Wednesday, March 9th, 2011
My second son just turned 15. To celebrate I took him to NYC to see a show, museum hop, and have some dairy-free soft serve ice cream (a rare and necessary treat for someone who can’t eat anything from a cow).
We didn’t just see any show because, truth be told, I was more excited about that part than he was. We saw Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive Broadway musical ever which wouldn’t be there (to the tune of $64M) if it weren’t for the celebrity of its creators, Bono, The Edge , and wunderkind Julie Taymor, known most widely as the director-designer of The Lion King.
My son’s shown recent interest in design and architecture as a possible career, so this seemed like a potentially inspiring experience for him (while giving dad his Broadway musical fix for the year). Since Bono’s involved, what’s not to get excited about as a father-son outing?
The show was slated to open the week we saw it, but by the time we bought our tickets, the opening had been postponed (yet again) to mid-March. So it remains in “previews,” which is kind of like purgatory for musicals. A “preview” is when a live paid audience is allowed into the theatre so that the creative team has an actual interactive theatrical experience to evaluate in order to determine the show’s readiness to hold said audience.
I won’t say how much we paid, but if you go to their website and look for the cheapest ticket available, you’ll discover how much the new cheap is, and it ain’t cheap. Some of our theatre companions that night paid upwards of $300 a ticket. That’s a pretty staggering sum for a preview of a show that might not make it out of previews.
In the Catholic tradition, you can pray for people while they’re in purgatory in hopes that it will increase their chances of being favorably judged for their eternal destiny. This wouldn’t be the worst idea for Spiderman, as it may take a miracle for this show to make it to Broadway heaven. This may be attributable to the fact that reviewers from all over the world decided to break protocol and judge Spiderman prematurely the week we saw the show, while it was still in preview purgatory. In case you haven’t kept up with the news, the reviews were uniformly bad which may cast Spiderman off Broadway.
If reports are to be believed, the show’s likely demise might also be attributable to director Julie Taymor. Apparently, even after the longest preview run in history, she’s been slow to make the necessary cuts and changes which might help the audience follow the plot better.
So how is it? It’s a glorious mess. Or, put more or less favorably depending upon your perspective, it’s an utterly confusing life-changing experience.
Let’s start by saying that if you’re not inspired to be an architect or designer after watching the Chrysler building grow out of floor and flip over before your very eyes so that you are now looking down from its peak at a traffic jam of moving taxi cabs on Lexington Avenue – LIVE ON STAGE! – you never will be. That was worth a lean over to my son, “That’s amazing!” and his wide-eyed nod. (I’ll keep you posted about his vocational future.)
And then there’s the lady spiders who weave a stage full of gorgeous yellow fabric while swinging on trapeze and singing like a host of celtic angels. As you’d guess, all of Bono and The Edge’s lyrics are literate and thoughtful, and the music is solid and engaging throughout, though one has to wonder in places why is this song here and what’s it supposed to mean.
I can’t say whether it’s worth the purported $20M to fly actors over the audience by adapting the same technology used for the on-field NFL football camera, but I can say it’s invigorating to watch. Yes, that was a person we just saw jump off the balcony and land on the stage. The first such sequence, which surprisingly didn’t occur until 30 or so minutes into the show, got another lean over comment from me: “That’s the beginning of the show!”
There was one glitch the night we saw the show, and the final flight sequence of Act One was interrupted by a “technical difficulties” announcement and aborted. No one was injured. What followed was instructive: audience members seemed to really enjoyed talking to Spiderman and having him do tricks over their heads while they were waiting for the flight system to re-set. Apparently, we all really wanted to connect live with Spiderman and love his show!
There’s enough visual wonder here to hold an audience no doubt. (And I haven’t even gone into the dazzling floor-to-ceiling video projection sequences of Act Two.) But the story is a rambling mess, and it’s hard to care about the characters though you want to and know you should. There are lots of clever ideas and constructs. A romance with the girl next door. A drama of family dysfunction and peer rejection. A sitcom teen brainstorming session for comic book plot ideas. An anti-war sci-fi B movie plot. A 40’s pastiche of NYC. A mythic social commentary on the role of fear in the internet’s dominion over culture and world politics. A worthy punchline: how necessary a positive humane spirituality is in order conquer villains (and on occasion help redeem one) in a world of superhero power. Cool stuff out of which to create a musical, for sure. I dug it all.
But most was lost on my 15 year old son. He’s never read Spiderman comics or seen the movie, so he was mostly befuddled. Though he had a good time.
And here’s where this show can be life-changing for creative types with ears to hear and eyes to see. The problem is that (usually) one has to decide which story approach one is going to take and to run with it and stick with it. It’s not that audiences are stupid and can’t multitrack. It’s that human beings are essentially simple and want to be moved. Such creative decision-making needs to happen before you pump $64M into the thing and have to answer, and rightly so, to investors, audiences and critics for your investment.
My son and I diligently filled out our audience response cards, which were taped to the back of every seat in the theatre, giving our feedback as requested. What did we like? Plenty. What were we confused by? Plenty. Does anybody read these cards? I included my e-mail address. I’d love for them to contact me and contract me to fix their show! We’d love for this show to succeed. We’d love to see it again, and understand and be moved by it next time.
The scoop I’ve heard is that the show will have to run in NY for 10 years in order to recoup its investment. In my opinion, it could be a good enough show to do so if and only if certain changes are made and made soon. But it may be too late, and that’s because – believe it or not – the creators didn’t take enough time with the project, which is coincidentally in its 9th year, like ours.
I left the theatre grateful that the Prodigal God project is taking even longer than theirs to come together, grateful that there’s still time to clarify what story we’re telling and why, grateful that people like Bono and Julie Taymor do crazy stuff (with other people’s money) for all to see. They inspire me.
At the same time, what is happening at the Foxwoods Theatre in NY is a cautionary tale for me. A show which is clearly not finished is being performed before a live paid audience utilizing the best creative, performing and technical talent in the world. And it is on the brink of failure. Duly noted – get back to work, Christopher.
I suppose there’s comfort for us onlooking artistic schmoes in the fact that we are denied access to $64M and Broadway. We can thank God we are not Bono and mean it.
Oh, I’m sorry. Did the title of this post lead you to believe that Bono is one of our creative team? Alas, he is not. But not unlike every enterprise in the world of the past two decades, we have had our fantasy moments that with him on board, there’s nothing we couldn’t do. Not to mention $64M. At last, we can put that fantasy to rest.
(The dairy-free soft serve my son and I enjoyed the following day was totally worth the trip. Lula’s on the Lower East Side. And it only cost us $7.)