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A web of marketing awaits the Spider-Man musical

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MARK KENNEDY | November 24, 2010 01:51 PM EST | AP

NEW YORK — Robin Buckwalter is fully aware that a Broadway musical about Spider-Man will be opening soon. So far, though, he hasn't felt a buzz of anticipation about it where he works.

That may be bad news to producers: Buckwalter works at a comic book store.

"I haven't heard any feedback from any of the customers that come into the store," says Buckwalter, the 28-year-old co-manager of Galaxy Comics in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. "I don't see many ways in which the two worlds intersect."

He says some hard-core fans might splurge for a pair of tickets to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries, but that's about it. Really? So comic book lovers won't be lining up when the mega-musical "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" opens its doors Sunday?

"No," he says, laughing. "I really doubt it."

Such a lukewarm reaction from one segment of comic fans may seem to put backers of the web-slinger's expensive show in a bind, but they are not necessarily relying on that particular demographic to fill the massive Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street.

There are plenty of other potential targets: traditional Broadway audiences who want to see spectacle, admirers of its Tony Award-director Julie Taymor and fans of U2's Bono and The Edge, who wrote the music.

"It's a marketing person's dream to work on a show like this because there really are so many ways to reach your various target audiences," says Amanda Pekoe, president of The Pekoe Group, a marketing company not connected to the Spider-Man musical.

Pekoe, who has managed the marketing and advertising for a wide variety of shows, from the Broadway hit "Rock of Ages" to the cult "Puppetry of the Penis," says her first rule is never forget the core audience.

"No matter what show you're working on – Broadway or off-Broadway – your first goal is to reach out to the people who are typical theater ticket-buyers," she says. "No matter how different or unique or eccentric a show is, that's always the first goal."

After that group is targeted, Pekoe suggests going after more niche markets, in this case fan boys – comic book and sci-fi fans, and the audience that racked up big box office for the "Spider-Man" film franchise. And, indeed, producers of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" have taken a page from her game book by reaching a deal with the cable channel SyFy to spread the word and by partnering with Marvel Comics.

SyFy executives feel they can help the musical attract fans beyond the traditional Broadway ticket buyers, who skew older and female. The network – part of NBC Universal and formally known as the Sci-Fi Channel – will beam ads for the show to 95 million homes nationwide and host ticket giveaway contests, among other promotions.

"We think we're going to deliver a really broad audience to them," says Blake Callaway, senior vice president for brand marketing. "We're going to be able to energize their ticket sales."

Those figures are going to be under intense scrutiny because the show's massive costs – a reported $60 million and climbing – mean the 1,900-seat theater will have to virtually sell out every show for several years just to break even. The weekly running bill has been put as high as $1 million.

"We've all read about the amount of money being put into the production," says Callaway. "So they are not going to rely on a single audience to fill those seats. They're going to need to tap into as many segments of the theatergoing public and beyond that as possible."

While the show has no bankable stars – Reeve Carney will play Peter Parker/Spider-Man, Jennifer Damiano is Mary Jane Watson, Patrick Page is the Green Goblin and Natalie Mendoza will be in a new role, Arachne, written by Taymor – the music may be a big draw. There are 40 pieces of music in total, including 18 songs. Only one tune – the glam rocker "A Boy Falls From the Sky" – is widely known, but Bono and The Edge say there's something for everyone in the score.

"We saw this as a way to shake things up a bit. The problem with rock 'n' roll is it's a little bit of a ghetto. It tends to atrophy over time if new things don't come into it," says The Edge, the band's lead guitarist.

Marvel will also do its part to back one of its franchise characters, spreading the world to its 890,000 Facebook fans, putting up videos of the show on its home page, sending e-mail blasts to subscribers and posting updates on Twitter and YouTube.

"Of course, people hear 'Spider-Man' and they hear 'musical' and the typical comic book fan can be a pretty hardcore guy and they might not necessarily see the fit," says John Cerilli, vice president for content and programming at the Marvel Digital Media Group. "But that's never made sense to me. The story of Spider-Man is so universal and so fantastic that why wouldn't it work in this instance?"

The precise plot of the musical is still a well-kept secret but producers have hinted they will incorporate Spidey's famous origins: Bullied nerd gets bitten by radioactive spider and becomes a secretive web-swinging superhero who battles colorful villains. The traditional love story between Peter Parker and Mary Jane, though, may be complicated by the presence of the new evil character Arachne, and Bono hinted at surreal, hallucinogenic elements in the story. The musical's pop art sets and aerial stunts promise a comic book action story come to life.

Ultimately, the musical's future may depend less on marketing strategies than audience praise and positive Web chatter. "Word-of-mouth is going to play a part because I feel word-of-mouth plays a part in all live entertainment," says Pekoe.

For his part, Bono says the audience will not be disappointed and insists the show isn't dumb escapism. "There's a lot in this," he says. "No expense has been spared in taking you out of yourself and out of your head and into this other world."

Buckwalter, the comic book store manager, may need a little more goosing to get him into the show. Though he likes musicals and enjoyed Taymor's "The Lion King" and her film romance set against Beatles music, "Across the Universe," Buckwalter says he'll likely wait for the hype on Spidey to calm down and then decide if he wants to see the Broadway show.

"There's the possibility I might see it sometime in the future, but there's nothing guaranteed about that," he says.