Spider-Man? Turn Off the Kvetch.


This is not a review of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which didn’t open last week at the Foxwoods Theatre but got extensively reviewed anyhow, apparently as punishment for having postponed its official opening date so many times. This is also not a review because I didn’t go to see Spider-Man. The producers didn’t invite me, my editors didn’t assign me to attend without an invitation, and my employers didn’t offer to pay for my ticket. (Though they probably would have if I’d asked.)

I don’t see, frankly, why I or anybody else who writes about theater should want to jump Spider-Man‘s official opening date (currently set for March 15). What would be the point? It will be ready when its makers declare it to be ready (what they are or aren’t doing to improve it is a separate issue). More important, even when it’s ready it will be—well, it will be what it is: a noisy mass-market entertainment, based on a familiar comic-book superhero, full of fancy aerial effects. Either it will attract a mass-market public, or it won’t. But Glenn Beck and Oprah have already weighed in on that question. Why ask a theater critic?

Granted, Spider-Man is being performed in a Broadway house—a big, acoustically unaccommodating one, originally created by mushing two reasonably sized theaters together. The show has performers with theater credits in its cast and a notable theater artist at the head of its creative team—though, as Lady Bracknell remarks every night in a theater a few doors down from the Foxwoods, “nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability.”

Inevitably, that notable artist, director/co-librettist Julie Taymor, has taken most of the flak from the media barrage. Not having seen the show, I’m neither defending nor attacking her work. But she has a lengthy track record, amounting to a great deal more than the one Best Director Tony Award, for The Lion King, that blatherers and bloggers have yapped about in recent weeks. She has achieved some brilliant things, in the theater, and she has also perpetrated some very unhappy mishaps. People familiar with her track record from Juan Darien to Grendel will probably find no surprises in either the reviewers’ complaints about Spider-Man or the things that audience members say they like about it.

And indeed some spectators have, apparently, had good things to say, though their remarks may not have reached the ears of the sheltered souls who believe that the critics’ response, and the New York Times‘ response in particular, constitute the final word. All critics, myself included, love to pretend that their word alone can steer the world’s ticket buyers to this theater or that. (Hence the indignation over Glenn Beck’s comments: How dare this non-theater-critic tell the public what to think of a show?) The meager comfort, for those of us who love the theater and are willing to grant that Broadway still occasionally has something to do with it, is that Spider-Man‘s ticket buyers probably aren’t buying because Glenn Beck or Oprah told them to, any more than they would pull back because so many theater reviewers have told them not to.

They buy because what they’ve heard about the show—positive or, more likely, negative—appeals to them in some way: a comic-book superhero; a lot of aerial stunts; a score by the guys from U2; a squandered $65 mil bankroll; a chance of maybe seeing someone get hurt or witnessing a worst-show-ever disaster. I don’t know if there will be enough of them for the show to recoup; that will depend on whether the first crowds coming in, after the current bad-publicity blitz, enjoy it enough to tell their neighbors to go, and whether their neighbors agree with them.

It all has little to do with theater, and even less to do with criticism. Postponements, accidents, and epic cost overruns generate publicity. If seeing the show that provoked such publicity tempts you, you don’t really care whether one reviewer called the score forgettable and another thought the story was incoherent. A critic trying to interfere with that public’s interest is ludicrous—he might as well stand outside an amusement park bitching that the Ferris wheel doesn’t look like a Rodin.

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