A lead actress in Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" officially walked away from the long-delayed musical Thursday night, another blow for an unsettled production that has already sent several actors to the hospital and burned through millions of dollars even before its official opening.
Natalie Mendoza, who had recently returned to the stunt-heavy show after suffering a concussion during its first preview performance last month, pulled out for good following several days of negotiations between lawyers for both sides. Producers Thursday evening broke the news to the cast before the 8 p.m. performance.
The actress cited her head injury as the reason she walked away.
"It has been a difficult decision to make, but I regret that I am unable to continue on 'Spider-Man' as I recover from my injury," Mendoza said in a statement.
Run of Bad Luck
The protracted exit of a key star only a few weeks before the launch of what is considered Broadway's most expensive show was in keeping with a production that has been marred by accidents and bad press.
Mendoza played Spider-Man's evil love interest Arachne - a part written by director and co-book author Julie Taymor - and is one of four actors to be injured in the $65 million musical that has been delayed four times this year alone.
Mendoza's move comes 10 days after stuntman Christopher W. Tierney, playing the web-slinger, fell about 30 feet into a stage pit when a safety tether failed on Dec. 20. He spent Christmas in the hospital while recovering from back surgery and was transferred to a New York City rehab facility this week. His accident was also the last night Mendoza performed as Arachne.
The drip-drip of almost weekly bad news has turned the musical - whose costs easily dwarf Broadway's last costliest show, the $25 million "Shrek the Musical" - into fodder for late-night comics, with both Conan O'Brien and "Saturday Night Live" spoofing the show. Even Donny and Marie Osmond are ridiculing it in their own Christmas musical.
The show's official opening was most recently pushed back from Jan. 11 to Feb. 7, in part because of Mendoza's injury and after producers decided that the creative team needed to work out more kinks before allowing critics to weigh in. Mendoza's leaving has not changed that new opening date, producers said.
Mendoza, a 30-year-old singer and actress whose credits include the British TV drama "Hotel Babylon" and the horror film "The Descent," was hit in the head by a rope offstage Nov. 28. Although she struggled through another performance, the actress was eventually sidelined for two weeks and wrote on her Facebook page that she was on nausea tablets and painkillers.
The Arachne role involves singing several songs and being part of numerous flying sequences, including one in which she is spun upside-down. Castmembers T.V. Carpio and Arachne understudy America Olivo have been filling in for Mendoza and it is believed one of them will get the role permanently.
Mendoza was one of four relatively unknown leads in the show, including Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Jennifer Damiano as Mary Jane Watson and Patrick Page is the Green Goblin. Taymor, who earned raves for her "Lion King," and music by U2's Bono and The Edge are the real draws.
Other Broadway shows have survived the injury or loss of a key actor before opening, including Nathan Lane, who fell through a trap door while starring in "The Frogs" in 2004 and missed a show with bruised and gashed legs, and Idina Menzel, who fractured a rib falling through a trap door in a 2005 performance of "Wicked." (She went on to win a Tony in the role.)
Allison Bibicoff, an actress and dancer who served as assistant choreographer and an associate producer on the 2007 Tony-nominated musical "Xanadu," recalls her own hairy moments when that roller-skating musical was still in previews.
Actor James Carpinello bizarrely broke his foot while in skates alone on stage less than three hours before an evening curtain and was rushed away in an ambulance. Producers scrambled to find a substitute from the other actors, but the show was never delayed. Three days later, the male lead was handed to Cheyenne Jackson. (Carpinello went on to star in "Rock of Ages.")
Bibicoff, a dance instructor for over 15 years who was in the national tour of "Swing!," said putting on a show with most of the cast wearing roller-skates always presented a risk, but producers were careful to use crash pads and employ expert coaches. The injury count at "Spider-Man" has her puzzled.
"In physical shows, people are going to be injured and that's part of the nature of the business, but this seems quite extreme," Bibicoff said. "I don't know what they're doing in this show that makes it so extra dangerous."
The injury to Tierney prompted some Broadway stars to vent online. "Rent" lead Adam Pascal said on Facebook that Taymor "should be put in jail for assault," while Alice Ripley, who won a Tony for "Next to Normal," asked on Twitter, "Does someone have to die?"
The first Spider-Man preview did not go well. The Marvel Comics-endorsed musical had to be halted five times due to technical glitches and its running time ballooned to over three hours. Word of Mendoza's head injury came later.
While the length of the show has been steadily cut and the number of delays has dropped, audiences at previews often seem confused about the role of Arachne and underwhelmed by the finale. An unusually long preview period and the show's less-than-forthcoming public relations strategy has prompted some critics to publish their own preliminary reviews, breaking a customary rule.
Taymor's visionary reputation has taken another hit with the film "The Tempest," her interpretation of the William Shakespeare classic that has Helen Mirren playing the lead. Released this month, the movie was greeted by mostly negative reviews. Taymor has also pulled out of a high-profile public forum on the arts in early January that features Robert Redford, Tim Rice and Kevin Spacey.
Known for her singular vision, Taymor is also notorious for her single-minded determination to see it through and has been given wide discretion and artistic license to make Spider-Man fly. Bono and The Edge, currently on tour with U2, will return to New York to help her with the Broadway musical in January.
Not everyone is ready to put a stake through the show's heart. Stephen Hendel, who co-conceived and produced the Tony Award-nominated "Fela!," saw a performance of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" on Monday night and said he admired the obviously huge amount of work apparent on stage.
"Look, there are a lot of very, very talented people involved in the show, and I was struck by what they did, which was beautiful and sensational," Hendel said. "It's something that everyone has to judge for themselves, but the stage images are glorious, the music is fantastic, the performances are excellent and there was evidence of a great deal of theatrical and artistic talent involved in the production."
The show has been built specifically for the 1,928-seat Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street, meaning a traditional out-of-town tryout to fix glitches wasn't possible. Lead producer Michael Cohl has said he considered delaying previews until the production had gelled better, but argued that the cast and crew had to bite the bullet eventually, even if they risked embarrassments and bad press.
The show's massive costs - a 41-member cast, 18 orchestra members, complicated sets and dozens of daring aerial stunts, including a battle between two characters over the audience - mean the theater will have to virtually sell out every show for several years just to break even. The weekly running bill has been put as high as $1 million. (Tickets are priced from $67.50-$135 for weekday performances and $67.50-$140 for weekend performances. Top premium seats go for over $275.)
The show's struggles haven't dimmed it's weekly revenues, with the theater routinely packed and the musical usually pulling in close to $1 million per week. Last week, for just four previews, it earned $944,000 at full capacity, according to The Broadway League.