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.