The new musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark has been all over the news lately, more for its production budget and offstage drama than its story or music. As it makes its official debut this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about why this whole concept has never appealed to me, from a creative standpoint. I love musicals, and I love superheroes — so wouldn’t a combination of the two be completely awesome? Or is there something about these two ingredients that just doesn’t fit together, like oil and water?
I’m not saying it could never be done, I’m just saying that the superhero genre has unique characteristics that make it less easily suited to musical theater. Hence the lack of hit musicals based on superheroes.
Musicals can really be based on almost anything, from Tales of the South Pacific to Romeo and Juliet. So what do all successful musicals have in common? Besides good songs, which is a given, they all have a central human conflict. They can all be boiled down to a core struggle between two (or more) characters — Anna and the king, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, the Sharks and the Jets, Galinda and Elphaba.
Superhero stories do have human conflict, but it is played out on a colossal stage, filled with larger-than-life villains and monsters, fireballs and explosions; at least, it is in the new age of Hollywood superheroes, who have become blockbuster techno-stars, leaping digitally from building to building. The longer, more complex stories of the original comics have been condensed and flattened into epic battles that leave little room for characters or ideas. (Who wants those during the summer?)
Not that superhero movies can’t be serious or artistic, but they have all morphed together into a new mutant beast that is redefining superheroes in the public eye, pulverizing the memory of their comic book ancestors.
But this post isn’t about movies, it’s about Broadway musicals.
Yes, Virginia, it is hypothetically possible to make a musical out of a comic book. But here is the trick – it must be written in such a way that it would work without costumes, without flying, without any special effects. In other words, the story and characters must stand on their own. Despite all those chorus lines, musical theater is really about character and emotion more than spectacle, and upsetting that balance has destroyed many a producer’s dreams.
To work on stage, the story must be stripped down to its bare essence. Ironically, costumes and epic battles are such an integrated part of the superhero genre, it’s nearly impossible to extract them without losing the essence of the genre, and there’s the rub. The things we love about superheroes are what make them an awkward fit for the stage.
Would the movie version of Spiderman work on an emotional level without costumes or special effects? Maybe the first half, probably not the second half. Would the new Broadway production of Spiderman work without costumes or special effects? That is the seventy-million dollar question, and that is what will determine whether this super-musical soars or plummets to the streets of Manhattan.