Amazingly, Spider-Man wasn’t the first comic book superhero to try to
make it on the Great White Way.
In 2011, the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark debuted on Broadway and made headlines. Not because it was really good, but because it was an absolute disaster. Actors in the stunt-heavy show routinely suffered injuries, critics savaged it, audience members asked for their money back, and the producers and creators sued each other. Eventually, the lawsuits were settled, safety measures were introduced, the script was rewritten mid-production, and two years later, the show is still running (to packed houses). But it’s amazing that it ever even made it to Broadway, after the failure of a proposed Batman musical.
In 1997, the Walt Disney company expanded from movies, TV, and theme parks into theater, buying a Broadway theater from which it could stage live musicals based on its animated movies. (Since then, they’ve bought more theaters and have staged critically-acclaimed and highly lucrative shows such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins, and The Little Mermaid.) Rival entertainment conglomerate Warner Brothers thought that it was a great idea, so in 1998 formed Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. The goal: make musicals out of its well-known characters. Its first attempt would be an adaptation of Batman.
Warner hired playwright David Ives to write the script (or the “book,” as its called in musical theater). The lyrics and music were to be written by rock songwriter Jim Steinman, best known for being the creative force behind Meat Loaf’s hugely successful Bat Out Of Hell album in 1977. But while Warner wanted to have Batman in front of audiences by 2000, Steinman delayed work to focus on another musical called Dance of the Vampires, based on The Fearless Vampire Killers, a horror movie made by Roman Polanski. It finally opened in 2002 and closed after 56 performances, losing $12 million, at the time the biggest loss in Broadway history.
But four years later, Steinman was finally free to work on Batman. That same year, Warner made a huge announcement: directing the musical would be Tim Burton, who had revived Batman with his films Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), presenting the character as a dark, gothic character, not the campy ’60s Adam West TV Batman audiences were most used to. The films were smash hits, so Burton was naturally Warner’s first choice. But Warner apparently neglected to make one big move before announcing Burton as the director: According to Burton, they hadn’t actually asked him. He denies to this day that he ever said yes, even telling one interviewer that the idea of a Batman musical was like “Batman on Ice.”
Not helping matters was the disappointing performance of the 1997 movie Batman and Robin. That film took a campier tone, like ’60s TV Batman—Arnold Schwarzenegger played the villain Mr. Freeze, and his dialogue mostly consisted of ice puns (“Allow me to break the ice”; “Let’s kick some ice!” “The Ice Man cometh!”). The movie flopped so badly that sequel plans were cancelled. The makers of the Batman musical were stuck—they couldn’t do it fun and campy, and without Burton, they couldn’t do it the dark way. (Besides, another dark musical had recently flopped—Dance of the Vampires.) Warner quietly cancelled plans and refocused their efforts to returning Batman to the big screen, which they did with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005.
Steinman eventually leaked the songs he’d written for Batman online. For a taste of what he had planned, here’s “Catwoman’s Song”: