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Can SPIDER-MAN Be Saved? BWW Looks Back at Famous Fix Efforts

"You can do spectacle on Broadway with no book and have a very successful show."

Those were the words of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark director/co-bookwriter Julie Taymor not very long ago.  While weekly grosses have been supporting her claim (throughout its lengthy preview period, the show has been generally praised for its spectacle and criticized for its book), there are apparently those who feel otherwise, as it was recently announced that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa would be joining the creative team as a third co-bookwriter.

It's a common practice for even accomplished Broadway professionals to seek out the advice of their colleagues when a show is in trouble.  Legends are made from cases such as when Jerome Robbins lent uncredited assistance that turned A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum from a flop to a hit, or the numerous times when Neil Simon was said to have secretly added some much-needed humor to a struggling play.  But having a credited new bookwriter added to make wholesale changes while a show is previewing is a much rarer case.

Perhaps the most infamous circumstance took place during the 1966 Philadelphia and Boston tryouts of Holly Golightly, which would eventually come to Broadway as Breakfast at Tiffany's.  With television stars Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain making their musical theatre debuts in a show based on Truman Capote's story, which had been a hit film five years earlier, Holly had built a substantial advanced sale and was unquestionably the most highly-anticipated event of the season.

Abe Burrows, co-author of Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, was set to direct and write the book, but after enduring too many bored out-of-town audiences, producer David Merrick brought in an unlikely replacement, Edward Albee, to completely revise the book.  (Which, in turn, would necessitate composer/lyricist Bob Merrill to completely redo his score.)  Burrows was welcome to stay on as director, but Albee's public loathing of his work prompted his departure and Joseph Anthony was brought in.

Actors started getting new material to quickly bring to life on stage and by the time the show had reached New York it had undergone a complete overhaul; the most significant difference being that Holly was now shown as a fictional character created by the Chamberlain's author character.  But audiences were still unengaged and after four Broadway previews Merrick closed the show, claiming all responsibility for the production's failure, as it was his idea to bring Capote's story to the musical stage.  Although the advance sale promised enough of a run to see if an audience can be developed, Merrick decided not to open, "rather than subject the drama critics and the theatergoing public... to an excruciatingly boring evening."

Darling of the Day, which opened in 1968, wasn't quite as highly-anticipated as Holly Golightly, but the co-production of The Theatre Guild and Joel Schenker boasted the impressive creative team of Jule Styne and E.Y. Harburg to write the score.  Based on Arnold Bennett's play, Buried Alive, the show would have Vincent Price making his musical theatre debut as a recluse artist who switches identities with his newly-deceased butler, not knowing he was carrying on a lonely hearts correspondence with a marriage-minded widow (Patricia Routledge winning a Tony in her American debut).  At first the bookwriting task was granted to the playwriting team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, but when the producers weren't happy with their effort the job was given to S.N. Behrman, who was then replaced by Nunnally Johnson.  Though it was Johnson's script that played the show's out-of-town tryouts, Roger O. Hirson was brought in to make some uncredited revisions.  Unhappy with the changes, Johnson had his name removed from the piece and the show opened on Broadway with no one credited as having written the book.

Though the pre-opening word of mouth wasn't optimistic, Darling of the Day actually got a favorable review from Broadway's most influential critic of the day, the Times' Clive Barnes.  Unfortunately, Barnes had opted to attend a ballet opening and gave the first night reviewing assignment to a second stringer, who was very negative.  Barnes eventually published his positive notice but it was too late to save Darling of the Day from a brief run.

But if the Spider-Man company is looking for a role model for success, it can be found with the original Broadway production of My One and Only, which, with the addition of a new bookwriter and a little help from some of Tommy Tune's friends, went from a messy show that left audiences dumbfounded and confused to a big, splashy Broadway hit.

Originally intended to be a revival of the Gershwin hit Funny Face with a revised book, the hot, 25-year-old experimental director Peter Sellars (known for setting Handel's Orlando in outer space and Antony and Cleopatra in a swimming pool) devised with his young bookwriter, Timothy S. Mayer, a story of Cuban rum-runners intended to be a dark satire of capitalistic imperialism over third-world economies... with Gershwin songs... starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy.

The rehearsal period became a struggle of artistic differences between the concept-driven director and the showman star/choreographer, climaxing in a reported incident where the two of them clashed over whether Tune would make his first entrance dancing onto the stage or walking.  Shortly after being honored with a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Sellars was fired and Tune took over as director, less than a week before out-of-town tryouts in Boston were to begin.

The master craftsman of musical theatre, Peter Stone, was asked to provide a new book, but as President of The Dramatists Guild it was his responsibility to make sure Mayer's contractual rights were protected.  After matters of billing and money were settled, Stone took over writing the show and Mike Nichols became a familiar face at preview performances, which were a combination of Mayer's original book gradually being replaced by Stone's revisions.

Tommy Tune would make a curtain speech after every performance, acknowledging the confusing story the audience just sat through.  Though the buzz was that the show was a flop, it was in fact being steadily improved and by opening night on Broadway was a solid hit.

So who knows?  While some may call it a lost cause, there's no reason why the creative powers behind Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark might not be able to turn things around with careful attention paid to that most vital part of a Broadway musical, the book.

Wait, I just remembered... Julie Taymor said that Spider-Man is not a Broadway musical.  It's really "a circus rock and roll drama."

Never mind.

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