What's Wrong With Broadway? It's Not Just Spider-Man!

Bono's Peter Parker isn't the only thing that's crashing and boring

If the rocky saga of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has illuminated anything, it's that creative obstinance can be a way more terrifying enemy than the Green Goblin. The musical had all the free help you could hope for from day one. Observers were nattering away about exactly what needed to be fixed in both acts, and then the critics jumped the gun and joined them by panning the thing en masse, giving their own detailed instructions as to how to make these singing and dancing arachnids more appealing.

So what did Julie Taymor's show do? It kept rounding up audience focus groups to figure out what needed to be worked on! And ignoring them! It's delightful, it's delicious, it's denial! From the first preview, even my grandmother knew you had to trim the geek chorus and the shoe number, plus make the book more compelling and cohesive and the songs more memorably theatrical. But Taymor only made smallish changes en route to her own poignant exit, kicking and screaming on a flying rope that actually worked for a change.

That happened when producers decided to shutter in April and do a major overhaul, which at last sounded like what the script doctor ordered. I hope Spidey emerges flying—in fact, I hope it reopens at all—but it'll be hard to dispel the sour sense that for way too long, this hero just didn't listen.

And yet, if you want to know the truth, the problem with Broadway is usually that it listens too hard. The financial stakes of putting on a show are so outrageously high these days that most musicals that make it to New York are rehashed, processed, micromanaged pieces of work with familiar themes, songs, and faces aiming for your purse strings. They practically ask for your comments before they even start rehearsals.

For relative financial safety, it's common to go with revivals (Anything Goes, How to Succeed), jukebox bio-musicals (Baby, It's You), and adaptations of well-known, kitschy movies (Sister Act, Priscilla, etc.) because such properties provide an instant comfort level designed to propel you to both applaud and buy the mug in the lobby.

And then there's the name game.

If it's a new play, get a big name (Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Frances McDormand). If it's an old play, get a big name (Vanessa Redgrave, Kiefer Sutherland, Ben Stiller, Al Pacino). If it's a new name (Nina Arianda), get an old play and add some TV stars and/or Tony winners. And if it's British, make sure it has already won a slew of awards and then prepare to lose money anyway.

The lack of imagination is sometimes astounding. Certain classics are revived so frequently that by the time you've filed your Gypsy and La Cage Playbills, there's already another one, each revival scaled down to suit the economic demands of the moment to the tune of "How marvelously revisionist!"

Dramas keep cannonballing back, too, like The Best Man, which got a not-great Times review when it was last revived, 11 years ago. Not surprisingly, this time, they're pumping up the name game. James Earl Jones has been cast as the president, which is both an interesting multiculti choice and a sly nod to current events. Besides, Jones is the go-to man for breathing life into oldies like On Golden Pond, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Driving Miss Daisy. His name—which used to introduce blazing new works—has been stamped on almost as many revivals as Sondheim, who, by the way, hasn't gotten a new musical—except for revues—mounted on Broadway since 1994. For that reason alone, Times Square should officially be declared a disaster zone.

Fortunately, The Best Man is a well-crafted potboiler, centering on gay whispers hovering over a political campaign. But in the also-returning The Children's Hour, the gay murmurs come out and take on horrifying impact when a little girl uses "lesbian" as an epithet against a perfectly, you know, normal teacher. Some might argue that with gay bullying and suicides in the air, maybe this kind of anxiety piece is more relevant than ever. But it's sad that the defiant revival of Angels in America—a play that hurls fireballs against oppression—stays Off-Broadway, while Hour heads to the main stage, wallowing in fear and gay panic. Why? The latter stars big names.

Of course, Off-Broadway has become big-bucks-based, too, but it still manages to foster more projects outside the center. Two ambitious musicals, The Scottsboro Boys and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, made a splash there before moving uptown this season and getting crushed, the tourists not clear on what they were getting and why. (When people started protesting that Scottsboro was racist, you knew it was time to go back to the jukebox genre.)

So Broadway ends up getting the shows it deserves. I'm not saying good stuff can't emerge out of the restrictions; some of this year's play revivals have been superb and there are way more original musicals than last season, including the riotous Book of Mormon. But for every work with surprise and wonder, there are two that would have been much better with dinner.

I guess the only way to fully accept Broadway is as a museum for work that's pre-approved and neatly framed, and I'm actually OK with that. I've stopped fighting. I just sit back and enjoy, knowing that even if the three star drag queens aren't on the marquee, at least they'll be onstage, acting out my favorite Australian movie of 1994 in a watered-down mode that still merits a giggle and an "Aww!" And they won't get hurt.

musto@villagevoice.com

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16 comments
Dall
Dall

I'll say! A fine fine column MM.... And I have a musical that is worth the focus. So it's curious to notice what Michael notices. And to wonder where is the inspiration that makes shared time genuinely worthy....

JunnyD
JunnyD

I could not agree more. From the start, I thought that Spiderman should have been mounted @ Madison Square Garden or in an arena in Vegas. It's main thrust, besides making lotsa money, was to show off special effects. This is NOT theater it's Spectacle. Nothing wrong with that, just don't try and jam that down my throat as a 'theatrical experience' it ain't. To me, even JunkBox musicals are comfy entertainments. All of the music and songs have been around for 40 years. It may be great enjoyment but it ain't 'Best New Musical'. Hey Mr. Producer, I'm talkin to you sir/madam...save yourself a bundle of bucks and mount your spectacle in an arena/gym/stadium/garage you won't have to gouge patrons @ $140 bucks a seat to justify your entry into the hallowed halls of The Thee-yay-tuh.

Sean Cercone
Sean Cercone

What’s the deal with people lashing out at Spider-Man? Yes, the project has had many challenges, most important being the actors safety. However, I just don’t see what the big fuss is. Maybe, I’ve become a little more optimistic these days? I’m trying to be half-full-glass kinda guy because a smart person (my wife…thanks honey) told me “What you put out into the universe, you get back.” I think she called it Karma. In Spider-Man, I see an enormous risk, taken by brave producers and white-knuckled investors going on a wild ride. I see a creative team that has handled themselves with great dignity and class as they try to fulfill their vision in the wake of negative media reports. I see a cast who takes great pride in what they do each night trying to connect and bring enjoyment to their audience. And lets not forget that audience, all 14,000 of them filling the theater each and every week, impressive for any live theater offering. So, what’s the problem? A recent column entitled, “What’s wrong with Broadway? It’s not just Spider-Man!” suggested that the “real problem” is that Broadway listens “too hard” to audiences. They continue on to write, “The financial stakes of putting on a show is so outrageously high these days that most musicals that make it to New York are rehashed, processed, micro managed pieces of work (my guess it that the original word was edited from an earlier draft) with familiar themes, songs and faces aiming for your purse strings.” I’m not going to debate whether that is true or not. Frankly, it’s a pretty big and bold statement and as with any generalization, you can find facts to support AND refute it. I am more concerned that the writer never asks the most important question, WHY? Why are the financial stakes so outrageously high? Are they high? Compared to what? How does the IRR compare to other industries? What is the success and failure rate of new projects versus new ventures in other industries? How does our industry fair in the global marketplace? How do our numbers compare to film, or sports entertainment? And most importantly, how do we increase that capture? How do we grow our industry in totality? A few months back Rocco Landesman the head of the NEA, made some controversial remarks about the supply and demand for theater stating, “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” Hold on! Say’s who? Haven’t we seen a 12% increase in audiences nationwide since 2002? Haven’t we seen a 13% increase in ticketing revenue since 2007? Haven’t we seen a 44% increase in the total number of playing weeks by Broadway Tours over the same period? Don’t we want to have a vibrant industry eco-system with facilities that allow for audience consumption in the most remote of locales? Kind of like seeing a Starbucks sign deep in the heart of West Virginia. Even if the NEA survey conducted three years ago, prior to the most challenging economic climate since the Great Depression does lead us to data that supports his statement, then again I question, “WHY are these trends occurring?” and more importantly, “How do we change them?”You see, in my humble opinion “What’s wrong with Broadway?” has nothing to do with Spider-Man, or supply and demand, or even Broadway for that matter (since it only makes up of .04% of the entire theater eco-system.) The real question is, “What’s wrong with the INDUSTRY?” THE ANSWER…IT’S ME! Yes, me. I take full responsibility for everything that’s wrong with the industry, Broadway or any other theater related business challenge we face. I do so, because I’m not going to blame anyone else for the same mistakes I make…you know…glass houses and all. It’s my fault that I haven’t asked the difficult questions. It’s my fault that I have been treating the symptoms, and not curing the illness. It’s my fault that I continue to accept facts that are handed to me and not question, “Why?” We look to our leaders to have that 50,000-foot view of our industry to help us gain perspective. Leaders such as Mr. Landesman. Leaders like our newspaper critiques and editors. Leaders in our arts service organizations and unions. Leaders who we hope are working together towards a clear, vibrant and exciting future that will grow the industry in totality. A future where Arts Entertainment rivals the global market share of Sports Entertainment or the Gaming industry or maybe even technology. (Speaking of technology, why do people line up around the block to get the latest iPhone but we can’t give away tickets to a new musical?) See, these are the hard questions. They are hard because it forces me to look at my self, at my art/product and at my ability to execute…and maybe just a little bit of my own ego gets in the way of that. So, from this point forward, I will do my best to not screw up the industry any further. I will put positive energy into the universe and ask the hard questions. Gosh darn it, I will do my part. Frankly, I don’t really see a choice in the matter. What’s the other option, idly sit by and watch it happen to us. Its time we stop playing Monday morning quarterback and actually get in the game. Its time we stop apologizing for what makes our industry different and use it to our advantage. Its time we realize that internal competition is good and the real threat to our industry is not working together to change audience consumption habits. Its time we no longer HOPE our leaders work together to do this, but rather EXPECT them to do so.Maybe if we start putting that out into the universe we can get that back too. If not, then…well…what’s that saying?…………”Karma is a…” – some thing or other.

VictorHerb123
VictorHerb123

the industry, The Industry, THE INDUSTRY!!! My God, you'll never get it. The American Theatre (right along with medicine) went the way of the Dodo bird the day your generation started calling it "the industry."

Hartporter
Hartporter

Everything that is wrong with Broadway boils down to one cause: the cost of producing there. Risking one hundred fifty thousand is one thing; risking fifteen million another. New York will never again be a center of exciting theatre due to economics.

Tom
Tom

Beware regional critics. They praise their hometown shows to the skies. But if Spiderman had previewed in L.A. for example, its buzz would be of a different color.

Nonplussed
Nonplussed

Yes what you say is true Mr M but to quote Mel "without the jews, fags and gypsies there is no theatre!" Showbiz has been run by straight white protestants for years now and look at the state of it...

Missboo42
Missboo42

Nonplussed. What world do YOU live in? What Protestants? Where? NPR is short for No Protestants Required. The entertainment industry is totally, completely and absolutely Jewish and gay. If you believe otherwise you are overcompensating. For what, I'm not sure. Duh!

Jonny
Jonny

What's wrong with Broadway?

Tourists.

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson

Broadway used to be the place for daring, cutting edge, socially relevant drama that couldn't be seen elsewhere. When the plays were turned into movies, they were sanitized for the general public. Even the musicals, like Showboat had to be altered (switch out Lena Horne for Ava Gardner). Now, with the advent of cable tv and indie films, it's the opposite. We have Disney on Broadway and all the daring stuff on TV and movies.

julie taymor eats my shit
julie taymor eats my shit

Hopefully, all the dopes who financed spiderman will be as broke as the dopes who gave bernie madoff their money.

Rob in Philly
Rob in Philly

I agree with every word. But I'm glad that the monster shows, even if crap, give actors employment at a good wage. I remember a period in the 80's when not much was up and running.

Jhon Centurri
Jhon Centurri

Broadway was the only reason I lived in pee soaked squalor for 8 years in NYC and I've seen enough. I always wondered where all the American Idol and Glee people went after they lost or their part got written out of the script. The Broadway I love is gone forever. I guess I was born in the wrong era. No need to be here when I can be bored to death for cheap in a smaller city.

Queenie
Queenie

Fabulous essay! You really know your stuff.

Boohearnecar
Boohearnecar

Did someone just turn on a light and realize the room is empty? Broadway has been comatose for 30 years. Why? 99 percent of the playwrights and choreographers were long dead or died from AIDS beginning in 1981. Revival after revival. Some worked, most didn't. Once in a blue moon a fresh, new play/musical comes along that draws people back into those plush chairs. If a hard-working middle class American is going to have to fork over $130 for a couple of hours, they had better have a #1 killer-diller famous face on that stage. Now it's all light, smoke and mirrors. Of course the Spider Man musical isn't going to work! They knew that going in. People come to see it hoping the leading man (who is a complete unknown) falls to his death in Act 2 or the leading lady is strangled by a wayward wire! Year after year The Lion King, Jersey Boys, Wicked and Phantom sell out virtually every performance. Back in the 50s and 60s a girl/guy could debut in a play/musical and become a household name. We talked about Broadway way down in South Georgia. Dreamed of coming to NYC just to see a play/musical. The Holy Grail. Now someone with enormous talent like John Lloyd Young can debut in a spectacular musical like Jersey Boys, win every award Broadway gives, and then fall off the face of the earth. Why isn't he in a Broadway musical right now? Now you've got the teeny tiny Harry Potter kid in How To Succeed. With all the millions he's made you'd like they'd give him growth hormones! Ask anyone under 55 if they know who Robert Morse is. No. He didn't invent the Morse Code! I think Michael Musto should get a committee together to figure out how to not only save Broadway but make it affordable for all Americans again. I hope and pray my grandchild doesn't ask her mother one day, "Did they have Broadway when you were young, Mommy?"

 
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