Dark nights on Broadway

New York theatre is in crisis – with word of mouth so bad that shows are closing even before opening night.

There are some good shows in New York at the moment, but all the talk is of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the most expensive musical ever seen on Broadway which, after several delays, opened in previews last Sunday and was instantly "reviewed" (though the critics won't pronounce until the second week of January) as a flop, with a "dull score and baffling script" and a distinctly muffled word of mouth.

The show is conceived and written by Julie "The Lion King" Taymor and U2 front men Bono and the Edge at a cost of $65m (and rising), but has been cursed with technical problems, accidents in rehearsal, and a series of glitches last Sunday which included the stranding of Spiderman over the audience while he was supposed to be rescuing the heroine, slow handclaps and one audience member proclaiming that she felt like a guinea pig.

Despite this, public interest has resulted in a box-office advance racing towards $10m. The commercial impact will have to be miraculous, though, in order to make back its investment and cover its £1m-a-week running costs. Shrek the Musical – coming to London in June – cost a mere $25m, played for over a year on Broadway, but never earned back its money.

All new musicals have teething problems. In the old days, these were sorted out (or not) on the road in Cleveland or Boston before the shows hit New York. But something like Spider-Man needs that pre-opening period to find its feet in its Broadway resting home; and that means an unavoidable media glare before the show's half-way ready.

The intense level of preview prattling on the internet (followed meekly by the newspapers, including The New York Times) is something new in our theatre, especially the commercial theatre, in both London and New York. It's just one more element contributing to an overall impression of volatility and uncertainty on Broadway where, says one insider, publicity agent Adrian Bryan-Brown, there is no shortage of new plays coming up, but insufficient audience to sustain them in any sort of long run.

No less than our own West End theatre, Broadway is increasingly reliant on input from the subsidised, or not-for-profit, sector to keep its blood circulating, if not necessarily its audiences proliferating. The very low level of in-house producing creativity, let alone audience appeal, is disguised by the crowds and clamour that still seem to congregate around Times Square.

But as ticket prices rise, box-office returns are falling: the recession is biting, and producers are turning increasingly not only to the odd, unlikely wayward star (Chris Rock, Kiefer Sutherland and Robin Williams are all slated for next year) and re-treads of familiar film titles as so-so, unadventurous musicals, but also to safe, straight-play revivals; at least Spider-Man has some element of risk, not to say foolhardiness, about it.

And the biggest genuine star at the moment is Al Pacino as Shylock. But even he has to be shored up by a non-profit theatre and its philanthropic subscribers: he's appearing in a Public Theater production of The Merchant of Venice by Daniel Sullivan that played to low-budget, "beneficial" audiences in Central Park during the summer.

Something of the Park's informal intensity has carried over to Broadway, where a roster of producers, corporate and individual, is now charging a top price ticket of $131 (with premium seats going for $250) and Pacino – whom I've only ever seen on stage in David Mamet's American Buffalo, which he played in London 25 years ago – is giving a performance of shuffling, brooding, deeply eloquent menace and brilliance.

It takes a star to make this sort of impact on Broadway, no bad thing in itself. But the gulf between "good theatre" on and off Broadway is far more pronounced than it is between fringe and West End in London. The Public, for instance, has also recently presented the Elevator Repair Service's acclaimed six-hour performance of The Great Gatsby; but Gatz, and its audience, still seem light years away from the Times Square crowd.

Pacino helps bridge the gap, temporarily at least. The other stellar performance on the "main stem" (as Broadway is now termed) is Vanessa Redgrave's beautifully modulated turn in Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, a 1987 off-Broadway piece that became a famous film.

The branches off the stem are as busy and flourishing as our own fringe theatre scene. But it's hard to see how two dozen Broadway theatres can possibly survive this proliferating, predatory and usually gleeful bad-mouthing on the blogosphere as well as the rising costs, falling and undiscerning audiences, scarily unsupportive critics and a general spirit of commercial and artistic desperation.

Ten days ago, the morning after the opening of Elling – a slight, silly but very touching little Norwegian play that started out in our own Bush Theatre in Simon Bent's version and was lovingly produced on Broadway by Howard Panter and Bill Kenwright – I bumped into producer Sonia Friedman, who was on the phone commiserating, she said, with someone who was about to lose a lot of money on the play.

"But it's only just opened; is it closing already?" I asked, innocently. "Have you seen the Times?" Sonia shot back. (Elling did, indeed, close last Sunday, the same night as Spider-Man failed to fly.)

Mind you, 20 years ago Arthur Miller long felt that he'd lost his middle-class, hard-working, reasonably well-read constituency on Broadway. The public appetite is solely for huge splashy musicals, with a side order of catastrophe. Nowhere is this clearer than in the sado-masochistic case of Spider-Man, a show so big and expensive it might have lost all reason to exist in the first place.

Meanwhile, the comparatively modest (at $5m) but delightful Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown musical based on Pedro Almodóvar's 1988 movie, looks likely to be the latest victim of pre-opening negativity (arising, again, from delays to the opening); even Variety, the trade paper, tempered a mostly appreciative review with the idea that this witty, brilliant European art-house treat was "Women on the Verge of a Coherent Musical".

That's almost, but not quite, in the same bitchily destructive web-wide dubbing (and drubbing) class of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies – hailed in this newspaper and elsewhere as a high-water mark in the composer's output – as "Paint Never Dries". The result: Love Never Dies is still not confirmed for Broadway, just as Women on the Verge will probably go down in the annals as yet another great show that got away.

Whatever the teething problems on Women – like Spider-Man, it had a few – the result is amazing, visually: Michael Yeargan's sets create Almodóvar's cartoonish, primary-coloured, fast-moving post-Franco Madrid as a perfect crucible for the farcical shenanigans spreading from Lucia's (Patti LuPone) failed marriage to a valium-laced jug of gazpacho.

And as Women is produced by the non-profit Lincoln Center, the costs of (almost certainly) not extending the show's run beyond its allotted time at the end of January will be painlessly absorbed by the producers, and (fairly) good houses guaranteed from the subscription list.

Even when they mis-fire, new musical theatre experiments on Broadway stand a better chance than new plays, merely because the tourist audience prefers musicals to dramas. Current offerings include not only the London-bound nostalgia fest Million Dollar Quartet, featuring the ghosts of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, and Memphis, set in the underground dance clubs of the 1950s; but also Next to Normal, a frighteningly good and daring new musical built around ordinary domestic suburban life and bi-polar disorder, and a stunning rock concert, American Idiot, based on the Clash-lite, punk-friendly songs of rock group Green Day.

American Idiot is apparently a fairly cynical synthesis of rock musical elements in Hair, Rent and the recent brilliant musical of Spring Awakening. But it does at least show signs of genuine creativity and concern for the musical theatre genre, just as one way of looking at Next to Normal is as a development of a new psychoanalytical approach instigated by Stephen Sondheim himself in Company 40 years ago.

And even Bono admits that he was spurred into action on Spider-Man by an off-the-cuff remark by Andrew Lloyd Webber to the effect that he (Lloyd Webber) was grateful to other rock musicians for leaving him alone to get on with writing musical theatre... Those words could still come back to haunt him, just like his own long-running Phantom. The real question is: will Spider-Man ever have a chance to be taken seriously by the audience, and the critics; or will it be remembered as just one more, highly significant, staging post on Broadway's accelerating journey towards self-inflicted economic disaster, cultural oblivion and melt-down?