What We've Learned from the Spider-Man Debacle

Not only is director Julie Taymor supposedly leaving Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but the whole production plans to shut down for a few weeks. Yikes! An unmitigated, unprecedented (no show in Broadway history has ever run this many preview performances) disaster. Well, only creatively for now, but one would think the finances will eventually suffer. That said, is there any knowledge to be gained from this whole mess? Yes, a few things!

First we learn the sad lesson that, like the movies, quality isn't necessarily king on Broadway. Despite all the ballyhoo about how creatively ugly the show is (and it really, really is), Turn Off the Dark is still one of the top-grossing shows on the White Way, easily clearing $1 million every week. That's huge! Like, Wicked huge! As it turns out, if you turn the lights and volume up bright and high enough, people can't hear or at least choose to ignore critics and naysayers, just like they do at the movies, suspending any expectation of quality to watch Optimus Prime make love to Tyrese Gibson or whatever those movies are about. Point is, spectacle does triumph over substance. We've known this to be true for a while, even in the theater, but that such a glaringly terrible show — this is not the comfortably cheesy and fusty Phantom, not the head-ticklingly silly Cats; this is just really awful — can continue on Broadway, with tickets going for well over $100, is a sign perhaps that we've reached a new level of audience compromise. (Or maybe it's just a fluke!) We'll take whatever's coolest looking or has the highest potential for gore, thanks.

But! The producers are hiring new script writers, they're bringing on a new director, they're pausing the show to re-rehearse. They actually want this thing to be good. They actually care! This isn't some movie exec watching a final cut of Clash of the Titans and saying "Eh, what the fuck, go for it." Well, I mean, it is. The Dark producers did, at first, open a turkey, but at least they've now taken the time and pains, under embarrassing public scrutiny, to admit they've got a problem and are working hard to fix it. (It's my personal belief that the show's an unsalvageable lemon, doomed to sputter and rattle no matter what, but that's just me.) So we also learn a little something about how quality does matter in theater over the long haul. Clash of the Titans didn't need to run in theaters for three years to break even. Turn Off the Dark does. And as well-sold and buzzy as the show is now, if it remains the terrible garbage heap it is, can it really expect to camp out at the Foxwoods Theater (ugh) for a long stay? No, probably not. Broadway theater is a marathon, not a sprint! We learn that from this ever-evolving monster of a show. And it's a good lesson for producers to keep in mind when they might say in the future, "Oh, we'll worry about a script later." A stitch in time, and all that.

Mostly, though, we've learned that everyone needs an editor (just ask my 4,000 word recaps), even swirling genius brains like Julie Taymor. It was a fun idea that lightning could strike twice and a fiercely self-reliant artiste could once again be handed the keys to the corporate money vault and make something rapturous out of something flat, but Spider-Man isn't The Lion King, and a strange assemblage of disparate producers and investors is not Disney Theatrical. Taymor, as it turns out, needs some pretty firm guidelines (guardrails, even) and a set-in-stone story in order to fill a room with her strange alchemy of earthbound magic. As many critics have pointed out, a storyteller she is not. She had the necessary guidance with Lion King, but with Dark, it seems that in all the struggle to get financing and do all that boring business stuff, everyone forgot to check in on Jules to see if she maybe needed help. (Not that she would have asked for it.) I think the lesson here, tough as it may be to swallow, is that commercialism and art can exist in the same place at the same time, but you really need to mix that paint right. If you don't, you get Turn Off the Dark. (Or The Times They Are a Changin'. Woof.) I'm reluctant to suggest that art is hard to sell, lest anyone stop trying to sell it, but it is. Sometimes a more straightforward approach is just best. Hire Joe Mantello to direct a Spider-Man musical! Have Taymor consult on costumes or something. Less exciting, maybe, but it'd work.

Anyway, it's a shame that audiences are paying money for this turkey and it's a shame that a lot of good, hardworking actors and crew are being dragged through the muck on this one. Ultimately if there's one thing I hope the producers learned, it's that you shouldn't debut something until it's ready and working. (Well, that and no amount of millions of dollars can fix basic problems. That's a good one too!)

[Photo via mvjantzen/Flickr]