You know what watching Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was like? It was like watching some smart-ass, pushy know-it-all lecture for three hours about American History without getting a single fact correct, all the while having access at their fingertips to Google, an encyclopedia and a whole shelf of history textbooks. It's like watching someone trying to bake a cake by following simple, easy to understand directions from a cookbook, but every step of the way saying "Sugar? I'm fairly certain I shouldn't use sugar. I'll use sand instead, sand is like sugar and I like it more." It's an act of sheer, willful, arrogant ignorance and hubris. There should be a license granted in order to be able to charge money in order to have people listen to your stories, and Julie Taymor should have that license revoked. She should be disbarred from storytelling.
I have looked into the abyss, and I saw a stupid, ancient, suicidal spider goddess obsessed with shoes staring back at me. And Julie Taymor laughing, laughing, laughing.
It's a work in progress, and creator Julie Taymor has been making changes through the preview period, and is reportedly planning to continue to rework the musical numbers (within the framework of the existing music and lyrics). Weaknesses lie with the book, music and lyrics...
Despite many negative reviews by New York critics, it has consistently played to 100% capacity and grossed third only to Wicked and The Lion King each week since it opened in previews. The New York Times reported that despite "the sort of scathing reviews that would bury most shows" the show had $851,000 in ticket sales on top of a $15 million advance sale the weekend following its opening, "huge figures for a new Broadway run". The Times attributes this success to a beloved brand-name title, nostalgia, star strength, and a top-notch marketing campaign by the producers.
Every time you think to yourself this couldn’t possible get worse, it does. By the middle of the second act as Our Hero faces his greatest crisis yet and the action stops so that a chorus of spider demons can sing a song about shoes, your jaw will drop with disbelief and conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you’ll be shocked things have gotten this bad. On the other, you’ll be shocked that it got even worse than it was half an hour ago when a Caribbean subway busker showed up to open the second act Rafifi-Style only to then disappear from the narrative, never to be seen again.
The above may read as snark, but it isn’t meant to be. This is sincere. I care about theatre. I care about the source material. I care about musicals. Spider-Man does considerable violence to all three. And what’s more, although it is in previews, the problems with it are fundamental to its conception and largely unfixable.
The first of these problems is that, title notwithstanding, it’s not really about Spider-Man, nor is it about any of the things that Spider-Man is about, nor is it concerned with any of Spider-Man’s concerns as a narrative project spanning multiple media over the past fifty years. Instead, it is about this dream Julie Taymor had this one time about the Greek demi-Goddess Arachne, the first spider. If you think I’m joking, Patrick Healy in the New York Times recently reminded us that “Ms. Taymor…said that she conceived of [Arachne] several years ago after having a dream about the transformation of a normal teenage boy into a powerful superhuman.”
Spider-Man at its best takes themes about responsibility, becoming a man and living in the workaday world and explores them through the superhero medium. Buffy The Vampire Slayer begins doing the same thing for women in its second season (not for nothing is Buffy compared overtly to Spider-Man in Season Four). Spider-Man vs. Venom, after all is about obsessive love and being stalked in New York City in the 1990s. Peter Parker is poor. Spider-Man is disliked by the public at large. And on and on.
The musical doesn’t get this. It doesn’t get it to such a great extent that Uncle Ben no longer tells Peter that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility (the phrase still appears, shouted by Peter at the Green Goblin during a fight scene.) Instead he tells him to Rise Above meaning to Rise Above the petty squabbles and provocations of the every day world. To transcend the pettiness of the self.
He also tells him this, one suspects, because “With great power comes great responsibility” is a fucking terrible song lyric. “Rise Above,” on the other hand, by being vague, flexible and slightly religious is an almost perfect name for a U2 song.
And during the curtain call, as the largely foreign audience has to be goosed into a standing ovation, you may find yourself thinking about what the show’s Sixty Five Million Dollar budget is worth. You’ll find yourself calculating the number of showcase code productions it could pay for (2600), the number of countries it has a larger budget than (13). You might note that the Winklevoss’ lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg settled out of court for a Spider-Man, that the most expensive apartment to buy in Manhattan costs exactly One Spiderman, that the US government has a Spider-Man to spend on developing fuel cell technology, or that the GOP spent a Spider-Man running anti-Nancy Pelosi ads in 2010. The descendants of victims of the Armenian Genocide are demanding One Spider-Man in damages, and in Wisconsin, picking up the pieces after a massive flood in September will cost a Spider-Man. Incidentally, the NEA's budget is Two Spidermen. Ultimately, a Spider-Man can buy you a lot of things, including, sadly, this show.
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