The Playgoer: Oh, What a Tangled Web

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Oh, What a Tangled Web

"To him, life is a great big bang up
Whenever there's a hang up
You'll find the Spider man." 

-theme song to 1960s animated Spiderman TV show

The actual plunging of a Spider-Man actor into the orchestra pit after his, um, magical powers failed to save him from a dodgy harnessing method has catapulted the show's offstage drama into even greater tsuris, if that were even possible.

This latest accident has now triggered more organized concern and even protest from the acting community, both through union reps and, now, politicians coming to the defense of "workplace safety."  Crain's reports:
Assemblyman Rory Lancman, chairman of the Assembly Subcommittee on Workplace Safety, staged a press conference Thursday at Foxwoods Theater, where two performances of the show were canceled Wednesday in light of the accident. Mr. Lancman said the code of necessary safety conditions for theater productions may no longer be relevant for such technically complicated shows as Spider-Man, which has 38 aerial maneuvers that involve actors being hoisted into harnesses and flying through the air. “The current legislation that governs these kinds of performances dates back to 1953 and has not been materially updated since then,” Mr. Lancman said. 
Less politic are the online outbursts of various show people, named and unnamed:
Many actors voiced their displeasure on social media, including Adam Pascal from RENT, who wrote on Facebook: "They should put Julie Taymor in jail for assault!” On Twitter, Tony-winning actress Alice Ripley posted "Does someone have to die? Where is the line for the decision makers, I am curious"....And quoted an anonymous “theatrical insider” at length railing against the effects of the show, saying “It's made me angry that this level of technology and that people's safety being at risk is being allowed. Someone needs to STOP Julie Taymor NOW!”
While such accusations are not pretty, I would still advise Taymor's lawyer not to take the asshole approach:
Seth Gelblum, a partner at Loeb & Loeb, and the attorney for Julie Taymor and a number of the production's investors, said actors get hurt in the theater all the time. For example, Fela! was forced to cancel a performance last year when three dancers couldn't perform because of injuries.Mr. Gelblum said the incidents are receiving outsized attention because the musical didn't work out the kinks in an out of town run, but is doing so on Broadway under the scrutiny of the New York media. “Broadway musicals are very strenuous and people always get hurt unfortunately,” Mr. Gelblum said. “But everything is magnified on this show because of the unprecedented attention.”
Of course. It's the internet and Michael Riedel that gave Christopher Tierney "a hairline fracture in his skull, a broken scapula, a broken bone close to his elbow, four broken ribs, a bruised lung and three fractured vertebrae." And actors wind up in "serious condition" at Bellevue from strained jazz-hands all the time!

Stage Directions has a very helpful rundown of all the backstage technical issues involved, as well as a roundup of industry reactions.


When I posted a while back about my surprise at the NY Times' reporting on the show's first preview, I was actually not, as some of my bloggy friends assumed, condemning the paper.  I just wanted to be sure everyone took note of what may be a "rubicon" moment in the whole etiquette of press reviewing.  It may well be that in the age of the internet, it makes no sense for a critic to hold his peace while everyone else in the world is holding forth online 24/7.  At least, that's what a couple of bigtime critics have decided...
In articles that ran over the holiday weekend, Linda Winer of Newsday and Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News both wrote about their recent experiences at “Spider-Man,” which is scheduled to open at the Foxwoods Theater on Feb. 7. Both Ms. Winer and Mr. Gerard acknowledge that under typical circumstances, it is customary for a theater critic to see a show in the days just before it opens, when the production presumably will not undergo major changes, and to publish the review after the show opens. They both also make the case that the lengthy preview period for “Spider-Man,” not to mention its $65 million price tag, do not necessarily constitute typical circumstances.


Mr. Gerard said Monday morning in a telephone interview that his review was “an interim report” and that he intended to revisit “Spider-Man” for its official critics’ previews in February. That said, Mr. Gerard added, “Critics should be part of the conversation, ultimately. We don’t serve the producers, we serve our readers, and I thought that it looked stranger and stranger, and my editor agreed with me.”

(Since no one actually reads Bloomberg or Newsday for theatre coverage, this is all from the Times, of course.)

This is notable because Gerard and Winer are no gossip-mongers. They are two of the most oldschool reputable critics around.  And Gerard has a point there, I think, about the "stranger and stranger."  It's the same question that increasingly faces all "traditional media" outlets today. Does it make sense to let the old journalistic practices keep you from talking about the thing that everyone else is talking about.  (Everyone in a particular field, at least.)

One could argue maybe that's best left to beat reporters and not critics--as with the Times sending Patrick Healy, not Ben Brantley to Spidey's first preview.  But then again: isn't your critic the writer on your staff best qualified to report on performance?  As Winer is quoted as saying, "There’s something a little nuts that critics are now the only interested parties who can’t see the bride before the wedding."

There's also the question of how long a show can reasonably keep the critics waiting.  This all might not be happening if Spider-Man had a normal two-week preview process and opened on schedule.  Instead the opening has been repeatedly delayed and now has been pushed back to February 7.  As Bloomberg culture editor Manuela Hoelterhoff  puts it to the Times, "“I worried that by the time the show opened, I might be in a rest home with [Gerard]."  Asked to comment, the Times' own culture editor makes the valid point that all this time the show's producers are pleading a grace period, they "are raking in the cash, charging some people more than $200 a ticket," adding that while the Paper of Record won't break the embargo, "We’ll wait, but not forever."

Finally, the Times also has someone's 8-second cellphone video of the notorious accident.  But here's a more accurate filmed record:


Playgoer said...

And if you're really a glutton for more of this, may I recommend the January 8 schedule of the Times' upcoming "Arts & Leisure Weekend": Julie Taymore interviewed by Patrick Healy. AWK-ward...

John Branch said...

I just woke up from a nice 10-year nap, and I'm pretty sure that when I went to sleep, people were having this same discussion about whether and when journalists should "report" on shows in previews. Maybe one more little nap and it'll all get straightened out...

Playgoer said...

CORRECTION: Taymor just bailed on the NYT/Healy interview. Even more AWK-waard...