I must first off agree that it is unfair to review a show without seeing it. This is not a review. This is an attempt to make sense of what is really a very sad situation.
In light of the terrifying and tragic recent accident in which one of the actors who plays Spider-man fell into the pit, comments about the quality of the writing (most reviewers say laughable, lacking the humor and wit that is Spidey’s trademark), music and lyrics (judging by the preview performance: lazy and unintelligible in terms of both content and aural comprehension), and costumes (you’ve seen them right?) are immaterial. It’s not even a question of pleasing an audience any more. It’s about protecting actors and examining how we got to this point.
It’s easy to rag on Julie Taymor. She’s one of those directors who has a very distinctive visual style, best summed up by this clip from that compilation of amazing music videos, Across the Universe (To be fair this is supposed to be an acid trip) :
Taymor has brought her touch to obscure Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus and now Tempest), to the aforementioned Beatles, to beloved Disney animated films (The Lion King), to opera (her stunning Magic Flute is up at the Met right now) and now to the wisecracking photographer who’s often described as the “populist superhero.” Her vision is often beautiful and always interesting, if no longer entirely unexpected. But that can be a good thing. You recognize a Taymor production the way you would recognize a Fellini film. The look is distinct, and the same themes re-emerge and become more complex.
Let it be known that I enjoy and respect Julie Taymor, but I say this as both a theatergoer and a comics fan: Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is the worst thing to happen to two industries that are already in jeopardy. It reflects its audience, and that’s what makes it vital that we examine what this show means for theatergoers, comics fans, and Americans in general.
It’s easy to admire Turn Off the Dark‘s ambition. A rock musical with flying that breaks the proscenium, a Geek Chorus (see what they did there?), and a dramaturgical concept involving the mythic figure Arachne, an attempt to be the first successful musical adaptation of a superhero. (Yes, I know about It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman! but most of the world doesn’t, and most Superman fans either don’t know it or resent it.)
In Across the Universe, Eddie Izzard does some patter in the middle of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” It goes like this:
She’s called Henry. It’s a lot of explanation, but don’t worry about it kids, okay? Just tune in, turn off, drop out, drop in, switch off, switch on, and explode.
This seems to be what we want from our theater. During World War II, many of the most popular American films and plays were comedies and adventures. Post-war theater in Great Britain was typified by lavish production design and the resurgence of verse drama. As is typical of both war and shortly post-war audiences, we demand that our entertainment help us forget our daily lives, show us worlds outside ourselves. Superheroes, as modern myths, can force us to tune in or turn off, and it’s up to the interpreter to balance those feelings.
Julie Taymor is a pro at showing us mythic worlds. The worlds she creates are beautiful and foreign, a place where magic happens, but also where human savagery and pain takes on an epic quality rarely seen in realistic theater. But part of the trouble with being a director in the Broadway system is that you have to execute that vision very quickly. This is where Turn Off the Dark got into trouble. These recent accidents and common delays both during the show and in the production schedule demonstrate that Turn Off the Dark should not have been brought out of tech and into previews this quickly. It’s disrespectful to an audience to delay curtain for almost forty minutes, but it’s more important that they spend that half hour keeping the actors from falling twenty feet into the basement. So they probably need to take that time. Without the audience there.
The New York Times points out that despite all the delays, it was probably very important that they get audiences in for the holiday season, the most lucrative time for Broadway shows. Turn Off the Dark finds itself in a kind of Catch-22 in that in order to do the things Taymor wanted to do they needed Broadway size money but a European style rehearsal period (i.e. working on a show without an opening date.) They took the money and compromised the rehearsal period because they have to make the money back.
The flying stunts and the danger of the show are what bring in the crowds, but part of the fun of something like Turn Off the Dark is that though you may worry about the acrobats, you try not to contemplate that they’ll fall. The show has gotten to a point where some of the audience is going hoping to see a “beautiful disaster,” not artistically but physically, and that’s terrifying. Are we really enough of a dying civilization that we’d prefer a bit of actual personal harm in our entertainment?
At this point I’m beginning to feel like Captain Hindsight, because I’m not sure how we fix the fire that’s already burning in this building.
As a fan of Taymor’s, I hope that she continues reaching the way that she does, but that she does it in a context where she can develop a show over time so she can take care of the artistry and the actors. And I hope that the people who talk about how excited they are to see if there’s an accident fall into a manhole and die.
Also I would be more comfortable rooting for it if it seemed like Taymor examined the core of the Spider-man character, what makes him different from other heroes and so beloved by so many. (Here’s a hint: the web slinging is only a perk.)
And that’s all from your friendly neighborhood Lemon.
P.S. What does “Turn Off the Dark” mean anyway?