Peter Parker’s Spider-Man has swung through most every mass medium of the past half century, from his comic book debut in 1962 to television, movies, and cartoons. Now, however, he is set to alight on the Great White Way in what is already the most expensive Broadway production ever mounted, some $60 million and counting.
With so many explorations of the Peter Parker psyche, it’s hard to figure what is left to say, but as Glen Berger, co-creator of the musical's narrative, or "book," says, “this is a rich vein that comic book writers have been mining for years and they aren’t done yet.” The powerful mythic structure of the Peter Parker transformation into a deeply-conflicted and reluctant hero, he adds, “is really bottomless material.”
The wow factor
As for what the 2,000-seat theatrical experience can add to the Spider-Man canon, he says that while people will come expecting the wow factor of great modern stagecraft – and they will get it – the real emotional pow of the show comes from the deeper themes and narrative.
“How he goes from being bitten to the despair over the death of his Uncle Ben, to realizing he needs to become Spider-Man, we do it in five minutes,” he says, adding it doesn’t seem possible but with the music Bono has created and the stagecraft director Julie Taymor came up with, “you do it and you can feel your heart opening up and that’s the real wow.”
In an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” this Sunday, Ms. Taymor points out that her goal is to deliver the kind of visceral immediacy only live theater can provide. “I’m trying to make the theatrical experience an environmental experience, we want to have the theater of it right in the laps of the audience,” she says.
The show reportedly has been delayed as technical issues involved with delivering that drop-jaw moment have flared, from injuries to glitches with the various flying harnesses required. These challenges do not daunt Ms. Taymor’s well-known creative bravura.
“I hate the comfort zone. … I don’t think that anything that’s really creative can be done without danger and risk,” says the two-time Tony winner, whose award-winning “Lion King” still plays in theaters around the world after 13 years.
Beyond that, Spider-Man fits neatly with the latest trends in New York theater. “The Marvel style of comic storytelling has always emphasized that American youth's problems and concerns are real and important, and those struggles have been identified by Spider-Man and his struggle with responsibility and finding a place in society,” says Julian Chambliss, associated professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., via email. He points out that those themes are fairly universal “and many of the recent big Broadway shows (From “Wicked” to the “Lion King”) have taken established pop culture stories with similar themes and packaged them as musicals.”
At home in Manhattan
“While Superman resides in mythical Metropolis and Batman in Gotham, Spidey swings between the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings (and Broadway), giving him an extra air of authenticity and putting this play on his 'home turf,' " he says via email.
He says the fit between the younger audiences the show is clearly trying to reach and the adolescent Parker is the tone set by Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee. “No matter who he is fighting or what he is facing, Spider-Man is famous for his wise-cracking banter. That M.O. provides for lively dialogue and banter that is perfect for screen and stage.”
His very "human-ness" makes him a natural choice from the comic book canon, he notes, because Marvel has always led the way in humanizing its heroes.
“Unlike Superman (omnipotent alien) and Batman (super-trained, rich sleuth), Peter Parker is 'Joe Everyman' – a young man trying to earn a living, find a girlfriend and, oh yeah, fights crime,” he says, adding he's not a muscle-bound hero with tremendous wealth. He's someone trying to figure out life (thanks again to great writing over the years by Marvel) and could be you or I (had we been bitten by a radioactive spider).”
Playwright and Villanova theatre professor Michael Hollinger adds, “Spider-Man continues to intrigue us because it tracks an ordinary guy who is dealt a blow that turns out to be a great gift, which then turns out to be a great burden as well,” he says – a replay of the notion that with great power comes great responsibility. The conflict between wanting the comforts of love and domestic life and feeling pulled toward a larger civic duty, he says, “is an ancient one, and yet never feels old.”