Deep below the stage at the Foxwoods Theater, an athletic young performer steps into a harness and then pulls on a familiar, skin-tight costume. In a control room high above him, a bank of computer screens blinks with an intricate display of programs and data that looks like something out of NASA.
Along the narrow walkway below this command center, technicians tend to a labyrinth of wires, rigging, and winches amid surreal backdrops depicting New York City landmarks, giant weaving looms and other bright and bizarre objects.
The performer walks from his dressing room underneath the stage to his starting position. Stagehands clip wires onto the harness, and he pauses for a moment to contemplate what he is about to do before gracefully lowering himself into a crouch.
The stage platform beneath his feat slowly rises, and when the lights hit him, he suddenly springs high into the air over the stage — with the aid of the flying harness — and executes a flawless gainer flip. With another quick back flip, he lands front and center, and the audience collectively inhales; it’s their first encounter with Spider-Man.
The lanky acrobat is Brandon Rubendall, one of nine daring performers who execute the flips, stunts and aerial feats of the title character in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, played by leading man Reeve Carney and alternate Jake Epstein.
After nearly two years of performances, a prolonged and controversial preview period, safety issues and massive rewrites, Rubendall and the rest of the cast and crew have made Spider-Man one of the smoothest-running spectacles on Broadway. Every night, a small army of stunt experts onstage and off create a comic-book-inspired world where superpowers really do exist, live and in person.
“You have to be able to do anything that any show throws at you,” says Rubendall, who has danced professionally for Beyonce, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez, of the unique and daunting challenges presented by the production. “You have to be able to look like that’s what you do for a living.”
The entire Spider-Man company does just that with every performance. It’s a well-coordinated ballet backstage as the show progresses with multiple Peter Parkers performing different stunts, not only on the stage but in and above the audience. Christopher Tierney performs the “Hero Flyer” role, which means he does all the main stunts in the house, often landing right in front of thrilled theatergoers in the mezzanine and balcony.
“I happened to take to the wires,” says Tierney, explaining how he earned the position. “You have to understand the physics, the balance, also suspending disbelief—to understand that you are Spider-Man, to make yourself imagine and your body look like you’re really swinging from one thread to another. I took to it and actually programmed all the flights for the show.”
Before each performance, Tierney says he meditates “to get myself into a place where I am ready to roll with anything that’s given to me. Then you’re able to adapt.”
While Tierney soars above the heads of the audience, Maxx Reed takes care of the tumbling on stage. Of the stunt Spider-Men, Reed most closely resembles the comic-book version of Peter Parker, with dark hair, oversized glasses and a shy, boyish demeanor which belies his athletic ability. “Anytime Spider-Man is doing any flipping or fighting on the ground, it’s usually me,” says Reed. “Lucky for me, Spider-Man has this child-like abandon with a beautiful balletic way of moving, and I’m mostly versed in ballet and breakdancing, which is a nice mesh of urban and elegant movement.”
Most of the stunt men play multiple roles in addition to their Spidey duties. Brett Thiele, a senior at Pace University who is making his Broadway debut with the show, is in the student ensemble. After performing his tumbling track, Thiele runs up six flights of stairs to the top of the theater, gets attached to his wires, and performs a slow-motion fall from the ceiling, his one flight of the evening. “It’s very peaceful,” Thiele says. “Everything else is blacked out at that moment. It’s a fascinating feeling.”
Later in the show, after rejecting the burden of being a superhero, Peter Parker reclaims his responsibilities and goes after the villainous Green Goblin. During an intense ballad in which Peter sings about the duties his superpowers bring, the nine Spider-Men assemble behind him. For the scene to work, it’s essential that they all appear to be the same crime fighter, moving in perfect synchronization.
“We try to create the illusion for the audience that there is just one Spider-Man, and there aren’t nine of us running around in the wings,” says Drew Heflin, another Spider double making his Broadway debut. “You’re trying to make every dancer look like one big dancer,” says Maxx Reed, continuing the thought. “You’re the paint rather than the painter.”
The Spider-Men spend hours studying each other’s movements, down to specific flexing of the wrists and arms. During rehearsals, Rubendall says, a Tai Chi master was brought in so that each of the performers could “feel through every single movement so that we all look the same.”
After the big joint number, the show climaxes with an exciting aerial battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin, played by Robert Cuccioli. Adam Roberts, a stunt Spidey in the second act, switches roles to become the flying Goblin while Cuccioli’s voice plays over the loudspeakers. As he engages in mortal combat, Roberts lays flat on his stomach in the Goblin suit, strapped in at four points to the wires rather than the two points of the Spider suit, which allows for flipping and turning.
“It’s so exhilarating,” says Roberts of his nightly flying experience as the Goblin. “No matter what mood you’re in or how exhausted you are, you get up there and it’s the most fun you’ve ever had in your life. Now that I’m comfortable with it, I can actually look down and play with the kids because they’re just in awe. They’re looking up at you flabbergasted.”
After the aerial battle is done and Peter Parker has rescued his beloved Mary Jane, the troupe of Spider-Men rush backstage for the curtain call. When they take off their masks and bow, the audience lets out an enthusiastic roar, acknowledging the artful deception. For the nine-member team who pulled it off, it’s just one more successfully-woven web.