Ten myths about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

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Photograph by Jacob Cohl

Like most of my colleagues, I viewed the umpteenth delay of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark's opening with a mixture of concern and disgust. Would this show never open? And also: What the hell is going on over there? Some critics are breaking the code of silence to post early impressions on what would have been its previous opening: tonight. Critics, myself included, seem perfectly willing to come back around March 15 to officially review, but they want to have their say now. I saw Spider-Man twice—once with Reeve Carney as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once with his understudy, Matthew James Thomas. Both times there were technical malfunctions lasting five to 15 minutes, leaving actors hanging over the audience, waving at us like idiotic theme-park workers. The show didn't significantly change over the course of a week. I liked it slightly better the second time (February 6). However, both as a theater critic and as someone who used to collect comics, I have profound misgivings about the book, score and director Julie Taymor's overarching concept. And while its visual and flying effects look grand from center orchestra, they're much less impressive (if not confusing) from house left or right. In other words, Spider-Man may be worth $135 from the front, but only $30 from the side. After the jump, the ten myths.

1. It's not a musical. It's Spider-Man.
In a statement to the New York Drama Critics' Circle last month, Spider-Man's publicist informed us: "Julie Taymor has called it 'rock circus drama'—a hybrid creature that lives outside the realm of a straight Broadway production." Utter nonsense. It's a Broadway rock musical with a book, scenes, characters and a series of complicated flying sequences that break down with ludicrous frequency. If Taymor could negate the values of narrative plausibility, character consistency, thematic coherence, lyrical elegance and innovative musicality, I'm sure she would. But she can't deconstruct her cake and eat it too. Now, the real question is: Is it a good musical...?

2. Critics should only see a show once before reviewing it.
Believe me, I'm happy to see most things once. But Spider-Man can benefit from repeat viewings, if only for the mind to absorb and process both its strengths and weaknesses, its welter of 2-D-inspired scenic effects, its collage treatment of Greek mythology and Marvel Comics iconography. The fact that I began to warm to it upon second viewing is a good sign. Also: Would you have a consumer reporter drive a new car around the block only once before filing a review? Audiences at Spider-Man are in only slightly less physical danger than they would be from faulty brake lines.

3. All worthwhile musicals have had extensive out-of-town tryouts.
Ah yes, the out-of-town rationale. That's basically what my colleague Adam Feldman argued in his valiant, articulate defense. There are a couple of problems with this reasoning. First, out-of-town critics' reviews are easily accessible online; don't think we don't look at them. Second, by the time it opens, Spider-Man will have had three and half months of previews. Or in-town out-of-town tryouts, whatever you want to call them. I'm sorry, but when you treat my city like Chicago or Seattle or Boston—or all three rolled into one—I get annoyed. Even if, you know, the majority of people buying tickets are actual out-of-towners.

4. Anything written by a critic is, de facto, a review. Including this.
Not really. We all wear multiple hats these days: critic, blogger, reporter, scenester, trend-spotter, advocate. Just as so-called objective news reports are full of implicit critique, all reviews have elements of reporting. I wouldn't call this particular piece a review, but it contains (I hope) meaningful bits of criticism. Also, I seriously doubt a producer would want to quote anything from this article on a poster—even ripped from context.

5. In five weeks, Spider-Man will have undergone major changes and will be ready to be reviewed—and it will be awesome.
When I attended on February 6, the show seemed ready to be reviewed; it was slick and going off without a hitch. That is, until the last 30 seconds, when Reeve Carney's wires malfunctioned and the show's final flourish became a technical annoyance, right before a rightfully embarrassed curtain call. I wonder if Julie Taymor and her crew can guarantee even 80 percent error-free functionality by March 15. Mechanics aside, let's talk about the material itself. Taymor plays fast and loose with the Spider-Man creation story, the Marvel universe of characters and the tone of the comics, and her visual palette is a crazy quilt of borrowed aesthetics. There are many moments when the plot simply stops making sense, or Taymor and co--book writer Glenn Berger opt for a risible variation on "It was only a dream." They permit themselves to run roughshod over the Spider-Man mythology by having the whole story framed as Ritalin-addled brainstorming by a group of voluble teens called the "Geek Chorus" (yes, that is the level of wit here). One geek-girl introduces the Greek myth of Arachne and splices it with the Marvel myth. Arachne falls in love with Peter Parker, introducing a mystical love-affair story line that puts the emphasis more on a misunderstood female antihero/artist than on the title character. This cornball-feminist spin essentially makes Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark a $65 million piece of musical slash fiction. (Well, it worked for Wicked.) Right now, Spider-Man is the sort of show that only small children and Glenn Beck could love. If they throw out the Geek Chorus frame, rewrite half the forgettable generic-rock score, overhaul the book so that we actually care about one or two characters, reduce some of the special effects, then, yes, they can turn it around.

6. Audiences need to be warned.
It wouldn't make any difference. The people around me at Foxwoods Theater were families, foreign tourists and a smattering of morbidly curious New Yorkers. When Reeve Carney's wires malfunctioned, the guy next to me actually applauded. What exactly, I wanted to ask him, are you clapping for? Mechanical incompetence? Meanwhile a kid in front of me loudly informed his parents: "That was awesome!" With audiences like these, they don't ever need to get the show right.

7. Editors are pressuring critics to review.
Speaking as an editor and as a critic, that's a crock. Any critic worth their salt would want to be part of the conversation. If we don't enter the fray, we will have earned our obsolescence.

8. Spider-Man is the beginning of the end. Just as Oklahoma! gave birth to the modern musical, Spider-Man will kill it.
I think it's safe to say that Spider-Man is in a class all its own, both a cautionary tale and a Holy Grail. It's not going to change the preview process or how people make shows. If all this drama results in advanced flying technology for the stage, great. But I have a feeling that no one is going to want to adopt this paradigm—a lethal combination of artistic hubris and financial excess.

9. Reporters, bloggers, tweeters and Oprah have already covered the show extensively. Critics don't need to write about it now.
But critics can write descriptively, wittily, and put the show into a historical context. Plus, everyone wants to know what the snobby expert says, right?

10. Spider-Man is already a critic-proof commercial success.
Prediction is a mug's game. Sure, Spider-Man is doing monster box office and tourists don't care whether it's open or not. When I made an informal poll of folks during intermission, most weren't aware that the show hadn't opened. I didn't bother to ask what critics they followed; the blank stares would have made me cry. At the same time, for a show to have true staying power, it needs both critical backing and consistent word of mouth. After everyone has filed their official reviews on March 15, we'll have to hold our breaths and see if this monstrous, unnatural, grotesque contraption will stay up in the air.

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