Now (and later) in previews
Review by Brian Cogan, Go Metric’s Senior Broadway Critic
While there have been many pre-opening reviews of the new Spiderman musical (inexplicably called “Turn off the Dark”), all you need to know about Julie Taymor’s creative vision for Spiderman: Turn off the Dark, is that she once had me and my friend Kevin play orangutans in a PBS special. No, really.
The production was called Fool’s Fire (an adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe story) and it was a puppet heavy special about an evil king who constantly humiliates a court jester and his true love. In an act of revenge, the fool dresses the king’s court up as large costumed orangutans and kills them via arson. Sounds lovely? Well it was, the costumes were incredible, the settings lavish, and the fool himself, played by Twin Peaks backward speaking “man from another place” Michael Anderson was top notch. So why am I mentioning this in the context of Spider-Man?
Well, because I’m not an actor, and neither was my friend Kevin. We were working as set PA’s and at one point a flunky with a walkie came over and asked us if we would like to earn a little more money. Broke as we were, we said yes before even asking what the nature of the task ahead was. Fortunately for us, it was merely to climb into large, bulky and extremely hot orangutan outfits, along with about ten other men, and rush into the throne room chained together acting as primates when “action” as called. Naturally, as I am simian-like by nature, this was a role I was born to play, and we gleefully ran into the throne room several dozen times, overacting our best as courtiers disguised as orangutans. Or perhaps it was the other way around? I’m not sure at this point.
However, a major downside to this glorious cinematic achievement was the horrific temperature inside the costume. After a minute or so of filming, you would grab the large headpiece off as quickly as possible and grab for an air hose that cooled down the rapidly perspiring cast. The costumes were designed for their look, not functionality. Most of the time we stood around with our orangutan heads off trying to cool down.
As we waited to see if another take would be called, we heard an anguished cry coming from one of the producers. Apparently a Screen Actors Guild representative was making a surprise inspection! (This made me wonder how many other times had Julie Taymor pressed non-actors into orangutan outfits before? Was there a special Julie Taymor orangutan inspection squad formed for just such a purpose?) Acting quickly, they herded us, in full costume into a small side room, where twelve of us stared at each other wondering what to do next. After several minutes of idle conversation, two more producers walked in and one blanched and cried out, “Oh my god! They’re still in costume!” He then directed us to strip off the costumes. Of course as the costumes were so incredibly hot, we were all wearing nothing but our underwear. Our outer clothes were in a locker several rooms away. As we sat in our underwear passing the time, yet another producer walked in with a production assistant carrying newspapers. He explained that it would look much more natural if the SAG rep came in to show her that we were simply on break. Luckily the rep never came in that particular room to check, but if she had, she would have found twelve young men, sitting together in a room, almost naked thumbing though newspapers while sweating profusely.
The only reason I mention this story before writing about SMTOTD is that this is the world in which Julie Taymor resides. Where things that seem absurd to other people make perfect sense to her, and vice-versa. And that’s the crux to understanding the Spider-Man musical. It is not terrible. It is not good. It is absurd. Absurd in so many ways that is hard not to enjoy it, no matter how terrible certain parts of it are.
Spiderman is one of the most well known franchises in the world, with the comics, films and other merchandising efforts hauling in billions a year for Marvel Comics, and its parent company Disney. It was only natural that eventually a stage show would be made starring Spiderman, but the powers that be had a more audacious thought, make it into a musical! This is not as silly an idea as one might suppose. For those who are not comic book fans, Spiderman’s original story was not simply a superhero retread, but under Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s guidance, it was both a story of teenage angst, as well as one of the most intriguing morality tales of the twentieth century. The main point of Spiderman, as summed up by his sage, and soon to be departed Uncle Ben, is not the classic tale of absolute power corrupting, but the more benign, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Spiderman learns this lesson the hard way, a burglar he fails to stop kills his Uncle Ben. Spiderman later stops the killer, and learns to live selflessly, no matter how much it complicates his life. The first major story arcs revolved around Peter Parker learning to use his powers, and how to negotiate personal responsibilities (such as he girlfriend Gwen Stacey’s needs) and the fact that his best friend Harry Osborn, is the son of The Green Goblin, his greatest foe. The first hundred or so issues of Spiderman are classic archetypical stories about good and evil and innocence maintained amid great tragedy. All of the major themes that comfortably work as the plots of classic Broadway musicals.
But that was insufficient for the producers of Spider-Man the musical. They drafted not only big rock stars (Bono and the Edge) to write the score, but even more audaciously they tapped Julie Taymor, now best known for her direction of another mega-musical the Lion King on Broadway (also owned by Disney). Surely, this blockbuster team would deliver the goods, presenting the audience with what they called a “rock and roll circus” a spectacle of grand themes and spectacular special effects. But, apparently even this was not enough.
Without going into the many stories that breathlessly followed the troubled origins of Spider-Man the musical, we must realize, as Shakespeare wrote, the fault lies not in our stars, but ourselves. To Julie Taymor the problem was not in cutting down almost forty years of Spiderman lore and history into a two act musical, but in the source material itself. Apparently to Taymor, Spiderman was not archetypical enough, it needed something a bit more highbrow, shall we say? Despite the grand universal themes inherent in the comic books, and in some of the movies, Spiderman was lacking something, and Julie Taymor knew what it was: shoes! Actually, I’ll get back to the shoes in a minute. What Spiderman needed was a broader, more mythological story, one that combined the everyday life of an American teenager with new super powers, could satisfy both the 99% of the audience who came for thrills and the original Spiderman story (on the night we went, half of the audience was under twenty) and the 1% that demanded more, aka, Julie Taymor.
Spider-Man is not an absurd mess because of all the safety violations and mechanical problems. It is a mess because it only makes sense to one person, Julie Taymor. The plot itself in the first act at least, is somewhat straightforward, and seemingly largely cribbed from the first movie version. Peter Parker, a bullied high school student who is bitten by a radioactive spider. This gives him the usual Spiderman powers that the audience would be familiar with, and slowly (about 45 minutes into the musical) he becomes Spiderman and learns what it means to be a superhero.
Sadly, this Spiderman is unlike any other ever seen. He lives next door to the lovely red haired MJ, but instead of his wise but intrusive Aunt May and Uncle Ben, he lives with two old seemingly cranky shrews, who impart little wisdom but to hound him out of the house. Uncle Ben is killed, but Peter seemingly learns nothing from it, his only reference in the musical to Uncle’s Ben’s pivotal words of wisdom, the entire raison d’etre for the character, is a throwaway line while fighting the Green Goblin. Yes, as in the first movie, the Green Goblin is the villain, but with subtle differences. He has no son Harry for Peter to agonize about. Oh, and the actor chosen to play him also talks with an accent that is a less appealing then you would imagine cross between Kramer from Seinfeld and cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn. Eventually, following the script of the movie more or less, Spiderman defeats the Green Goblin and saves MJ. (The movie version and the musical have eliminated the Gwen Stacey character.) The curtain falls and the entire audience runs for the bar. In the last hour and twenty minutes, we have seen a fairly standard plot, where spectacular flying effects (some are truly stunning) are mixed with large seemingly cheaply painted cardboard cut-outs for sets, and special effects that range from the outlandishly amazing, to ultra-cheap looking small Spiderman dolls being pulled by a visible string across a cardboard cut-out of the Chrysler building. We have also learned in the first act, the story of Arachne, the first spider and Greek goddess, who is apparently behind the creation of Spiderman. There is even a helpful “class report” by Peter Parker that explains the myth in the playbill. This is also redundantly read aloud in the first act. Arachne, we gather (because at times both the vocals and the story are jointly fuzzy) wants to come to the physical plane. In a jaw-dropping musical number where singing women form a web or glossy fabric across the stage, Arachne bemoans her fate, never to experience the physical world again. Unless…hmmm?
Most people at the theater, especially the young kids looked satisfied with the first act. Had it been padded out by one or two more songs (more about the songs later), they could have bought their Spiderman hoodies for a mere seventy-five bucks and gone home to tell their friends how cool it was when Spiderman fought the Green Goblin mid-air, or landed on the balcony next to them. Instead, after almost half an hour intermission, presumable to fix a set that had broken and delayed the first act by ten minutes, they returned to their seats for the rest of the spectacle.
I am unsure what their parents told them on the way home. Cribbing this time from the second film, MJ is now a Broadway actress, and Peter is too busy saving the world to see her on stage. Also, after fighting garishly costumed villains including the “Sinister Six” (featuring classic Spiderman villains, as well as an all new Julie Taymor creation, “Swiss Miss,” a large pocket knife of a villain of whom the less is said the better) , Peter decides to retire from being Spiderman. Now, here is where is gets tricky. Arachne either needs Peter to be Spiderman to get her energy to come from the astral plane to earth, or maybe just loves him, or maybe just needs her spider-minions to steal high-end shoes. It is unclear as to which of the three may be correct, as it is almost impossible to hear the lyrics, it might be something else entirely. Although he wanted out of the game, Spiderman is lured back by a resurrected Green Goblin and the now undead Sinister Six who are terrorizing the city. (Apparently for a wise-cracking young kid, Parker sure ups the body count!) After defeating them, Spiderman realizes that unless he dives into a pit at the front of the stage, Arachne will never leave him alone. (This is also the site of a famous accident during production.) Eventually, Arachne decides to leave, perhaps because of Spiderman’s superior pit dive and the day is saved. The show ends with a new revised ending (apparently previously the curtain just dropped ) with more aerial ballet, and then the actor playing Spiderman comes down upside down on a web for his encore, to kiss MJ as in the film. Does this all make sense? Not to me either, and I’m not even mentioning the “Geek Chorus” (get it?) who are either commenting on the action, or writing the Spiderman mythos. It's never really clear, and they largely sit back and watch for the second act.
But it’s not just the book that’s confusing. Despite some good efforts, there are many clunker songs. Do we really need a song called “Bullying by Numbers” where various bullies, all for some reason in their thirties (is this grad school and are they out to steal Peter’s thesis?) dance to a clunky tune with sub-Backstreet Boys choreography? Or a song “Pull the Trigger” by the generals who urge Norman Osborn on in his construction of the Green Goblin who sing an even clunkier rap song, akin to House of Pain or Onyx? And lastly, the now infamous song, “Deeply Furious” where Arachne’s female spider minions steal high end shoes makes one wonder if you suddenly wandered into the theater where Sex and the City: Turn off The Lights So You Don’t See Our Wrinkles is playing? There is a redeeming song “Rise Above” which is beautifully sung and is reprised for the ending (and as a Black Flag fan, if you are going to call a song “Rise Above” it had better be good)! But overall, except for three of four numbers, including a couple clearly written for Bono’s cadences, you don’t really walk out the theater humming them, a major faux pas for a major musical.
And that’s the trouble with Spider-Man, it is a spectacle, and there are some stunning bits, but it will never make sense to most of the comic book friendly audience (Glenn Beck aside) who will wonder about needless plot complications and obfustication of the major theme of the original Spiderman story. Not to mention the fact that many of the costs involved in the production were done to make the theater aerial friendly. A good musical to most critics and fans of the genre, survives in revivals and catchy or poignant songs that can be performed outside of the original production. Outside of the “Deeply Furious” number about shoes, which may make for a campy sing-along at a piano bar, this is not the case, and a touring version outside of a major sports arena seems unlikely.
Ultimately, Spider-Man was just not well thought out, as if the producers, Bono and the Edge and Julie Taymor all lived in a reality distortion field where things that made perfect sense to them would puzzle or cause disdain to the lowly audience members, who continue to line up outside the theater daily to see what all the fuss is about. Not that this means Spider-Man will be a flop. Already tweaks are being made and a new musical director and a book writer have been brought in to fix the show less than a month before its latest “opening.” In the long run, it may be a huge hit, recoup all its money and became a catchword for truly spectacular theater and play lucrative stadium tours for the next twenty years. But, as long as Julie Taymor lives in the kind of bubble where it is perfectly normal for orangutans like me to have to hide in a sweaty room in my underwear reading a paper, it is highly unlikely.