The Playgoer: Spidey, Your Time is Up

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Spidey, Your Time is Up

Yes, Ben Brantley went and reviewed Spider-Man.

And, yes, today the New York Times published it.

And yes it's still "in previews." 

Here's why they're right to do so.

First: February 7 was the previous opening night dates announced, and it is my understanding that at least some critics at the last NY Drama Critics Circle meeting advocated going ahead with plans to review it then regardless of the latest postponement to March 15. Enough is enough, they said, especially since critics have been the last people in the world somehow barred from discussing what is the most discussed show on Broadway. (So other critics will, I believe, be following suit soon.)

Second: Let us recall that all an official opening night is a "press opening." In the theatre this means when members of the press are invited to attend and write up the show. Critics and newspapers have long honored this convention, as part of the general agreement that critics do not pay for their own tickets and that they only come when asked. Many have questioned aspects of this relationship (including many commenters on this blog!) and so maybe this is a good time to reexamine the usual practices, and to ask what is actually helpful to our theatre and what is simply coddling of powerful money that's rich enough to "squat" in a Broadway theatre without paying the piper.

Spider-Man has now had 50 "previews" (by IBDB's count). We should ponder this number and ask whether any theatremakers--yes, even our beloved Julie Taymor--get to publicly perform on a professional stage, charging full price tickets to the public fifty times and not have their work assessed.

As many downtown theatre artists I know have said (some on this blog), how many good shows today even get fifty performances, period? It's even hard to eek that out on Broadway these days...

When I first responded to the Times' coverage of the very first preview (back in--wait for it--November) I admit I was a little taken aback. But only because it blurred the line between reportage and criticism by containing a lot of critical comments--from the audience, that is. And it was the very, very first preview, the first public performance ever, and I do think that's a bit premature for any heavy reporting, let alone criticism. (Of course, Off-Off Broadway shows who often open first performances to the press don't have the luxury of "tryouts.") My only carping, really, was not in defense of Spider-Man, but to point out the hypocrisy of the Times in claiming they were above the chatrooms and blogosphere of the Internet while indulging in the very same behavior, clearly out of fear of being scooped in this difficult competitive climate for print journalism.

Anyway, that was a long, long time ago. Since then we have had a Super Bowl, five snowstorms, and a couple of Middle Eastern dictatorships fall.  And yet, somehow, Spider-Man claims it is still not "ready" to be judged.

Yes, there are good reasons we consider a preview process sacred. But let's not romanticize and mythologize it out of proportion.  I'm still trying to research when exactly preview performances on Broadway even started, but I believe it wasn't until the 1960s. (If anyone knows for sure, feel free to fill us in.) Before that, opening night was...well, truly an opening night. The way most theatre folk experience it from High Schools to community theatre to most places south of 14th street. Instead, Broadway shows back then might have had a series of "invited" dress rehearsals, amounting to private previews, which were also, by the way, free previews. The big change in the 60s was to actually sell tickets to shows that hadn't opened. But that's why "reduced-price previews" were the norm till sometime in the last ten or twenty years.  I guess that was when Broadway producers realized most audiences (especially the increasing tourist portion of the audience) didn't know the difference any more.

Of course there has also traditionally been the "out of town tryout" route for Broadway shows, which served much the same purpose as extended preview processes today-- get the show in front of a random, paying audience to work out the kinks, out of view from the New York critics. But even though some shows have still gone out of town (Wicked, Addams Family, The Producers, many of the Disney shows) lots has happened to make it less workable--the expense, the dearth of vibrant metropolitan audiences in other cities, and, of course, the global village of the internet, where nothing is a secret no matter how far out of town you go. (In the good old days what happened in New Haven stayed in New Haven!)

By the way, some have cited the old tryout circuit as precedent for Spider-Man--i.e. that many classic musicals, for instance, had the benefit of fifty previews, they were just on the road. But--let us remember, there were still critics in those towns and they reviewed those shows. And while it took some effort for a New Yorker to get his hands on the Philly Inquirer or Boston Globe in those days, those who cared enough sure did. So going out of town hardly insulated you from any critical judgment at all.

Let us also consider this about previews-- can you think of any equivalent practice in another art form?  Can you imagine a big-name filmmaker, a James Cameron, for instance, releasing their latest movie into theaters, selling tickets, but re-editing it every night and still insisting on some critical embargo until they were done? No, of course not. In Hollywood, they do "test screenings" for that--and, again, they're freeyou!  I'd like to see Taymor and company offer that to their guinea pig audiences of the last few months.

Another example. Say Jonathan Franzen writes a new novel, it hits the bookstores, but his publishers don't send out review copies and even admonish the leading book reviews and lit-critics not to say a word until Jonathan's finished more rewrites and two more editions are published. Would The New Yorker stand for that?

So it's a quaint little practice we have here with these previews. Once the convention became accepted, producers, of course, tried to exploit it to their advantage. Even Joe Papp would sometimes put off "opening night" till the end of a four-week run to make sure a show would be "critic proof." And, yes, other Broadway shows have pushed the preview envelope long before Spidey. Nick and Nora managed 71 back in 1991. And as the Times recently reminded us, a forgotten farce by comedian Jackie Mason in 1969 set the still unbeaten record of 97. When Spidey opens on its new announced date of March 15, it will have passed 100 previews. Does Julie Taymor really want to achieve Jackie Mason status?

I should say here that I'm actually a great admirer of Taymor's. But that isn't from Lion King, which I've still never seen. No, she cast her spell on me with her 1994 Off-Broadway Titus Andronicus (at Theatre for a New Audience), which gleefully and chillingly combined comic-book violence, nightmare dreamscapes, and damn good acting--on a shoestring budget, no less. (Sounds like what Spider-Man should be, right?) Since then, I've enjoyed her films, mostly, but in stage work she seems increasingly to focus intensely on the design over all else. A good example was her recent opera Grendel, which was all moving set pieces and no drama. There, her chief collaborator was her non-husband, composer Elliot Goldenthal, so I get the sense that, in order to succeed, she really needs someone else in the room to complement, even work against, her visual strengths, with some good old dramaturgical fundamentals. (Or even just a lesser play by Shakespeare.) This clearly seems to be what's amiss with Spider-Man, where she's written the libretto herself--and she's no playwright--along with playwright Glenn Berger, whose main credits are a one-man play (Underneath the Lintel) and the small-screen kids' show Arthur. Not to knock Berger, who's been successful at what he's done and seems a decent enough scribe. But not the person I'd want to have in my corner giving shape and discipline to a $65 million, epic-comic-book-theatre mess.

It also hasn't helped Taymor that there's no seasoned theatrical producer on the show. The lead man now is Michael Cohl--concert promoter, former head of Live Nation, and all around rock impresario. In other words, just who you'd want to steer your U2 tour. But that's not what this is, is it?

And speaking of U2.... Remember when the involvement of Bono and The Edge was the main attraction of this project? Finally a rock musical from the best rockers?  Well they haven't exactly been the collaborators Taymor needs, either. They were absent from most of the early previews (due to prior tour commitments) and have never written anything not for themselves, let alone a Broadway musical. I haven't heard the score myself. But it doesn't seem a promising sign when their songs only get mentioned by Brantley in the very last paragraph of his review today. Even if Brantley were just an old fogey who didn't like anything on electric guitars (which I don't believe he is) what that omission tells me is that the score is not so much bad as negligible.

My right honorable friend from Time Out, Adam Feldman, made a case a few weeks ago for giving these valuable artists enough respect to work through their process on their own schedule. (Isherwood made a similar argument around the same time, too.) It's a nice thought, and I'm all for honoring fine artists and releasing them from the pressures of commercialism.  But not when they so embrace that commercialism itself. Julie Taymor is not developing Spider-Man on the island of Bali (where she once studied puppetry) or retreating, Peter Book-style, to some hermitage. She's right there on Broadway, using the public arena as her laboratory.

Aside from being foolhardy I have to say that's also quite luxurious. When Adam says the show "deserves" all the time it's been taking, I must disagree. The only reason it "deserves" several months of on-display development is because someone dropped 65 million bucks in Julie Taymor's lap. With that kind of cash to keep a show running, "desert" has nothing to do with it. We all know artists "deserving" of that time and patience but don't have that kind of carte blanche backing.

Which brings me back to how we must not forget how thoroughly commercial a product this has been from the inception and not confuse it with some magnum opus a great artist is rightfully devoting her life to. (Hell even Whitman, forever tinkering with his Leaves of Grass, kept publishing the new editions and subjecting it to review.) I mean, it's freakin' Spider-Man for chrissakes! And the show is so beholden to the trademark that the character even has to wear the same old cheesy spandex suit--whereas if Taymor were really "reinventing" the story she could surely come up with a more interesting look. And all the hot air she has been spouting in interviews of Spider-Man as on the level of Greek Myth and part of our collective unconscious... really? Even for a comic book characters he's hardly that iconic. (At least Superman has the whole Jewish golem thing going for him.)

So, trying to square the Spider-Man fiasco with my admiration for Taymor, I often find myself muttering that great line from A Man For All Seasons, when Thomas More realizes that his old friend Richard Rich has turned State's Evidence against him in exchange for some bureaucratic post in Wales and sighs: "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales, Richard?"

But for Spider-Man, Julie?

Let us not forget that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark would not exist without the initial backing of Marvel Comics (still a credited producing partner) whose interest was in doing a Disney and diversifying their brand. Otherwise, I don't believe any theatre artist would really get that excited about Spider-Man, certainly not these folks who never expressed an interest in the character previously. If they had, and they were all just closet comic book geeks bringing a whole new graphic novel sensibility to the stage, I'd respect that. But before you go calling Ben Brantley just too square to get it, man, check out self-professed comics fan Isaac Butler and his review on his blog a few weeks ago. I'm glad Isaac broke the "embargo" because not only is he better qualified than most critics to critique the show from this angle, but it also happens to the best, most thorough and rigorous pieces of dramatic criticism I've read so far this year.

What Isaac argues persuasively (as does Brantley today) is that the extended previews are not in fact making the show by any measure better. That's not to say that liking Spider-Man is not a matter of personal opinion. But it seems apparent right now that the ticket-buyers who are reportedly liking Spider-Man now, would have liked it last month and would like it about the same next month. While the critics aren't going to like it any more in March than they have so far. In other words, the previews are not changing the essentials of the show, just tinkering.

And what, by the way, is the reason for delayed openings?  Isherwood and Feldman seem disposed to cut the team some slack due to the immense technical difficulties. Fair enough, in theory. But Taymor has also freely admitted--nay, boasted--that the time has also been used to put in a new ending, and that other changes to the script have been made. (And, reading some of these early reviews, one would hope so!) So which is it? And do we owe them the same deference for simply not being able to tell a cohesive story as we would for problems with, um, gravity?

And even if the problems were only technical-- what does it say that there are still major glitches well past preview #60? (Brantley spends nearly the first half of the review describing one.) When even, presumably, the best people in the business are working on this problem day and night? Is god telling us something here, that Broadway actors were indeed not meant to fly? I admire Taymor's vision of a crazy kinetic "circus theatre." But she's clearly had a problem incorporating Cirque du Soleil stagecraft within standard Broadway operating procedures. There's a reason you go see Cirque du Soleil in some special-purposed tent with performers and stagehands trained specifically in rigging these high-wire acrobatics. It's not usually in the Broadway backstage job descriptions--nor that of the actor/dancers sacrificed on the great altar of Marvel Comics.

Yes, Taymor has indeed seemed to soar too close to the sun on this one, and got burned. Too bad it wasn't for a more noble cause.

Interesting--somewhat similar, somewhat different--thoughts on this from David Cote today and Charles McNulty a while back. Note that I have not tried to critically assess the contents of the show itself--and that's because, I admit, I have not seen it. Why have I not seen it? Because, quite simply, I refuse to play anything in the neighborhood of $100 for something that: a) I've heard from people I trust is awful, and b) is still in freakin' previews!


isaac butler said...

Wow. Thanks for the kind words, Garrett, much appreciated.

Scott Walters said...

So exactly who are we defending from being abused? The audience? Is the beef that audience members are paying for tickets? It seems to me that you have to work pretty hard to dismiss the fact that plays went on the road for extended period in the past, that while there they did extensive revisions to the technical and artistic aspects, and that the choice to come into town was their own -- and some never did, they closed out of town. Yes, there were critics, out-of-town critics, so it might be more consistent to argue that some non-NYC critics should have been invited to attend. But $65M is a big responsibility, and to risk losing it all because of some arbitrary idea of how many previews one "gets" seems sort of meanspirited to me. Shouldn't we want ALL theatre to succeed?

Angela said...

*thumbs up* Agreed.

Matt said...

Spot on, G. When you charge a 100% ticket price, you are saying that your show is 100% complete. If it is not, charge less and feel free to fall back on the ol' "you get what you pay for." Choose otherwise and deal with it. They were greedy, and now they're getting bit on the ass for it and deservedly so.

Christopher Pineda said...

The way this show has been handled has been very disappointing. And considering that this is the first Broadway news to get this much mainstream national coverage in a long time, I'm sad to see all of Broadway taking the hit for this out of control circus. Combine that with the way headlines like to interpret Rocco Landesman's recent remarks on arts supply and demand, and it's not a pretty public image the theatre arts is currently facing.

Fellow artists, what do you say we do about it?

Playgoer said...

For the record I should just add that Brantley was not the only major critic to review the show yesterday, several of them did--including those in the NY Post, NY Daily News, and nationally in the Chicago Trib, Wash Post, and LA Times. To read them all go to StageGrade--I'm sure they're rounding them up right now!

Anonymous said...

Scott: We should not want all theater to succeed. We should want good theater to succeed.

Scott Walters said...

Interesting. "Good theatre." Whenever I have suggested such a thing, I have been told "who's to say what 'good theatre' is?" Apparently, that is only a question when it comes to the avant garde...

Playgoer said...

What I took Anon to mean, Scott, was that a mantra like "we want theatre to succeed", or "yay theatre!", means "we want all theatre to have a chance." And after 60-plus previews, Spidey has certainly had his chance to persuade audiences to make the show successful. (After all, we might want theatre to "succeed" in general, but I don't think that means we have to want everyone to like everything.)

And forget about the question "what is good"--how about "what is success"!

By the measure that counts most these days Spiderman is succeeding phenomenally! And I bet the bad reviews will barely hurt that success at all. So there--critics are not stopping Spiderman from succeeding. Yay Spiderman.

As to your other point, Scott, about "who is hurt" by the delayed openings-- I agree that the audience is not, necessarily. Buying a ticket is always risk...No, as laughable as this sounds, I'd have to answer--the critics are the ones hurt!

Let me rephrase that--criticISM, as a field, as an endeavor, is hurt by being intimidated against doing its job just because some very financially powerful artists don't want to expose their work to them. I agreed with those early critics who jumped the gun and saw it earlier, who basically said, "how can we stay irrelevant through all this.?

So that's what this is about to me. How does criticism stay relevant in the face of media strategies like Spiderman.

Scott Walters said...

Which begs the question whether criticism is relevant regardless...

RLewis said...

I know that it's not an accurate comparison, but this post did make me think of Charles Ludlam who ran RTC shows in previews for 3 or 4 months and then opened his shows to reviews only in the last month. I got the feeling that he knew his Kamp was an easy target for critcs, but his audience was built in... in the neighborhood, so he didn't need reviews.

And the other thing this brings up for me is who gets hurt, not what; and it's not gonna be Taymor, not Bono nor the Edge, but I worry for Glen Berger. He's been rising out of indie theater to bigger and better things. Now, with talk of book problems, no plot or interesting story, Taymor has pushed him aside, and he may never recover. Sadly, that would be a real loss for our theater's future.

Daniel Bourque said...

U2 (or at least Bono and Edge) have written songs for other performers and singers before. Tina Turner, Marianne Faithful and Roy Orbison among others so it's a little inaccurate to say they haven’t. And they did do the music for another show- a production of Clockwork Orange in the 90's for the RSC. Unfortunately, that show, too, was an ignoble failure and almost on the scale that Spiderman seems to be. (And no- I haven't seen the latter yet) It's fascinating, on one level, really, because a band that has written such great music and is so mind-blowing in live performance from a sheer theatrical perspective seems to have made some really poor choices when it comes to what properties they have attached themselves to in terms of theatre and film. (See also Entropy and The Million Dollar Hotel)

To be fair, I think some of the negativity attached to this show is backlash against Taymor and U2. Both were, are, and have been brilliant artistic forces at the very height of their respective professions for many years. U2 may be past their prime, but they've never stopped touring, recording, or trying new things. Indeed, from the eyes of anyone who has watched them over the course of their career it isn't unusual at all for there to be glaring misses or half-baked experiments which they produce; for every work of brilliance like the Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby or Zoo TV Tour there's been a Rattle & Hum, Passengers or Popmart tour. Unfortunately, Spiderman sounds as though it is the latest in that long line. Taymor, I'd argue is much the same- her spellbinding stuff like The Lion King or Titus is nearly equally matched with odd experimental shows full of empty visual spectacle which are really only interesting due to her involvement. I never got the knock on Taymor till I saw her Magic Flute at the Met- the designs and puppetry are utterly amazing, but the already convoluted libretto was so buried under spectacle that it was nearly impossible to follow the story, and there didn't seem to be a real human being in it anywhere.

So what's the lesson to be learned here? I'm not quite sure, though it might be that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. Maybe that there's a really good reason for doing tryouts with a show and opening out of town however onerous that process might be. Or that your composers should be on hand when you're trying to put the finishing touches on a show. Also, perhaps that Cirque-Style acrobatics may not belong in a Broadway house which wasn't specifically built and designed for that kind of work. Spiderman seems destined to go down in theatrical history- though perhaps not in the way its creators intended.

John St. Croix said...

GREAT BLOG. Read this article in my directing class and it really says a great deal about the current state of theatre!


isaac butler said...


Having seen the show, I'd argue that the lesson to be learned here is "don't hire auteurs who have nothing but contempt for the material they're directing to direct and co-write and conceive of your broadway show."


Again, having seen it... I have no problem actively wishing Spider-Man failure. I have no problem with its failure hurting Julie Taymor's career. I have no problem with people losing lots of money on it. I find no common cause with commercial theater on that scale. When it's good, I'm happy if it does well and want it to, when it doesn't, particularly when it is such an inordinantely expensive grotesquerie, I don't have much problem wishing bad things on it. And i do not want all theater to succeed. That's the kind of up-with-people boosterism you used to rail against.

This show has had every advantage. It's had almost a decade of development, a year of rehearsals. It pays its people well and they get 40 hours a week to do they're thing. They're allowed to say it's not open for as long as they want on top of it. I'm sorry, but that's crap. When I direct a show (a show, I might add, that' will be judged on harsher standards because it's not dismissable as spectacle for tourists) I get to rehearse it for under four weeks and under 20 hours a week without paying people and press comes to the very first performance. If they can't get it right by now, that's on them.

Anonymous said...

"Even for a comic book characters he's hardly that iconic. " This just shows you have no concept of how popular the character is. It also shows a certain laziness about your writing -- you often make your opinions seem like facts. I agree with a lot of what you're saying, but if you read your article again -- and keep in mind that you haven't even seen SPIDERMAN... you're statements blindly trusting Brantley and others are just absurd. Of course you could disagree with Brantley! Your sentences about how the music must be forgettable because Brantley didn't discuss it much? Come on. If you want to be respected as a serious writer, give us something meaty. See the show. Then write about it. You can get rush tix for cheap.

RLewis said...

A couple of commenters have asked, “what is to be learned?” And I think that is the right question. But while I agree with Isaac’s appropriately snarky answer, I think that there’s a bigger picture, and it begins with the theater as a collaborative community. My recent research into ‘collaborative action’ as a business model (aren’t we all looking for a new one?) stresses the importance of including ALL stakeholders and identifies those left out as ‘alligators’ who can cost you more than it’s worth down the road.

In this case, those alligators are the critics, and they can only stand to be left out of the process for so long. They do not feel included in the Spidey action and have been disenfranchised from playing their only role in the process. It doesn’t matter if the show was good or bad, they have now risen up to bite this production in the butt. Worse shows have been given a pass by critics, and better shows have been more severely slammed.

Collaboration comes not only within a production, but around it as well, and since auteurs have a natural problem with this inside the room, it should come as no surprise that they don’t get its value outside of the show either. I’m sure we know that we’re ALL in this together, but for me, this is a big-time reminder.