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Can 'Spider-Man' the musical survive a nasty drubbing by critics?

Reviews describe the new ‘Spider-Man’ show on Broadway as ‘a teetering colossus’ and as dull and silly. But ticket sales are brisk.

By Staff writer / February 8, 2011

The Spider-Man character is suspended in the air in a scene from the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, in New York. Critics are lambasting the show after a series of delays and a dull and silly execution.

Jacob Cohl/The O and M Co./AP/File

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Reviews by mainstream news outlets for the “Spider-Man” mega-musical are in, and they are just as brutal as the unofficial commentary that has dogged this $65 million production since it opened for previews in November.

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The Hollywood Reporter describes “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” as chaotic, dull, and silly, and it calls the music “strictly album filler.” The Los Angeles Times says the show is “a teetering colossus that can't find its bearings as a circus spectacle or as a rock musical.” The New York Times asks, “How can $65 million look so cheap?”

All this critical venom comes on the heels of nearly three months of negative news about injuries and financial woes – all in advance of the show’s official opening, currently scheduled for March 15. At the same time, however, ticket sales are brisk, outselling top-rated Broadway offerings such as the award-winning “Wicked.”

So this raises the question: Can a show that seems to attract bad news like flies in a spider web survive such a nasty drubbing?

“Absolutely,” says Richard Laermer, author of “2011: Trendspotting.” He points to such megahits as “Cats,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “Hair,” all of which were savaged by critics yet went on not only to make boatloads of money, but also to influence the Broadway genre.

Even the successful ABBA jukebox musical, “Mamma Mia!,” took its knocks along the way. Its precursor, “Abbacadabra,” was a dismally reviewed compilation of ABBA tunes that opened in London in 1983 and closed after eight weeks. It became “Mamma Mia!” in 1999 and went on to productions in seven languages and 19 countries.

The film version has grossed more than $500 million.

“Movies do this all the time,” points out New York ad professional Adam Kluger. Look no further than another superhero incarnation currently on the silver screen – “The Green Hornet,” starring Seth Rogen. The critics hated it but audiences love it, he says, “and it’s a huge hit.”

The “Spider-Man” producers had clearly hoped to capitalize on the visionary work of Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor. But for good or ill, people are now flocking to the show not for its critical merits, but because they want to be part of the spectacle that the show has become. “Spider-Man” has become an event “like the Ringling Bros. circus,” Mr. Laermer says, and people are going to the show much as they did for the chandelier drop in “Phantom of the Opera.”

Of course, time could redeem a tarnished reputation. Ms. Taymor might take a bit of cold comfort from the rocky road trod by one of musical theater’s most revered practitioners, Stephen Sondheim. Author Larry Stempel writes about Mr. Sondheim in “Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater”: “[E]xcept for ‘[A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the] Forum,’ ‘Company,’ and ‘A Little Night Music’ – none of them blockbusters – Sondheim musicals have failed to find an audience sufficient to pass the Broadway acid test: can a show run long enough to recoup its investment? This makes Sondheim perhaps the first major figure in the history of Broadway musicals to have made a career predominantly on flops.”

Mr. Stempel's excerpt continues:

“The term 'flops' is misleading, however.... Because of the compelling originality and high artistic quality of Sondheim's output, most of his shows have had vigorous Broadway afterlives, especially in England and the regional theatres of the United States.”

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