Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark–The Tangled Web They Wove


Well, it opened. I saw it. It’s loud, and there’s a lot of it. It has good points and bad points; the latter outnumber the former, but not to the extent that turns an ordinary bad musical into a train wreck. It probably isn’t worth the vast amount its perpetrators spent, first to create it, and then to overhaul it. An evening at it probably isn’t worth what they’re charging for tickets, but that’s for you paying customers to decide. It does have high points—literally so, since its numerous aerial excursions, climaxing in a huge final combat over the audience’s heads, are its most exciting feature. (Love those semi-circular swoops around the balcony rail!)

Beyond that, very little need be said about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (Foxwoods Theatre), at least not about the show itself. An ordinary bad musical is an ordinary bad musical; you can riffle through a dozen decades’ worth of Broadway reviews if you urgently require amusing comments of the sort critics have always made when a new work failed to meet the standard of what’s commonly called “a good show.” As Wilella Waldorf said about The Girl From Nantucket, the year I was born, “It lacks everything.”

That doesn’t make Spider-Man the sort of blood-freezing 12-car pileup that sends reviewers fleeing at intermission. When you do leave, at the end, you don’t feel, as you would at a true musicalamity, that you’ve had several precious hours unjustly removed from your life. Nor, unless you’re maniacally optimistic, will you feel that your life has been exhilaratingly enhanced, as you might after seeing a great musical. You’ll simply feel that you’ve seen Spider-Man, the musical, and that now you know, for better or worse, what the entire world has been fixating on for the past eight months.

I’m exaggerating, of course. Since Spider-Man started previews, the world has had numerous other fixations: earthquakes, tidal waves, nuclear meltdowns, tornadoes, wildfires, plus the insanely arrogant rich assaulting everything from workers’ rights to hotel chambermaids. In oppressed places like Libya, Syria, and Wisconsin, there are probably people too busy trying to stay alive even to notice that Spider-Man exists.

Still, the widespread attention it’s garnered has been astonishing, true proof that the American cultural myth most deeply embedded in the world’s mind is not the myth of the superhero or the frontiersman, but the notion that triumphing in a hit Broadway musical gives the ultimate in artistic credibility. While Spider-Man was undergoing its months of torment, accident, and delay, the media played it up as if the future, not only of Julie Taymor’s clout or U2’s royalty statements, but of all Western civilization, was hanging by a thread of Spidey’s web. Hooray, I guess, for the theater’s prestige.

Naturally, there’s a catch: The definition of triumph involved centers purely on fame and money. Artistic merit—the assumption that a Broadway musical would attract world attention by adding something imaginative and exciting to world culture—never really enters the picture. Web discussion of Spidey focused on the creators’ credits, not the substance of their achievements—what the late Jane Jacobs, in her intriguing final book, Dark Age Ahead, called “credentialing.” While Taymor, Spider-Man‘s original conceiver-director, was undergoing her well-reported travails with the production, commentators invariably cited her still-running 1997 Broadway success, The Lion King. Few noted the mixed response to her more recent, but noncommercial, works, like Grendel or the Met’s Magic Flute; most had probably never heard of her masterpiece, Juan Darién. In the media mind, only the money arena and celebrity (which equals money) exist.

Like any ordinary bad musical, Spider-Man offers some ancillary pleasures in between its lackluster songs and startlingly lame choreography. Some of George Tsypin’s tilting-skyscraper sets are eye-tickling; the multi-authored book has two amusing bits involving the Green Goblin’s struggle with electronic voicemail. As said Goblin, Patrick Page, his voice showing severe signs of wear, nonetheless seems to be having great fun. No doubt eight-year-olds with a few hundred bucks to spare will enjoy themselves. The rest of us can hope that somebody, celebrity or not, will shortly create a better musical.