has had as many in a month.
Executives at Cirque du Soleil and the equally death-defying Le Rêve won’t let their safety experts talk right now because they don’t want to appear to be insulting or judging the Spider-Man team.
That restraint is as classy as it is frustrating. This is Vegas’ moment to say to New York: We know how to do something you don’t. We make it look easy, but it’s really not. Lord knows, New York elitists have been sneering at the level of talent and quality of musicals on the Strip for decades.
There are reasons why Vegas does this better. For one, the resorts invest more money. The big shows with the really risky activity occur in rooms custom-built from the ground up (Mystère, O, Le Rêve, Phantom, Jubilee!) or retrofitted with expensive overhauls (Love, Ka, Zumanity). In almost every case, the money spent on the theaters exceeds the entire cost of Spider-Man. Also, producers in New York are forced to hire local union hands who may be proficient at such child’s play as getting the green witch to fly or crashing a chandelier now and again but may not have the specialized expertise for the kinds of stunts Spider-Man aspires to exhibit. In Vegas, most producers can hire whomever they like, weighing only expertise in selecting their technicians.
To be fair, there is a downside to that non-union element in that we may actually not have a full accounting of show-related injuries because no union organizers are there to keep track of them. Yet if any of the Spider-Mess mishaps had occurred in Vegas, someone with a phone cam would have it on YouTube before the paramedics arrived.
Maybe this bruising episode will force Broadway to show a little respect for the Strip. That would be a trick, if performed flawlessly, that I’d like to see.