If I told you that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is visually stunning but emotionally unengaging, that its action is sporadically thrilling but its plot often indecipherable, and if I told you that this is what I’ve been hearing from friends and reading in chat rooms and status updates, I’d be telling you the truth.
And if I told you those same things–which remain true–and that they’re what I saw at the Foxwoods Theatre Saturday afternoon, when I watched a sold-out preview performance of Julie Taymor’s hugely expensive, highly anticipated, occasionally injurious and often delayed musical about the quasi-arachnid comic-book hero, I’d be misbehaving.
Directed and conceived by the brilliant and demanding Ms. Taymor, with music by U2′s Bono and the Edge, and in development for more than nine years, Spider-Man is the most talked-about, reported-upon and analyzed theatrical event in recent memory.
Those who’ve weighed in about it include the New York Times editorial page, which intoned its concerns on Dec. 23; the Times op-ed page, which on Jan. 1 published a reminiscence-as-warning about Via Galactica, a previous Broadway blockbuster gone bad; The Onion, dryly reporting on Jan. 5 that a nuclear bomb had detonated during a rehearsal but that producers remained optimistic; the braying theater fanatics of the Internet; the tippling theater professionals of Bar Centrale; the New York State Department of Labor; Conan O’Brien; 60 Minutes; and, as of last week, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who suggested that Spider-Man is violating consumer-protection laws by charging allegedly unsuspecting customers full ticket prices for what producers insist is right now still a work in progress.
Only one class of people–professional theater reviewers, who are paid to opine on such things–is expected to politely avert its gaze.
This follows from a well-established and well-intentioned practice. Because making a play work requires performing it in front of an audience, shows run several weeks of previews prior to an opening night. Reviewers are invited to final previews, just before opening, once the show has been “frozen”; by accepting our free tickets, we’re implicitly agreeing that we won’t publish our reviews until after opening night.
But that bit of artifice can sometimes seem ridiculous, as when a production delays its opening three times after starting previews, for a total of 10 weeks, while charging prices as high as $275 for a single seat and selling out. (Last week, Spider-Man defied gravity, or at least recent history, to supplant Wicked as Broadway’s highest-grossing show.)
“Leaving the Marquis Theatre after Nick and Nora,” Frank Rich wrote in a 1991 Times review, “I kept hearing the same jaded comment from other members of the audience beside me on the escalator: ‘Well, it’s not nearly as bad as they said it would be.’” Next month, unless Spider-Man skips a performance, Nick and Nora will lose its status as the play with the most previews. “True,” Mr. Rich went on, “this comment is hard to evaluate if you have no way of knowing which ‘they’ these people are referring to. After all, nearly 100,000 customers paid full price to see Nick and Nora during its nine weeks of previews.”
By last night, which was once scheduled to be opening night, about 73,000 had paid to see Spider-Man.
The previewing process is of course necessary. But there is something perverse in allowing the subjects of critical coverage to decide how and when it should be published. There comes a point–it might be after six weeks of previews, three delays, four injuries and general cultural omnipresence–when it seems strange that professional theatergoers are the only interested people not to have seen a show.
So just before 2 p.m. on Saturday, I paid $142 and settled into the rear of the orchestra.
(Mr. Rich, incidentally, was not always so accommodating. In Hot Seat, the annotated compendium of his reviews, he recalls colluding with the critics from the Daily News and the AP in 1982 to review Merlin, which held the record for most previews until Nick and Nora came along, two weeks prior to its twice-delayed opening night.)
I couldn’t help being excited. While I can’t say I’d been terribly eager for the show during its long gestation, Jesse Green’s New York cover story in November had enticed me: He argued that Ms. Taymor is a visionary and all the problems and delays have been the necessary byproducts of creating truly great work. The subsequent wave of news had only heightened the intrigue. Would the show be watchable? Would it run interrupted? Would anyone get hurt?
Others seemed to share my anticipation; I’ve rarely felt a Broadway audience–especially a matinee audience–so bustling with energy. This was caused by the many excited and excitable kids in attendance and, no doubt, by a mild, rubbernecky blood lust, both physical and theatrical. It occurred to me that all the bad news from the production, horrific for the actors, was, financially speaking, fantastic for the producers.
One could even argue they’re milking it. Just after curtain time, Glenn Orsher, an executive producer, took the stage, microphone in hand. “Thank you for coming to this preview of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” he said, to generous applause. He explained that because this was a preview, the action might stop for technical problems or the actors’ safety. “I’m pleased to tell you that the Department of Labor has approved all our aerial sequences,” he added. That time, the applause was thunderous.
Linda Winer of Newsday and Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, who also bought their own tickets and wrote about the show over Christmas weekend, found a similar morbid curiosity. For this, they were both castigated by the expected parties for breaking with convention and seeing the show early, and by one unexpected one.
John Simon, never known for his critical kindness in his 30 years throwing knives from New York magazine, called the early reviews “unfair to the show” and “discourteous to other critics.” Reviewing before invited to, he said, is “like grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked.” (In fact, it is like visiting a new restaurant after a decent interval, as restaurant critics do, rather than at the restaurateur’s convenience.)
Finally, the show started.
And here’s what I can discourteously report: