Spider-man: Turn On the Videos
one YouTube channel provides a comprehensive record of Broadway's most notorious flop
By Joey Sims
“Footage from the original climax of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark—as Arachne tries to convince Peter Parker to either have sex with her, or allow Mary Jane to die.”
That is the entirely accurate description which accompanies the very first posted video on Turn Off The Dark Archives, a YouTube channel attempting to collect every piece of video evidence that the musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark really did exist. It’s a big ask, since the infamous Broadway trainwreck took on a myriad of forms through its record 182 preview performances.
According to these online Broadway archivists, there are three versions of Turn off the Dark, which was directed by Julie Taymor, with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge of U2. First came Turn off the Dark 1.0, Taymor’s original vision, which began previews on November 8, 2010. Following a storm of delays, cast injuries and critical derision, Taymor attempted to rework the show, creating Version 1.5. When that didn’t quite work Taymor was kicked to the curb, and a new director (assisted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who rewrote the book and would later go on to create the Hot Archie show Riverdale) created 2.0, the final version which ran on Broadway through 2014.
Yet dividing it into three versions doesn’t really cover the madness of Turn off the Dark’s long gestation. The show underwent constant revisions through its 182 preview performances (whereas most shows typically get 30-40). Actors cycled in and out as injuries, often related to the show’s elaborate web-swinging, sidelined many. Various technical snafus halted performances.
All of these erratic changes and variations were like catnip for obsessive Broadway bootleg collectors. These collectors—a huge online community in its own right—basically seek to bottle and catalogue that which cannot be bottled and catalogued, live theatrical performance. On the surface, professional theater has a consistency, since every performance follows the same structure and script. But the bootleggers hone in on tiny differences: each performance happened exactly that way, with those precise choices and moments, only that one single time.
Crafting a “full” collection of Broadway bootlegs is already a mammoth task, even with a show that underwent only normal creative adjustments—say, Into the Woods, which saw some trims and the addition of “Last Midnight,” but no radical changes. With the unique case of Turn off the Dark, which kept changing for over six months rather than the usual four weeks, the task becomes insanity.
The show itself — even without the many changes — was also insanity, as evidenced by the videos this archive has collected so far. That archive includes glimpses of the “Geek Chorus” that narrated 1.0 (audience members can be heard groaning at the dialogue); A compare/contrast video detailing changes to the stunning, incomprehensible opening number between 1.0 and 2.0; and a full look at 1.0’s most infamous number, “Deeply Furious,” described by the video’s uploader as: “The number that cost Julie Taymor her job, where Arachne and her giant eight-legged spider girlfriends sing about stealing shoes”:
As is typical for the bootleg world, the comments reveal some sincere artistic interest in the work alongside a good amount of snide mocking:
(Side note: It is correct that none of Bono & The Edge’s lyrics make any sense, including and especially the title number. If you’re wondering what “Turn off the dark” means, the show does not answer. There’s an episode of the podcast U Talkin U2 To Me? devoted to this show where hosts Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott just repeat the title back and forth at each for a full minute.)
The Turn Off The Dark archive on YouTube and its corresponding Reddit community reflect the typical spirit of the online Broadway bootleg community: it is powered by a love of theater, sure, but it’s mainly about completism. Every show, every number, every replacement actor, every tour cast must be gathered. The good stuff, yes of course; the bad, just as much; the ugly, most of all.
Successful shows performed by excellent casts may actually be the least interesting finds. Watching Marin Mazzie perform Ragtime may only leave you wishing you were in the theater watching it; but watching the excruciatingly ‘80s opening number of Carrie, a Broadway flop,lets you take in a fascinating car crash in slow motion without having to actually be trapped in a room with such a nightmare.
The truth is that 1.0, 1.5 and 2.0 were all painfully, painfully dull. At every stage of life, this show was just deathly inert. What the online archive shows, more than anything else, is talented performers flailing on a huge, barren-looking stage, desperately trying to make something, anything come alive (maybe “turn off the dark,” in a way). And there is a cruel and perverse thrill in watching it. Take, for instance, this painful number, which vaguely tracks Spider-Man’s fight against the Sinister Six, but really never finds any focus at all:
Yes, that is what the Sinister Six look like in this show. Here they are performing on Letterman:
I probably should have spent this whole article just talking about that Letterman performance instead, which is gaudy madness (Letterman himself goes easy, only declaring it “like a party at my mom’s house”). If more of Turn Off The Dark was this camp it might have actually been fun.
Alas. The archive, in its comprehensiveness, confirms a limp creative failure, a project doomed from the outset. Along, of course, with a catalogue of on-stage accidents. (That got plenty of attention at the time, so I haven’t focused on it here, but the channel has your compilation.)
Why do I say the project was doomed? Take the channel’s side-by-side of “Sinistereo,” a number about the Sinister Six attacking New York City. In 1.0, the scene relies almost entirely on projections. While The Edge sings about... something (“Much of madness and more of sin/No government of this vast formless thing”) and video animations of the Six play, nothing is actually happening on the stage. The solution, in 2.0? Some journalists have been added, walking around describing the attacks and singing adjusted lyrics like “If fear is fire/Why do we feed the fire?” Different but, not a whole lot more exciting. Neither version is particularly good, but the YouTube archive lets you reassemble and experience the train-wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark through all of its iterations — a comprehensive archive made possible because of the internet and through crowdsourcing.
For all the negative press and attention Turn Off The Dark received at the time, the show itself—despite a run of 1,066 performances to a 1,900 seat house—now feels like it never existed. For all the column inches spent on its technical disasters and backstage drama, the actual piece of work seems to have left zero cultural footprint. Sort of astonishing given that it was, you know, a Spider-Man musical! From the director of The Lion King stage production! Scored by U2!
So now, with the press interest long gone and the show certain to never be revived, come the internet completists. The drama is no longer of interest. The interest is in unpacking, scrap by scrap, just what the hell this thing was. There’s actually a beautiful sort of simplicity to the project. It’s not about artistic quality, it’s not about “good” or “bad.” It’s just about remembering: That was a thing. That actually happened.
Here are some online theater shows I have watched this week, they are both great and both only 30 minutes!
Vancouver by Ralph B. Peña, presented by Ma-Yi Studios
All the Different Ways That Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn't by Julia Izumi, presented by Theatre in Quarantine.
Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC and Extended Play. He was also Social Media Editor at Exeunt for two years. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.