OK, I think it's time to explain my relative silence on the whole Spider-Man fiasco. Last September, I was admitted into the Outer Critics Circle, an august organization of theater writers working for media outside New York City. It's a wonderful opportunity for me to be a more integral part of the theatrical/critical community, and it's made a huge difference in my getting into press events and performances.
But the president of the OCC, when he heard that I was attending a preview performance of Spider-Man early in January, suggested that I should observe the standard industry etiquette and wait until the show's official opening night to post my review. Not wanting to jeopardize my standing in the organization, I deferred.
Now, as anyone with even a passing familiarity with the situation can attest, the official opening night for Spider-Man - which, after 5 delays, was supposed to occur this evening - has been further delayed until June 14th, putting the show out of contention for Tony consideration for the current season. And most of the major and even minor critics gave up waiting for opening night weeks ago, and decided to weigh in on Spider-Man on February 7th, the most recent "official" opening night before tonight.
And it wasn't pretty, m'kay? (Click here for a compendium of the reviews.) So, I discussed it with my editor. (OK, with my dog, Oliver.) And we decided that there really wasn't any point to waiting any longer.
In short, the show was a mess. An unfixable mess? Not quite. But perhaps beyond the capabilities of mere mortals to salvage. Alas, director Julie Taymor has proven all too mortal, and was recently shunted aside by the producers and, significantly, Bono. I'm of two minds about this. First, from published reports, it was pretty clear that Taymor was unwilling to make the changes necessary to make the show even remotely comprehensible. Because when I saw the show, act 1 seemed rushed but perhaps fixable, but act 2 made no bleeding sense whatsoever. By all accounts, Taymor didn't really see the problem, and was of the mind that the show was basically set to open. Clearly, if the show was going to work at all, Taymor needed to go.
But I find it a tad ironic that Bono and The Edge, who wrote what can only be charitably called the "score" for Spider-Man, seem to be positioning themselves as the wronged party in these negotiations. Because their songs are terrible. Absolutely awful. The score is beyond repair, not that Bono and The Edge have been anywhere near the show long enough to see the problem. And it appears that they won't be around much for the rest of the preview period. So, my advice to the producers is to simply give up on the score and try to salvage whatever they can from the book.
Because - and let me be painfully clear about this - the show as musical theater is a disaster. The only hope the producers have for getting even the smallest fraction of the money back lies in getting the story to make some modicum of sense, polishing up the flying sequences, and taking the show to London and Vegas, two venues that have a much higher tolerance for this kind of techno-schlock.
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal the ending of the show in the paragraphs below.]
I have pages and pages of notes from my Spider-Man experience, but they all essentially come down to this: in an effort to indulge herself in mythological pretension, Taymor forced all of the standard Spider-Man story into the first act, and the result is rushed, spotty, and detrimentally episodic. There's not enough time for the relationships to develop, particularly between Peter Parker and his aunt and uncle, so when his uncle meets an untimely end, we've only really seen the man in one scene, which makes it hard to feel anything for Peter and his loss.
You've probably heard about the "Geek Chorus," which essentially comprises a bunch of comic book fanatics who help tell the story. Or are supposed to. In theory. In fact, they only add to the confusion. First, narration of any kind is almost always a sign of lazy writing. But, more important, it's not really clear who these kids are, or what they're supposed to be doing. Are they creating the story for a school project? Are they writing their own comic book? Are they, in fact, creating the show in their own minds? WTF, Julie?
And then there's Arachne, a character that Taymor invented based on Greek mythology. One of the major flaws of Spider-Man when I saw it in January was that it wasn't clear whether Arachne was supposed to be good or evil. Apparently she's the source of Peter's Spidey power, but then she turns on him in the second act and starts to wreak havoc across the metropolis. Whatever. But that leads to one of the most laugh-out-loud sequences I've ever encountered in 30-plus years of attending musical-theater performances.
During the havoc, someone has been breaking into all of the shoe stores in the city. Yes, the shoe stores. Shortly thereafter, Arachne screams to the heavens, "I want those shoes!" In the next scene, all of Arachne's minions, who are supposed to represent the Furies from Greek mythology, sing an atrocious song called "Getting Furious." (Get it?) The Furies are wearing these skirts made from what look like legs stolen from all the mannequins at Macy's, and at the end of each mannequin leg is one of the stolen shoes. What this is supposed to have anything to do with Spider-Man is anybody's guess. (Julie?) For me, this was the moment when Spider-Man morphed from a show that simply wasn't working to a disaster of epic proportions. It's one of those jaw-dropping moments that collectors of flops hope for, dream about, and fortunately, in this respect at least, Spider-Man did not disappoint.
Worst of all in the lack-of-comprehension department is the show's denouement, which takes place in Arachne's lair. Arachne has kidnapped Peter Parker's girl, Mary Jane, and is holding M.J. hostage in her elaborate webbing. (Well, more like a fishing net. Clearly that $65 million went elsewhere.) Then somehow, Peter Parker defeats Arachne by...kissing her, I think...or outwitting her spiritually...or beating her at a game of Go Fish. (Well, it would make as much sense as what's currently on stage at the [shudder] Foxwoods Theater.) And Peter somehow gets his powers back and rescues Mary Jane and all is well with the world. But I'll be damned if I can figure out how all that happened. The scene is mind-bogglingly confusing and obtuse.
Oh, and I was waiting for the show to explain what the hell "Turn Off the Dark" is supposed to mean. I'm still waiting. There's a song by that name in the second act, and I was sort of looking forward to hearing it in the hope of deconstructing the show's pointlessly inscrutable subtitle. No such luck.
Can this show be saved? Should this show be saved? Do I care? Well, I'll certainly be back to see the show again, if only to see what they've done to try to fix it. The show's new director Philip William McKinley (The Boy from Oz? 'Nuff said.) and book doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman) certainly have their work cut out for them. So, I'll definitely return to Spider-Man once the show actually opens.
If it actually opens.