Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark
Music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge
Book by Julie Taymor and Glen Berger
Directed by Julie Taymor
Foxwoods Theatre, New York
Reviewed March, 2011
Alright, already! I was prepared to wait until the official opening to review the notorious Broadway musical “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.” I’m not one of those people who feels righteously indignant about how many previews the show’s had before letting the critics review it. Most theatergoers don’t know and don’t care about the differences between previews and non-previews, and why should they? I respect the artists involved in this super-expensive, super-ambitious musical—mainly director Julie Taymor, playwright Glen Berger, and composers Bono and The Edge from U2—enough to let them finish their work before weighing in as to how good it is. But now that forces have conspired to nudge Taymor out of the picture, I decided I wanted to see what she’d done before another director comes in and starts “improving” it. So I broke down and bought a pair of $150 box seats in the mezzanine for the Sunday matinee, March 13.
It was a fascinating and eye-opening experience. No one got hurt. All the machinery worked. Slightly weird: Reeve Carney played the lead for Act I (pretty bland), and Matthew James Thomas played Act II (considerably better). I kept waiting for whatever made Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review, say, “’Spider-Man’ is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.” (Does he not remember “Brooklyn – The Musical”? “Love Musik”? And don’t get me started on last year’s Tony-winning loathsome Best Musical “Memphis”…) That moment never came. Yes, there are some clunky moments. Yes, there are some lackluster performances. Yes, the score isn’t great—but it’s no worse than the score for “Wicked” or “Billy Elliott.” “Spider-Man” does have dazzling sets (by the great George Tsypin), incredible costumes (by the wizardly Eiko Ishioka), canny interplay among Greek mythology, comic book culture, and something like recognizable human emotions—not to mention the kind of daredevil flying over the audience not seen outside Cirque du Soleil’s shows in Vegas (with rigging designed by the same guy who did “Ka” and “O”). Maybe it’s all expectations. When you go in expecting Utter Shit, Not Shit can seem quite admirable. I will admit that I even wept at the climax.
I can’t help ranking “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” in the same category as Paul Simon’s “The Capeman” and Boy George’s “Taboo”—IMHO terrific original Broadway musicals by pop composers that somehow garnered snarky word-of-mouth they were never able to shake. “Spider-Man” has been headline news in New York (leaking out into the rest of the country) for months now, and the tone of the coverage since last summer has been relentlessly negative, almost entirely based on the premise of How-Dare-They. How dare they spend $65 million creating a Broadway musical? How dare they pollute Broadway with material based on lowly comic books? How dare they endanger actors involved in the show’s fancy flying stunts? How dare they delay the official opening? That all these complaints are beside the point did nothing to turn down the volume on the mystifying self-righteousness of the entertainment press. The bad rap ultimately boils down to: How Dare She? How dare Julie Taymor…what? Have a vision? Push the envelope? Mix mythology with pop culture?
Virtually all the mainstream reviewers bought tickets and reviewed the show at the beginning of February, and most of them seemed to be reviewing not what they saw onstage so much as the emergency-room records of the injured actors. (Four, one of them seriously.) And a ghoulish appetite arose among spectators and commentators, hoping against hope that someone would fall and get hurt during the show.
OK, I’ve spent enough time reviewing the reviewers. How about if I talk about what I saw onstage at the Foxwoods Theatre? The curtain rises on a classic cliff-hanger: Spidey on the Brooklyn Bridge, his girlfriend Mary Jane (I saw Jennifer Damiano‘s understudy, Kristen Martin, who was fine) dangling from a rope, and then she falls. … Immediately, we shift to a teenage clubhouse where a Geek Chorus of three fanboys (Gideon Glick, Jonathan Schwartz and Mat Devine) and one fangirl (Alice Lee) are dreaming up a new Spider-Man story. Immediately, the audience knows they’re watching not a staged version of the Hollywood movie but a post-modern (or, you could say, Shakespearean) story about storytelling. Some of the guys want to start with the origin story of how mild-mannered high-school nerd Peter Parker got his super-powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider. The smarty-pants girl, Miss Arrow, pushes for a more primal creation myth involving Arachne, the human who beat Athena in a weaving showdown, in retaliation for which the enraged goddess turned her into the world’s first spider, doomed to immortality as a scary creature who lives in the dark. (My companion Andy, a certified Big Honking Geek who grew up with both Marvel Comics and “D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths,” totally got the rightness of linking the two.)
The entrance of Arachne (played by T. V. Carpio strapped into a fantastic mechanical spider apparatus) sets up Taymor’s first coup de théâtre, in which three women on fabric swings use the proscenium as a loom to weave a floor-to-ceiling curtain—an image as fleet and haunting as the Magritte-like floating apples in Taymor’s production of “The Green Bird” or the spinning anthill in “The Lion King.” The first act builds the familiar story of unassuming kid with sudden super powers who gets shamed by tragedy (his Uncle Ben’s death) into becoming a masked crime-fighter, a hero to many but demonized by the tabloid press as a public menace. The narrative is a little pokey in the unfolding, but each new scene reveals yet another clever, dazzling George Tsypin set design: a pop-up classroom where Peter gets picked on (“Bullying by Numbers”), the anonymous neighborhood where Peter and MJ live (which flip by like the thick cardboard pages of children’s books), the gizmo-filled science lab of Dr. Osborn (played by Patrick Page with a wayward Southern accent), the bedroom where Peter discovers his new powers (the walls come apart and are operated like puppets), Spider-Man’s first flight into the house, the transformation of the good Dr. Osborn into the evil Green Goblin, and the first act climax where the two of them tangle on a replica of the Chrysler Building that unfolds from the back wall and engage in flying combat over the audience.
By the top of Act II, Peter/Spidey is so consumed with his public duties—after all, “With great power comes great responsibility”—that he doesn’t have time for a private life. He risks losing Mary Jane because instead of showing up to see the show she’s acting in, he’s out having to fight the Sinister Six, a squadron of super-villains he thought he’d already vanquished. “Spider-Man Rising,” the musical number that starts Act II, is basically a runway show for the Sinister Six, and it’s as ecstatic and jaw-dropping as the first ten minutes of “The Lion King.” (The producers could make a lot of money just showing that one number 10 times a day; people would pay $30 a pop just to see Electro, the Swarm, and especially Swiss Miss, who’s sort of a cross between Grace Jones, the Terminator, and a Swiss Army knife.) So he drops out, throws away his costume, and holes up in an apartment eating canned pears with Mary Jane while the city falls into a 24/7 blackout.
This is where the show starts getting dreamy and metaphysical, which a lot of reviewers made fun of but which I liked. It turns out that the blackout is caused by Arachne, who’s a kind of witch-goddess capable of creating mass illusions. She gave Spider-Man his super-powers because she’s a lonely demi-god and wants company in the realm of the immortals. She appeals to his sense of conscience to go back to making use of the super powers she gave him. And she’s jealous of his attachment to Mary Jane. Perhaps you’ve heard about the much-reviled shoe-shopping musical number, “Deeply Furious”? It’s not as dumb as it has been made out to be. It’s actually pretty witty and appropriately pathetic, a divine variation on the grass-is-always-greener. “What does this mere mortal have that I don’t have?” goes Arachne’s thinking. “I know—shoes!” The sight of her and her chorus of Furies, with high heels on their eight multi-jointed mechanical legs is hilarious and kind of poignant in its misguided desperation.
When she sees how much Spider-Man is willing to sacrifice out of love for Mary Jane, she is forced to recognize her own hubris in trying to control everything. Her epiphany is that being true to yourself and learning to “Rise Above” (the show’s anthemic refrain) your control-freaky ego means something very different to an ordinary mortal like MJ, a human being with super powers like Peter/Spidey, and an immortal being like herself. That’s the moment that stabbed me in the heart, which I never expected to experience at a Broadway musical spectacle based on a comic book. Underneath the flying and the flashy sets, “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” is an allegory that asks deep existential questions—What is my destiny? To whom am I responsible? Who will love me? How do I look?—with the combination of flippancy and earnestness ideally suited to the eternal adolescence of comic-book culture.
Reviewers usually sit in the middle of the orchestra, the best seats in the house. For “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark,” I sat one level up on the right side closest to the stage. There were several disadvantages to this location. I got only a partial view of some of the most spectacular scenes. Anything that took place upstage center and left, I never saw. There was a loudspeaker right in front of me, and I feared that meant the music would blast me out of my seat, but it was just the opposite. The music sounded muffled, and I could barely make out a lot of the lyrics, either because of the sound mix or because the actors were facing away from me.
But there was one huge plus to where I sat: I got to view the spiffiest flying from high up, and watching Spider-Man (sometimes multiple Spideys) and the Green Goblin flying back and forth and around and across the airspace above the orchestra was pretty damned thrilling. And what the people sitting in the pricey seats couldn’t possibly have seen was the impact of Spider-Man flying up to, landing on, and sometimes disembarking from platforms at the front of the mezzanine and the upper balcony. Spectators sitting right behind those platforms were losing their minds with joy at the strange experience of having the star of the show fly up to meet the people in the (not-so-) cheap seats. Patti LuPone didn’t do that in “Gypsy”!
Having seen the show, I now understand why—despite the drubbing it got from critics who reviewed the show six weeks ago, the constant sniping from the press, and the endless jokes about actors getting hurt—“Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark” has been raking in more than a million bucks a week in ticket sales. It’s a fun show with great visuals. The music has been justifiably criticized. I wish the score were better. A lot of it is generic U2. I liked the ballads (“Rise Above,” “Turn Off the Dark,” “The Boy Falls From the Sky”) but I think I’d rather hear U2 do a “Songs From Spider-Man” album than these actors. The band could rock a lot harder, for my taste—even though it’s conducted by Kimberly Grigsby, who conducted the fantastic onstage rock band for “Spring Awakening,” it seems to have been toned down for mainstream Broadway audiences. Glen Berger’s book, which Julie Taymor apparently rewrote like crazy, has been reviled left and right. Yes, there are inconsistencies (the Geek Chorus trails off in Act II until they disappear entirely), but for the most part I found it perfectly serviceable and sometimes witty. The actors work their butts off. Almost all of them get to fly at one point or another, and they look like they’re having a ball, even though they’re competing with a lot of expensive scenery and special effects.
Now Julie Taymor has left the building, and the producers have hired Philip William McKinley, best known for directing Hugh Jackman in the Peter Allen musical “The Boy From Oz,” to come in and “fix” the show. Who knows? Maybe it will be better. But I can testify that what Taymor and her crew ended up making was a fascinating, flawed, and at times amazing show.