The Spider-man musical is about to open after eight years in the making — and we can’t say we’re too thrilled about it! The project, helmed by Julie Taymor and composed by Bono and The Edge, has received an amazing amount of negative press and commentary about its delays, dropouts and grandiose nature, all of which might become forgotten history once the show opens to cries of “Genius!” and “Spectacle!” There’s no denying that the show will be a feat, and perhaps a greatly-enjoyable one. But for now, there’s still a window of time in which to wonder why it can’t seem to find a way out of critical skepticism and cynicism despite its near-guaranteed awesomeness.
The $70 million dollar project was the subject of a conflicted profile in New York magazine this week, and while reading it, we finally understood why it’s so hard to muster enthusiasm about a project that will surely be majestic in scope and innovative in form. The profile contains a few key quotes that tell you all you need in order to understand why the Broadway world isn’t rallying behind this show with optimism, but rather plaguing it with cynicism — sometimes in contradictory ways.
Although the piece is about “Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark,” what the article is really about is Julie Taymor. She is a much more important character in this, so far, than Peter Parker is — a precocious, savvy and audacious MacArthur grant winner, Taymor comes across as admirably ambitious, but in a way that will turn off theater-lovers, makers and promoters. While describing what kind of genre her show is (will be?), she says:
“[The press wants] two character, one-set musicals. How is that helping the theater?”
The problem with this, of course, is that this places Taymor into the role of someone who is helping the theater — by doing something that it’s never done before, like bringing in a “drama-rock-and-roll-circus,” as she calls it, to 42nd street. Which is awesome! But it makes her sound condescending, as if “theater” couldn’t progress without her. Bringing a comic book story to a musical stage is already something that makes people weary; acting like it’s a gift to the industry is a good way to make people increasingly put off.
But of course, there’s a personality component to this that maybe should be left out all together. Jesse Green, the piece’s writer, says:
“Taymor’s laserlike, slightly alien intensity–and perhaps her gender–make her an easy target.”
The theater community, especially the producers, writers and directors on the bigger productions, are struggling to keep shows open and profitable, and here’s Julie Taymor and her millions upon millions of dollars and time spent on a musical that doesn’t even respect their “one-set musicals.” Of course she’s an easy target for frustration on insular Broadway, when even a Green Day musical can’t capture the popularity it deserves. And there’s the sexism aspect, which is unforgivably omnipresent in the treatment of the musical, especially in such a manly genre as the comicbook/Bono world. But Taymor has lucked out, seemingly just being handed projects like The Lion King and the first-ever Beatles musical movie, one of which she made into a smash hit and one of which she creatively broke. The most beloved pop franchises have been Taymor’s to uphold or mess with, and many creative directors would relish the chance to have the same access to those big-ticket items as she does.
The potential for reward is huge, which is also why the risks are often focused on. But in all the talk about what the musical will mean for Broadway, there’s much less conversation about what the musical will mean for its audience. Broadway is increasingly frequented by female viewers, and this musical gives the industry a chance to attract an equal, or greater, amount of men. The comic book world has been popularized by young males, and although we’re not sure whether the “musical” aspect is a big draw, U2 is as close to a guarantee as one can get. But one of the risks of creating a brainy, Cirque-du-Soley-y show for the bro crowd is that such a show would probably not appeal to that demographic’s opposite: the young “theater person.” Describing the types of people who will like the show, Taymor tells Green,
“‘[I wanted to do a] piece that will translate not just to 13-year-old-boys, which I think this will,’ but also to ‘snooty-nosed types’ and ‘I couldn’t be bothered with Broadway’ geeks.”
But the Broadway geeks are the core demographic of every Broadway show, Julie! If she wants to become a legend and wants to create a show that changes the course of theater, the show has to be beloved. And if she publicly derides that part of her audience, won’t they (we?) hear her?
Michael Riedel, the NY Post theater columnist, is quoted in the piece as one of the main Spider-man musical haters. He has covered the multiple glitches on the show, including injuries, with sass (as he does for other shows, too), and the writer asks him why. Riedel responds,
“I cover a business–I’m not doing God’s work here. And they’re not doing God’s work either.”
The beginning of the piece zooms in on Taymor’s mic, which is dubbed the “God Mic” and makes other spiritual allusions while describing the creator and handler of “Turn off the Dark.” So it’s no surprise that Riedel wishes to dispel the notion that this is somehow holylike, and that a musical about a comic book hero can elevate theater to that kind of sublime. While we’d never argue that it can’t — never! — it is clear that once you display your ambition for greatness, everyone will be quick to try to tear you down.
Helen Mirren, star in Taymor’s upcoming adaptation of “The Tempest,” calls her “Egotistical in the correct way.” The greatest artists can’t be faulted for their personality aggrandizement, and if it leads to great art, it was probably in “the correct way.” But it’s beyond argument that the production has handled its faults without humility, and that this kind of attitude hurts the perception of a show which should be playful, daring, and inviting — almost as if it needed to have control over its future legacy before the first curtain rises. If it ever rises.