Critic’s Notebook: ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’ is a lesson in Broadway excess
When we last tuned into the saga known as “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” the show, still in previews after postponing its opening for the fifth time, was being pelted with pans. I described the work as a “teetering colossus,” and pinned the blame on Julie Taymor’s muddled storytelling and “run-amok direction.” Other reviewers echoed these sentiments more punishingly, whacking the production with the pitiless force of an old-school nun patrolling an unruly catechism class with a ruler.
Apparently, the producers, worried about their $65-million outlay and more than $1 million in weekly running costs, were listening. Taymor has been sidelined, and reinforcements have been called in. The critical consensus has finally been accepted, but this isn’t rocket science, folks. What took them so long, and will it be too late?
The unlikely saviors of the show are director Philip William McKinley, whose lone Broadway credit is “The Boy From Oz,” the Hugh Jackman hit about the singer-songwriter Peter Allen, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who isn’t yet widely known as a playwright but whose experience in the comic-book realm has landed him the heavy challenge of doctoring Taymor and Glen Berger’s hamstrung book.
This isn’t a time for schadenfreude. Jobs are on the line, careers hang in the balance and the Fed isn’t going to ride to the rescue of megamusicals as it did for Wall Street banks. But you’ll forgive me for being a pessimist about the chances of an 11th hour redemption. The only way I can see this train wreck turning into an artistic success is if the investors were somehow able to resurrect Orson Welles to adapt the whole unfortunate episode into a “Citizen Kane” sequel, the tale of an avant-garde idealist who loses her way after being enabled by heedless businessmen determined to duplicate the multibillion-dollar bonanza of “The Lion King.”
I learned from my years working in the professional theater that once a show was cast and the physical production assembled, a full-scale renovation was a pipe dream. The most you could expect was some helpful fine-tuning. But “Spider-Man” has resources other theatrical endeavors couldn’t even dream of, and so it remains to be seen whether McKinley and Aguirre-Sacasa can pull off a miracle. Bono and The Edge, who wrote the patchy score, are apparently working on new numbers, and musical consultant Paul Bogaev and sound designer Peter Hylenski have been brought in to raise the bar from the current transistor radio level.
Most encouragingly, there’s a recognition that the storytelling requires more than cosmetic enhancements, especially in the second act, which transforms into a jejune video game. But this begs a question: What in the heck was anyone thinking giving Taymor, an auteur with a fetish for Indonesian masks, the responsibility for writing the book with Berger, a journeyman playwright with a couple of children’s television Emmys? Taymor has apparently been hard at work on the material for the last nine years, a sign if ever there was one that she’s the wrong person for the job.
The word “auteur” is French for author, but it signifies a director with a vision so complete that it constitutes a kind of authorship of its own. The director’s theater is largely a visual affair; words are subordinate to images, and playwrights (dead or alive) are merely fodder for interpretive play. But although some auteurs are genuine writers (such as Richard Foreman), most need a text to bounce off of. When left to their own devices, chaos descends.
Taymor and Berger’s Spider-Man tale, mixing the traditional Marvel world with a feminist revamp of a Greco-Roman myth, is rife with colorful possibilities but utterly deficient in narrative instinct. The story has no rhythm, no coherence, no drive. It’s the equivalent of what you’d get if you’d ask an imaginative dramatist to build the set — a ramshackle of adventurous ideas in need of a wrecking crew, not a handyman.
It’s an odd paradox that while the director’s theater has fallen out of favor in New York — not even the estimable Peter Brook returning in the twilight of his career commands the respect he once did in the city’s thoroughly commercialized landscape — an auteur with “The Green Bird” and “Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass” on her theatrical résumé has inspired the biggest investment in Broadway history.
Sure, Taymor’s staging of “The Lion King” is the gift that keeps giving, and perhaps there was the assumption that Spider-Man was comic-book pay dirt — no literary sensibility required. But did no one think to check up on Taymor’s recent moviemaking record? No need to dig. “The Tempest,” her arty film that opened in December, is reported to have cost $20 million. Total box office receipts? In the vicinity of a decent condo in Culver City.
The “genius” label evidently isn’t a generator of great excitement; nor is it a guarantee of high quality. But “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” has operated with the lights out from the get-go. Nothing like big money, as the Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” devastatingly exposed, to get the suits to turn a blind eye. But what could the brain trust have been computing when they asked McKinley to untangle their web?
McKinley has directed several Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses, so perhaps that will give him a leg up in dealing with the clowns in the back office. Let’s also not forget that the central characters of “The Boy From Oz” and “Spider-Man” are both named Peter. (And it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the Peter in sequins once had a secret thing for superheroes.) So I guess it all makes sense in the logic of obscenely expensive Broadway spectaculars.
There’s always the chance of a major plot reversal, but the safe bet now is that the show will run for a couple of years and still lose quite a few producers their shirts. No one relishes the sight of a failure. But if this “Spider-Man” soap opera does any good, it will restore the sanity that recognizes bigger isn’t always better, special effects shouldn’t jeopardize lives and limbs, and the simple communion between actor and spectator is not only more astonishing than aerial cartwheels but costs a fraction of the price.