NEW YORK >> Joan Rivers gave a suggestion to the director Julie Taymor the other night: “Hire a stunt person to fall on someone every three or four weeks — that’ll keep audiences showing up.”
Like talk show hosts, magazine editors, entertainment bloggers, other comics, even an animation studio in Taiwan, Rivers is getting a lot of mileage out of the new Broadway show “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
She was there backstage at the Foxwoods Theater on Wednesday, schmoozing with the cast and Taymor, who is directing the show, to develop more material for her stand-up act, which lately has begun with a moment of silence for “those Americans risking their lives daily — in ‘Spider-Man’ the musical,” a reference to the four performers who have been injured working on the show.
“Spider-Man” has not even officially opened yet. The date has been delayed five times to fix myriad problems, with Sunday afternoon being preview performance No.66 and the opening planned for Monday night being pushed back five more weeks to March 15. But this $65 million musical has become a national object of pop culture fascination — more so, perhaps, than any show in Broadway history.
Starting with Conan O’Brien’s spoof of Spider-Man warbling in rhyme on Nov. 30, two nights after the musical’s problem-plagued first preview, the show has been lampooned on every major late-night comedy show and by The Onion, which portrayed the producers as still being optimistic about the show despite a nuclear bomb’s detonating during a preview. Recently, Steve Martin slyly referred to it in a series of tweets about watching the “Spider-Man” movies at home.
“Settling in to watch Spiderman 3 on deluxe edition DVD, but I fell from hanging cables in screening room. 2 hour delay,” he wrote.
Media celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Beck and the hosts of “Morning Joe” have all raved about the musical, especially Beck, who said in an interview on Friday that he had seen it four times.
Beck has framed its appeal on his radio broadcast as a face-off between regular Americans and cultural snobs (i.e., liberals). In the interview, however, he was more fanboy than fire breather, rattling off plot points and design elements with the practiced eye of a Sardi’s regular.
“The story line is right on the money for today, which is to be your better self, that you can spiral into darkness or — ” here he quoted one of the show’s anthemic songs — “you can rise above,” said Beck, who estimated that he sees a dozen shows a year. “In fact, I just wrote an e-mail to Julie” — Taymor — “about how much I loved the new ending.”
Last month, “Spider-Man” became the first Broadway show since “The Producers” to land on the cover of The New Yorker; the cartoon, by Barry Blitt, who also did “The Producers” cover in 2001, showed several injured Spider-Men in a hospital ward.
“For our cover we always ask ourselves, would our 1 million readers know what we were making reference to?” said Francoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. “But in no time at all, ‘Spider-Man’ has gotten enough notoriety that we knew the cover would make people laugh. Even the show’s producers laughed; they’ve been hounding us to buy copies of the artwork.
If most theater artists and producers are intensely protective of their shows, those at “Spider-Man” have a peculiar financial interest in being mocked. The musical, which marries a hugely popular comic book brand with music by Bono and the Edge of U2, is grossing about $1.3 million a week in ticket sales, the most of any Broadway show except the blockbuster “Wicked,” despite relatively little advertising and no major reviews yet.
By all accounts, including from inside “Spider-Man,” the show is a hot seller week to week — rather than building a huge eight-figure advance commensurate with its $65 million cost — which would suggest staying power. And that popularity has been fueled by the echo chamber of jokes, dinner party chatter and media attention among the fashionable and their hangers-on surrounding this technically ambitious show.
For all that, of course, there are some adults and children who simply have an attachment to Spider-Man, who want to see people swing from webs, or who think that the show might make for enjoyable live theater.
“Our sales are strong; they continue to be strong, which is terrific news, but I can’t give you one clear reason why the show becomes such a draw every night after night,” Michael Cohl, the lead producer, said in an interview. “What I know is that people are talking about ‘Spider-Man’ to what seems like an unprecedented degree.”
Philip J. Smith, the chairman of the Shubert Organization, which owns and books 17 of Broadway’s 40 theaters, said he had never seen a show become such a curiosity. “It has become a phenomenon for reasons, it seems, that have very little to do with the show itself,” Smith said. (“Spider-Man” is not in a Shubert theater.)
The injuries to the four performers generated the bulk of the publicity for the show this winter, including the departure of one of its stars, Natalie Mendoza, who sustained a concussion while backstage and left the production in late December after signing a confidentiality agreement and being paid an undisclosed amount.
But if the axiom that all publicity is good publicity has benefited the musical, what happens to “Spider-Man” when the publicity dies down?
“The $65 million price tag and the circuslike atmosphere of people getting injured or the show having technical problems, all of that is creating interest in the short term,” said Elizabeth I. McCann, who has been producing on Broadway since the mid-1970s and has won multiple Tony Awards, mostly for plays. “But at some point, I think, people are going to say that the emperor has no clothes where the so-called musical spectacle of ‘Spider-Man’ is concerned, and the adult audience will start to lose interest.”