The creators behind the revised version of “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark,” the bedeviled Broadway show that officially opened last month after a surgical shutdown, took its title too seriously. They turned off the dark, all right — the show that once had a magnificent, raggedy dark side has been cheered up, smoothed out and essentially steamrollered into an experience as flat as its cardboard cutout sets.
In the effort to streamline an overlong and complicated story, much of the raw, exhilarating and even violent physical power of the show was drained off. When I saw it in mid-April, when it still belonged to the original team headed by director Julie Taymor, I had a different reaction from critics who panned it. I found it energizing: mythological maidens on swings, teenagers rampaging on testosterone, athletes whizzing by on wires right overhead so you had to swivel around in your seat to follow their eagles’ path from corner to corner of the cavernous Foxwoods Theatre. No circus had ever swooped its performers so close or dared to clash them in an aerial battle such as the one between Spidey and his mutant nemesis, the Green Goblin.
The innovations of the show — mixing computer technology and Asian puppet theater, and two-dimensional cartoon sets with ginormous rubbery fantasy creatures — were stunning. That is Taymor’s mark, and those elements are largely still there. But what’s missing is the explosive energy. It is stamped all over with the feel of a takeover. Messy as it once was, “Spider-man” had the punch of originality. Now it feels corporatized. And the results offer a cautionary tale on the nature of creativity, and on the perils of bringing it to Broadway.
“I wanted people to get fired up about the physicality of the show,” said Daniel Ezralow, the original choreographer who worked alongside Taymor.
Ezralow had collaborated with Taymor before, on the hallucinogenic Beatles-driven film “Across the Universe” and on Broadway’s “The Green Bird.” At 54, he has had a wide-ranging career, choreographing for dance companies, television and opera, and staging shows for Sting and U2, whose leading members, Bono and the Edge, wrote the music for “Spider-Man.” He spoke from Shanghai, where he is creating a production of “The Nutcracker.”
Taymor, he said, “gets me for what I believe in: trying to break some boundaries. We went into making ‘Spider-man’ that way.”
He began working on the show with Taymor in 2007. At that point, they were thinking about presenting it in a big Cirque-du-Soleil-style tent or in an amphitheater. Even though“Spider-man” was not conceived as a dance show, Ezralow wanted it to deliver a kinetic rush.
“It’s not Twyla [Tharp] doing ‘Movin’ Out,’” he said. “It’s a visual spectacle. But I felt like with the aerial stuff and the choreography, I could almost jettison it into a dance kind of world.
“I knew it had to be physical and exciting. And it had to be without identifiable steps; I wanted to find a language of its own. And because a lot of [the choreography] was in the air, you had to look at bodies in a different way.”
He introduced the idea of “three-dimensional” flying from his work on Cirque du Soleil’s “Love.” In traditional Broadway flying, wires move in a combination of up and down or side to side. Ezralow worked to have lines run to all four corners of the theater, sending Spider-man soaring out of the stage space and into audience territory. The creative team designed new high-speed motors, harnesses and quick-releases, so performers could be swiftly sent into flight.
This is especially apparent in Spider-man’s fight with the Green Goblin, where one performer weaves through the other’s lines in a complicated interplay of motors, bushings and pulleys.
“We choreographed it so Spidey could fly up through the Goblin’s lines,” Ezralow said. “It had never been done before.”
Another challenge came with the opening scene, in which the character of Arachne — a weaver out of Greek mythology who is transformed into the world’s first spider — and her fellow weavers swing over the audience on lengths of silk. As they soar backward and forward like kids on a playground, they become part of a giant loom, and a huge place mat is woven before our eyes. It took experiments with ropes and ratchets before Ezralow devised a way to have horizontal wefts of silk rise into position at just the right speed.
“We were planning for a spectacle that was going to be really spectacular,” he said. “I feel there was a lot of emotional content in the spectacle, and then we hit Broadway, and we had to comprehend how to do this in a Broadway theater.”
Certainly, in terms of the visual and physical impact, this was a show unlike any other. With its massive urban-landscape sets that take a page from Marvel comics (by George Tsypin), its huge LED screens that seem to thrust you inside a video game, the oversize villains in pop-art, robo-fantasy costumes (by the Oscar-winning designer Eiko Ishioka), and the churning rock music, the human characters could easily be overshadowed. But not in Ezralow’s conception.
Take “Bullying by Numbers,” in which Peter Parker, the quiet, nerdy kid who becomes the web-slinging vanquisher as a result of a spider bite, is surrounded at school. The number was full of martial-arts kicks, cartwheels, pounding, jumping.
“These dancers are all tops,” said Ezralow. “I was using them in a way that was, ‘C’mon, guys, let’s do all that you can do.’ ”
Later, in the song “Pull the Trigger,” Norman Osborn, the scientist who eventually morphs into the Green Goblin, envisions how his brand of genetic engineering could create a master race of soldiers. They’re a more rigid, brutal form of schoolyard hotshots.
“If ‘Bullying by Numbers’ was about the kids, and playful, I knew this had to be absolute unison,” said Ezralow. “They’re grown-up bullies. It’s, ‘We’re going to bully another country just like we bullied kids in high school.’ ”
Ezralow studied the comic books for how Spider-man moved through space, how he flew, leaped and recoiled. He worked with Chris Daniels, the stunt double in all three “Spider-man” movies.
“He has extremely flexible hips,” said Ezralow, and that allowed for wide-open squats and frog-legged flying positions. “That’s how I developed a syllabus of Spider-man poses.”
You see those most clearly at the end of the show, when Peter Parker appears with nine dancers in Spider-man suits who move from one iconic pose to another — the deep crouches with the arm outstretched, ready to shoot a web, or cranked behind as they coil for flight.
“All those Spideys had to move identically,” Ezralow said. “I went over and over the poses; it was like teaching tai chi, flowing from one pose to another. I told them, ‘You guys have to slow down . . . even slower than you’d ever think possible. Like molasses.’ And they got it.”
The display, in its original conception, was strangely moving. The meditative movement, golden lighting and triumphant swell of music infused it with a building power and made each pose hit home — and, for me at least, they rang all sorts of nostalgic bells. The drawings of Spider-man came to life, morphing from visual art to live theater and even, with the finely calibrated tension and stillness in the choreography, into something else: Parker’s superpowers. Here, he truly did turn off the dark and move into the light, soaking up the cumulative force of all those heroic facets.
The movement is retained in the new version of the show, but the music and lighting are different. The emotional impact is lost.
“I don’t pretend to know why or how” the show was overhauled, Ezralow said. “I felt it was working really well; the producers, writers and composers all loved my work.”
He is credited in the program for “choreography and aerial choreography.” But he is baffled, he said, by the changes to his work.
“I see a lot of my voice in there, my DNA,” Ezralow said. “The flying wasn’t touched, and that’s a large percentage of what I did. . . . I think pretty much everything I did for the show could be the same, and the choreography would have the same power it had before, and it would still be a very successful show.”
Enter creative consultant Philip William McKinley, director of Broadway’s “The Boy From Oz” and of various Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses. He took over from Taymor and brought in Chase Brock to refine the choreography. Brock, 27, got his start on Broadway at 16, dancing in Susan Stroman’s “Music Man.” He heads a small Brooklyn-based modern-dance company, the Chase Brock Experience, and was assistant to choreographer Kathleen Marshall in the 2003 revival of “Wonderful Town.”
He said that he is a fan of both Taymor and Ezralow and that his assignment was not to redo their work but to “focus it on the story of Peter Parker and make it as clear as possible to people from a wide audience — rock-and-roll, Broadway, comic books.
“I was an editor,” he said. “I sort of made the final cut.”
But Brock didn’t have much time, scarcely more than three weeks before the first previews of the new version. He could trim back only what existed, rather than create anew, and the results show that. Take what happened to “Bullying by Numbers.”
“I thought it was a little too violent,” Brock said. “Not that I’m a wimp, but I felt it was inappropriate.”
But in toning down the sense of attack, the scene has lost meaning. Where before it established Parker as an outsider — someone who speaks to all of us — now it feels unfocused.
Brock’s changes resulted not only from internal decisions but from audience focus groups. The unavoidable conclusion is the show has been dumbed down. It’s as if fear took hold that “Spider-man” would not be a hit because it wasn’t easily digestible.
McKinley and his team, including writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, came in to doctor a show according to their standards of what works. But can you doctor creativity? Can you get rid of the artists, revise by public vote and expect the compromise version to have any electricity?
I’m not saying the original version was a masterpiece. It wasn’t. But it had fire and energy, especially in the choreography. That combustible vision, that burst of newness and vigor, is gone, sucked into the darkness. And what is left is light in every sense of the word.