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Spider-Man Fall Puts Focus on Safety

December 27, 2010
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In the wake of an accident during a performance of the Broadway musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a number of New York legislators are calling for new safety regulations for live theatrical performances.

New York assemblyman Rory Lancman, chairman of the Assembly Subcommittee on Workplace Safety, staged a news conference Dec. 23 at Foxwoods Theater, where two performances of the show were canceled Dec. 22 in light of the accident. Lancman said the code of necessary safety conditions for theater productions may no longer be relevant for such technically complicated shows as Spider-Man, which has 38 aerial maneuvers that involve actors being hoisted into harnesses and flying through the air.

“The current legislation that governs these kinds of performances dates back to 1953 and has not been materially updated since then,” Lancman said. “Spider-Man is not going to be the last Broadway performance that pushes the envelope in terms of the stunts and special effects it uses.”

The producers of the musical canceled a Dec. 22 matinee and evening performances to implement certain extra safety precautions, resulting in a loss of nearly $400,000 in ticket sales.

The $65 million musical, the most expensive and ambitious ever done on Broadway, has faced many setbacks and delays in its attempt to open on the Great White Way. Most recently, the show’s producers announced they were delaying opening night by four weeks to Feb. 7 in order to make creative adjustments.

Despite a constant barrage of bad news, however, Spider-Man has been nearly sold out in previews and has an advance that is greater than $20 million. If anything, the interest is just growing with the media frenzy surrounding the accidents. The show is now selling $250,000 a day in tickets, a source with knowledge of the box office results said.

Seth Gelblum, a partner at Loeb & Loeb, and the lawyer for Julie Taymor, who is the show’s director, and a number of the production’s investors, said actors get hurt in the theater all the time. For example, Fela was forced to cancel a performance last year when three dancers couldn’t perform because of injuries.

Gelblum said the incidents are receiving outsized attention because the musical didn’t work out the kinks in an out-of-town run, but is doing so on Broadway under the scrutiny of the New York media.

“Broadway musicals are very strenuous and people always get hurt unfortunately,” Gelblum said. “But everything is magnified on this show because of the unprecedented attention.”

Maureen Cox, director of safety and health for the New York state Labor Department, said together with the show’s producers, they were implementing stricter standards for the complex aerial moves on the show.

Cox said that going forward a second stage hand will need to check that the actor’s harness and tether to make sure it is indeed connected securely, and then the two stage hands will need to verify that with the stage manager.

“The production company has been working with us diligently through the day and we’re working on improving the safety conditions and working on putting in redundancy,” Cox said on a conference call.

A spokeswoman for Actors Equity said that the union had a representative at the theater monitoring the new safety procedures being put in place.

Cox said the department was still investigating exactly what happened with the latest accident.

The investigation was put in motion after a lead stunt actor, Christopher Tierney, who was playing the superhero, fell more than 20 feet during a Dec. 20 show, suffering major injuries. He was the fourth performer to be hurt working on the show since September.

According to the Associated Press, as of Dec. 27, the actor had taken his first steps since the fall. The actor’s father, Tim Tierney, told the Associated Press that, as a result of the fall, his son suffered a hairline skull fracture, four broken ribs, a bruised lung, internal bleeding and cracks in three vertebrae.

Filed by Miriam Kreinin Souccar of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

 

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