On “Spiderman” on Broadway: A Preview

How fitting!  An ironic accident:  The first posting to my new blog, “View in the Dark,” should be subtitled “Turn off the Dark.”  Well, we’ll see about that.

Spiderman: Turn off the Dark

“You got a ticket to WHAT?” my friends ask again.  “Spiderman,” I guiltily reveal.  “Why?” is the inevitable response. “It’s had nothing but bad press.”   “It can’t possibly have any substance!”  “But you’re over 70, aren’t you?”

“Yes, it has.”  “No it can’t.”  “Yes, I am, but every now and then, I still like to be 12.”

Okay, let’s face it.  Stan Lee created the Spiderman after my day.  Captain Marvel, Superman, Batman and the Lone Ranger were more my speed.  I wasn’t a fan.   I’m still not a fan.  But how can you resist being a witness to the most expensive show ever created for the stage — $65 million and climbing?  And it is Julie Taymor, after all, the hugely talented creator of Broadway’s “The Lion King.”  And it is the music of Bono and the Edge, of U-2 fame.  (I’m not a particular fan of their music, but what the heck: Bono’s been such a good guy in fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa that I feel a moral obligation to support him.)   Besides, I’ll either be one of the few witnesses to a catastrophic failure of unsurpassed dimension, or in on the birth of the biggest smash hit in Broadway history.  It wouldn’t be the first time the ugly duckling has turned into the magnificent swan despite almost universal condemnation and predictions of doom.  Who will have the last laugh has yet to be determined.

The irony is, this thing may not ever have to be any good at all to make money.  For all its notoriety, in part because of it, exorbitantly high-priced seats for “previews” are readily selling out.  They’re virtually running expensive New York public dress rehearsals instead of the traditionally safer out-of-town try-outs, because the Ford/Hilton/now Foxwood Theatre on 42nd Street is “the only theatre in the world that can handle the technology.”  So much for future touring potential.  Last Wednesday night I sat in the balcony next to a gleeful young fan who kept whooping and hollering “Oh my God, I can’t believe it.  I’m seeing millions of dollars literally flying through the air.”

Of course the play has no substance.  Why would it?  It’s “Spiderman.”  Even so, after years of revisions and delays, it remains of the most singularly bad scripts I’ve ever seen reach the stage.  In its present form, it completely ignores some of the theatre’s most basic tenets on how to achieve focus on stage, how to tell a story, how to build suspense, how to achieve a climax (I mean, how basic is that?).   There is very little plot to be had, and what there is is either boring (Act I), or confusing (Act II), with a desperate struggle to find a coherent and satisfying ending.  Furthermore, they’ve probably been so busy making the flying technology safe for the actors, they’ve had no time to rehearse the rest of the play.  Anything beyond the most basic choreography seems thus far completely lacking, blocking is haphazard, and dialogue is unmotivated.  All of this could of course be fixed in another month or two.  Wednesday’s matinee was cancelled so they could have extra rehearsal time.  Their target date for an official opening was January 11, and now it’s wisely been pushed back yet again to February.   They’re going to need every hour they can get.

Meanwhile, what we do have is brilliant artistic escapism, with absolutely stunning masks, costumes and set design.  And most of all we have little boys playing with their toys.  And, oh my, what toys!  The Spiderman travels in split seconds to a 2nd balcony rail, hangs low in mid-air over a hapless orchestra audience, bounces off walls!  It’s undeniably impressive and fascinating machinery, and the effects are loads of fun.  These brilliant designers and technicians have set whole new standards for the art of theatrical flying.  And after all, isn’t that the chief interest?  The producers clearly understand that nobody really cares about Peter Parker or Spiderman.  What today’s New York audiences seem to want more is gadgetry, spectacle, and techno-wizardry, and they’ll certainly get that here. With any luck, they’ll care less about what the critics will say about its lack of merit, and come anyway, in droves,  The phenomenon is a reminder that we are living in an age which values sleight of hand, money and technology over human beings.  For additional proof of that we need look no further than our current U.S. Congress.

The bottom line is that no matter how bad it is, these Spidey folks are in so deep they don’t dare pull out.  Kind of reminds me of our recent policies in the Middle East.  I think of Macbeth:  “I am in blood [cash] stepp’d in so far that … returning were as tedious as go o’er.”  So many millions are already on the table that no one can afford to fold.  It was revealed in the December 15th apologetic curtain speech: “We’re trying something new tonight.”  I hope they keep trying.   I could suggest that our lads in Washington might heed the same words.

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8 Responses to On “Spiderman” on Broadway: A Preview

  1. jzrart says:

    An absolutely, wonderful beginning! Keep on keeping!!

  2. This review is doubtless better written, more thoughtful, and more stimulating to thought than Spiderman itself, a far better use of talent. If the show is as bad as you say, yet it does become a smash hit as you conjecture it might, we can only further lament the decline of Broadway into mindless spectacle. As it is, Broadway seems unable to profitably mount any production that is not headlined by a celebrity, preferably semi-nude.

    How I wish that at the production you attended when they said “We’re trying something new tonight,” they meant that they were producing a play relying on good writing and acting, not the “gadgetry, spectacle, and techno-wizardry” that you mention and that doubtless drives ticket sales.

    Theatre used to be a gathering when in the presence of others we witnessed events that were fictive yet true, when as part of our community we were led to consider uncomfortable complexities. These days the complexities on stage are apparently matters not of moral or social issues, but of wiring and harnesses.

    All that said, while I dismiss Spiderman, I welcome intelligent reviews like this, marked by incisive observations without making us lose our sense of the writer as a unique individual. I especially was intrigued by your reference to United States foreign policy, and hope that you return to this subject. Doing that would be easier, of course, if we had more theatre, dramatic or comic, that put us more deeply into contemporary affairs, rather than distracting us from them.

  3. Love it Bill. Congratulations. Keep it up. Full Speed ahead.

  4. Woohoo!!!! This is great, Dad! And I must say… I love it that you went to see Spiderman, even if it was terrible. 🙂 Keep writing, cause no matter what you write about, I always enjoy your words! xoxo

  5. Peter Gunter says:

    Hey Bill,
    After you mentioned you were going to Bloody Andrew Jackson, I checked out some of the songs on youtube–yes, pretty dismal stuff. Keep these reviews coming! This is the only way I keep up with the NYC theatre scene.
    Peter

  6. Tim Hulsey says:

    Interesting. Most of what I’ve heard about BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON is pretty good, and the score is miles ahead of most schlock-rock Broadway shows. (PASSING STRANGE is a smart rock musical that found its way to Broadway but didn’t really belong there — it’s a fine fit for college theater, though, and UVA should give it a try when the rights are available.) I’ve been laughing over the SPIDER-MAN mishaps since I first heard about the show last year. No need to feel guilty, because you’re never too old to enjoy a gory train wreck. Still, bring your umbrella — it’s rainin’ men! Stuntmen, that is. (Seriously, I hope the poor guy’s okay.)

    I wish I could recommend a few shows in the DC area, as your trip to NYC doesn’t seem to have yielded much of note. Alas, aside from STC’s CANDIDE (a very problematic show that Mary Zimmerman hasn’t improved, but which features more than enough of Bernstein’s glorious score to justify the high ticket price — though the pit orchestra is awful) and SUPERIOR DONUTS at Studio, everything worthwhile has closed. (Signature’s SUNSET BOULEVARD is well-directed, but the show itself is practically DOA.) Luckily, a new crop of shows will open in the next few weeks, including Peter Coy’s A SHADOW OF HONOR at the Keegan and Stoppard’s ON THE RAZZLE at Constellation. I’m, like, totally there, dude.

    • Tim Hulsey says:

      Never mind the Coy — thumbs way down (though Keegan does as well by the play as anyone could). G.K. Chesterton’s MAGIC at Washington Stage Guild is a not-bad play, though the production values are low. Chesterton only wrote a few works for the stage, and now that I’ve seen MAGIC I can understand why: He had a talent for witty banter (which his friend Shaw recognized) and a fondness for stage effects, but he frequently sacrifices characterization to his rigorous theological agenda.

  7. Julius says:

    “Better than Ebert!”

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