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New team’s Rx for ‘Spider-Man’: Turn up the romance

The new director and writers of “Spider-Man:  Turn Off the Dark” revealed their plan Tuesday to rescue the troubled and expensive Broadway musical: Focus on the love story.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Broadway’s musical take on Spider-Man pulled off a feat nearly as amazing as a man swinging from skyscrapers: packing houses while being so critically reviled it became a national punch line. But the show’s new director, along with two new writers, told TODAY Tuesday that they are confident they can keep seats filled while giving audiences a much better — and more romantic — show.

On April 17, producers of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” — the most expensive Broadway show ever, at an estimated $65 million — put the musical in mothballs for retooling. Veteran director Philip William McKinley was brought in to helm the revamped production, which has been playing in previews since November, while writers Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Glen Berger were added to the creative team.

Speaking with Matt Lauer Tuesday, McKinley — who has taken the helm from legendary director Julie Taymor — acknowledged the drubbing the show has taken from critics. The New York Times called the musical “a national joke,” while the website Gawker labeled it “really truly horrendous.”

Free advice
“We’d be lying if we didn’t say we saw some of that, but look, we’re very fortunate,” McKinley said. “We’ve been able to take the critics and what they’ve said, and that’s free advice. That’s great. We take that advice, we’ve taken in what they’ve said, and now we’re going to work on it.”

As the 136-strong cast and crew — including Christopher Tierney, who has returned after being seriously injured in a 30-foot fall at a December performance — prepare for the May 12 reopening, they’re working on what is basically a new show. Noted writer Aguirre-Sacasa, who’s not only written for TV’s “Big Love” but also for Marvel Comics, including Spider-Man, has overhauled a script that left many theatergoers scratching their heads.

Aguirre-Sacasa told Lauer that he’s going back to basics, adding elements that Spidey fans will know by heart yet newcomers can still embrace. And that entails amplifying the romance between Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, and girlfriend Mary Jane Watson — which was a key element of the blockbuster Spider-Man movies starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.

“We all felt, I think, that there wasn’t enough emphasis on the love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, two high school kids who fall for each other,” Aguirre-Sacasa said. “So we really made an effort to bring that story to the forefront ... warm them up and give them a little bit of spunk and humor that wasn’t there and really just honor the characters that are in the Marvel comics.”

Mulligan for a musical
Also added into what McKinley is calling “Spider-Man 2.0” are two new songs from rock icons Bono and The Edge of U2, who wrote the musical’s score, as well as beefier roles for Peter Parker’s guardians, Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

While shutting down a Broadway musical that’s already been playing for five months is virtually uncharted territory, Aguirre-Sacasa said he believes they owe it to the web-swinging wonder and his loyal legion of fans. “I think everyone knows that Spider-Man is one of the most beloved characters of all time in popular culture, so people didn’t want to let it go at just being OK,” he told Lauer. “I think people, really, really wanted to go back and make it as great as it could be.”

Image: \"Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark\" Return To Broadway Press Conference
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25: Actor Christopher Tierney attends the \"Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark\" Return to Broadway press conference at Foxwoods Theatre on April 25, 2011 in New York City.D Dipasupil / Getty Images North America

Added fellow writer Berger: “If you’re allowed a mulligan in golf, you should be allowed to do a redo of a Broadway musical.”

But Lauer speculated that the huge audiences for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” might have had the somewhat morbid impulse to see the sorts of mishaps that have plagued the show. Will audiences come to see a Spider-Man that is, well, actually good?

McKinley said he believes that, even with the new emphasis on romance, the groundbreaking visuals of the musical will still lure audiences into Spider-Man’s web.

“I don’t think that [interest] will ever be gone, because of the spectacular flying that’s in it,” he told Lauer. “There’s always going to be that element that people are going to want to come and see.”