It has been a week since I saw a preview performance of Broadway’s most talked about new musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. The show is one hot mess and I mean that in the most loving way possible.
By now you have heard about the production delays, frequent technological malfunctions, cast changes and injuries, book and music rewrites, and the show’s astronomical budget ($65 million… and growing every week). All this, combined with negative reviews, has sparked the public’s interest and left a strain on the cast and crew. Spider-Man co-creator and director Julie Taymor recently said at the TED2011 conference that she was “in the crucible and the fire of transformation.”
I left Foxwoods Theatre completely underwhelmed and drained (with technical malfunctions the show lasted roughly three hours) by what I had seen. Some things work (the costumes for the Sinister Six) but a lot (most of the music) doesn’t. It has taken me a week to really process the show so I have turned to what I overheard others saying throughout the show to hopefully make some sense of this musical.
“I know nothing about Spider-Man. So I am going to just take off my glasses and just enjoy this for what it is or isn’t.” – My mom.
My poor mother. She had no idea what she was getting herself into when she agreed to see this musical. This is her only knowledge of Spider-Man:
My mom has never seen the Spider-Man movies, never read a Marvel comic book, and never seen a Julie Taymor production. In order to enjoy Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark in some capacity, it helps to have a working knowledge of any of these three things. The first act follows the plot of the first Spider-Man movie and there is even a recreation of the infamous upside down kiss. But does any of this really benefit the show?
Throughout the night, my mother’s frequent comments (“This looks so cheap”) echoed what New York Times‘ critic Ben Brantley said in his February 8 review of the production.
The sheer ineptitude of this show, inspired by the Spider-Man comic books, loses its shock value early. After 15 or 20 minutes, the central question you keep asking yourself is likely to change from “How can $65 million look so cheap?” to “How long before I’m out of here?”
“Sorry, folks…” (Insert excuse for technical malfunction here.)
The first act of the show (just how did Peter Parker become Spider-Man?) limped along until the much-touted aerial sequence began. The audience suddenly emerged from their coma and applauded with anticipation. The scene that everyone has heard so much was off to an exciting start when it happened: the safety harness did its job leaving the acrobatic performer dangling mid-air above the orchestra seats. The performance stopped.
When this happened, the audience gave erupted into cheers. It was bizarre. It was sensationalism as its finest. Why? People are going to Spider-Man because they want to see someone get injured. They want to see one of the performers flung from the stage when the safety harness fails. This is “the musical of human sacrifice“. Broadway is paying for it. Tickets are ridiculously expensive. And for what? To satisfy your innate needs to see something sensationalist? The viewing experience that Spider-Man generates is just ridiculous.
“Do something already!” – Random teenager in the audience before an usher, who looked like he was on the verge of cutting said teenager, approached him and told him to stop.
It was a long technical malfunction. Observing the audience reaction during this 15 minute or so delay was completely surreal. I’ve never been to a Broadway show where the audience uproariously applauded because of the dangerous stunts. I’ve never been to a musical where the audience acted like it was the ninth inning of a Yankee-Red Sox game, slow clapping to get the players (well, here it is the backstage crew) amped. I’ve never been to a show where people applauded the technical malfunction and then quickly grew dissatisfied when the tangled wires were not immediately remedied. You can’t demand a sensationalist performance then become impatient when the house lights are up for too long. Are people really that stupid? (Yes, yes they are.)
“This is a young person’s show.” – Random audience member, who surprisingly was not my mother.
Who will be drawn to Spider-Man? Comic book geeks and every tourist seeking the Broadway experience. Spider-Man doesn’t really appeals to fans of traditional Broadway musicals. I could easily go with the flow of the show, embracing every “pow”, “bam”, and “zap”. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed the show because I constantly found myself zoning and not caring about the music. It was only during the failed aerial sequence and the audiences absurd reaction that I was invested in what I was watching. (Human behavior is always more engaging than highly theatrical and overwrought art, isn’t it?)
How I judge musicals comes down to this. If I am still humming the music from the show weeks and years later, then it has had a lasting impact on me. Musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Spring Awakening have found a permanent place in my iTunes rotation. Until I watched this clip of the cast performing “Rise Above” on The Late Show, I had essentially forgotten what Spider-Man‘s signature song is supposed to be. At the end of the day, when all the theatrics are done, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark just didn’t hold my attention.
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In an odd way, it is fitting that the signature song for Spider-Man is “Rise Above,” although I am unsure if that will really ever happen.