I was an editor, said Chase Brock, who was brough in to refine the choreography.… (Jacob Cohl/ )
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.”