Rushing to judgment on Spider-Man
Impatience with previews approaches a critical mass.
Mon Jan 24 2011
Photograph: Jacob Cohl
Against all odds, the Broadway behemoth Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—with its unprecedented budget, iconic subject, rock-star composers and art-star director—has come to resemble its underdog hero, besieged by enemies on all sides. Bloggers and chatters play the role of Doctor Octopus, battering the show with far-reaching techno-tentacles. New York Post muckraker Michael Riedel, typecast as Venom, wags his tongue and snaps his jagged teeth. And at newspapers and magazines across the city, editors chomp on imagined cigars and do their best J. Jonah Jameson impersonations: SPIDER-MAN'S AN EGOTIST! SPIDER-MAN'S A MENACE! READ ALL ABOUT IT ON PAGE ONE!
The latest round of attacks has been occasioned by the fifth and purportedly final postponement of the show's opening date, when it will be ready (in theory) to face reviewers, including TONY's David Cote. Why the new delay? "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is ten times more complicated to tech than anything else, and the preview schedule allows for only very limited rehearsal time (12 hours per week)," explained lead producer Michael Cohl in an official statement. "We simply need more time to fully execute the creative team's vision before freezing the show." (The opening is now slated for March 15—an inauspicious omen if you've read Julius Caesar.)
As the previews stretch on, and with Julie Taymor's $65-million baby making news daily on the national stage, critics are starting to peel away from the rules that govern when to review a show. Newsday's Linda Winer, Bloomberg News's Jeremy Gerard and the Observer's Jesse Oxfeld have already filed interim semireviews; New York's Scott Brown will follow suit in February. These decisions are generally being spun as principled public service. ("I had an obligation to the readers to get involved in the conversation," Gerard told the Hollywood Reporter.) But my spider-sense intuits editorial pressures behind this rush to judgment. In these days of shrinking resources, critics are doubling as theater reporters, and Spider-Man is a mammoth story; a gentleman's agreement may be forced to take a hit in exchange for the page hits that breaking it can generate.
The New York Drama Critics' Circle, of which I serve as president, will decide on Monday 31 if we should take a collective stand and review the musical early. I remain open to that idea. But as the media frenzy around Spider-Man continues to feed on itself more than anything else, I find myself increasingly drawn to the show's defense. "This high-flying Taymor extravaganza is a special case if ever there was one," wrote Charles McNulty in a thoughtful piece in the Los Angeles Times, arguing that the unusual length of the preview period authorizes critics to jump the gun. "The times are changing, and so are the rules." But I see the show's special circumstances as all the more reason to give it some space, and the rules as a useful corrective to the temptations of the times.
Because what it really boils down to is this: Broadway musicals have nearly always had many weeks of previews in front of paying audiences. It's just that in decades past, those previews took place in New Haven, Philadelphia, Boston or some other trial city, instead of in New York. Hello, Dolly! had only two preview performances on Broadway in 1964, but that's because it had already played for a month at Detroit's Fisher Theatre and another month at Washington, D.C.'s National Theatre, making major changes all the while. But physical distance is a lowered shield in the Internet age, when buzz from other cities travels instantly and wide. And the growing technological demands of modern shows, even far less ambitious ones than Spider-Man, have made on-the-road testing harder or impossible.
Everyone familiar with the history of musical theater knows the central role that out-of-town tryouts—which, again, were essentially previews for a nonlocal crowd—have often played in the development of Broadway's classic shows. Great musicals are immensely hard to craft, and frequently need time to evolve in front of audiences. I don't know if Spider-Man will be great, but I think it deserves that time.
And although it is obviously extreme in this regard, Spider-Man might turn out to presage a new Broadway era in which extended previews are more common. So long as a show's work-in-progress status is made clear to ticket buyers, that is not necessarily a terrible development. The New York media—outraged, with unexamined self-regard, that local audiences must now do the work that had previously been farmed out to the rest of the country—may have to adjust its dudgeon.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark opens—probably—Mar 15 at the Foxwoods Theater.