NEW YORK (Reuters) - On Broadway, bad press doesn’t necessarily spell failure, and the struggling “Spider-Man” musical is still luring tourists and theater goers into seats as it deals with persistent technical problems.
The ambitious, high-tech $65 million musical — the most expensive Broadway show ever — has endured four delays in its opening and four injuries to its cast. By some accounts, it is shaping up as the biggest entertainment flop since Kevin Costner’s movie “Waterworld” or Warren Beatty’s “Ishtar.”
This week the latest mishap involved a stuntman falling off a high platform and being hospitalized with broken ribs. It marked a new low point for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” as a show was canceled and New York officials caused new safety measures to be put in place.
But through all the bad buzz, ticket sales for the musical, written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, during preview performances have remained strong. And Broadway, perhaps more than any other entertainment genre, has a history of overcoming bad reviews and turning profits for tourist-friendly, big-budget shows.
Seth Gelblum, an entertainment lawyer who represents the show’s director and co-creator Julie Taymor, as well as three major financiers, said investors were not jittery and predicted the key audience, tourists, would not be turned off.
There is precedent for Gelblum’s confidence. Hit musicals such as “The Addams Family,” “Wicked” and “The Phantom of the Opera” experienced problems in previews, underwent changes, then succeeded with long, profitable runs.
Still, some industry watchers predict the demise of “Spider-Man,” including New York Post columnist Michael Riedel, who said that even when the acrobatics work, the show suffers from a lack of leadership, a confusing story and bad music.
“I would say that this is the epic disaster on Broadway of all time. There have been flops before, expensive flops,” he told Reuters, noting Rosie O’Donnell and Boy George’s “Taboo” a few seasons back.
“But nothing has been at this level of danger certainly, this level of chaos, this level of expense and indeed this level of media attention. I think the world press has focused on ‘Spider-Man’ because the show is on the brink of absolute catastrophe every night.”
Riedel believes the show will be closed and even if not, he sees a hard road ahead to make money given its huge cost.
While many Broadway shows expect to recoup their initial investment within the first 12 months, “Spider-Man” would take several years, making it a riskier proposition than most.
It was once thought to be a sure-fire hit would follow the same path as several successful movies based on the comic book crime fighter, and it had big names behind it — Bono, The Edge and Taymor, who directed Broadway smash “The Lion King.”
For those reasons and others, Gelblum remains bullish. He sees “Spider-Man” having a long run on the Great White Way.
“If this thing has a life like the big hits and it runs for seven or eight much less 12 or 15 years, the majority of that time will be in profit,” said Gelblum.
In fact, even with lackluster press after its first previews in November, the show has been a sell out. It averaged around $180,000 per performance for five shows last week, making it among the highest-grossing productions on Broadway.
Serious dramas and quirky, low-budget musicals that attract a local audience feel a greater impact by influential reviews than big-budget blockbusters aimed at tourists.
“All big musicals must appeal to the tourist audience,” said Gelblum. “It’s word of mouth, it’s attention — that’s what drives these big musicals.”
Outside the theater, tourists were undeterred. Hugh Anderson traveled from upstate New York to see the show only to find it canceled. “I was just so excited, like a little boy on Christmas,” he said. “We just hope to see it in the future. Hopefully, the show will open up and stop having problems.”
The bad news also did not stop Dean Starnes, who traveled from California and had been following the show’s ups and down. “With all the recent events, it’s been even more intriguing to try and see if it’s possible,” he said.
Reporting by Christine Kearney, editing by Bob Tourtellotte