Two Sundays ago I witnessed a historic event; one of the final performances of the Broadway mega-musical, Julie Taymor’s Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark. Of course, Spider-man will go on, but the Julie Taymor part is sure to be diminished as the show takes a three week hiatus to improve. The idea is that “Positive reviews from critics and improved word of mouth among theatergoers will be essential to increasing grosses by a few hundred thousand dollars a week, which will give the show a better chance of someday paying back its investors.” The show is already one of the top grossing shows on Broadway right now, but it incurs a gigantic running cost that makes turning a large profit difficult.
I must say, if any investor who helped contribute to this show being the most expensive in history (the budget is rumored to be at least $70 million) was worried that their money was not going to be seen onstage, they can rest assured that it is all there and then some. The set did things that I never dreamed I would see on a stage. A whole set piece of the Chrysler building started upright, slowly became horizontal, and then totally inverted. The effect was extraordinary.
There is a definite thrill in the mere spectacle of the show. The money, while always apparent is not always put to good use though. I have not clue as to why in the world we need to see a small little subway train roll by while Peter Parker and Mary Jane walk to their houses . There are definitely excesses that could be trimmed away from the show, and it often feels that Julie and the designers are all throwing their ideas in without editing, and that there is far too much going on.
This overstimulated unedited quality of the show is definitely to the detriment of its overall style. At times the show employs a rather satisfying comic-book drawn look, while at other times it settles on a more realistic aesthetic; other times it goes somewhere else completely. The costumes have fallen into this confusion the most. Many of the villains’ costumes feel downright campy, and the Daily Bugle scenes existed in some 1950s world while the plot takes place in a present (the internet is mentioned – which also makes me question why the printed Daily Bugle is even that significant). Ms. Taymor includes some of her signature masks, all very appealing to look at but not necessarily needed or utilized as they are in her other works.
All of this said, I must say I am sad to see Taymor replaced. Many fans of the Spider-man franchise have lamented her inclusion of the villainess Arachne. When people think of Spider-man villians, they likely think first of the Green Goblin. Taymor is much more fixated on the greek legend of Arachne. I understand the complaints that this isn’t Spider-man as fan’s are expecting to see, but I do believe that the Arachne bits are the most fleshed out and exciting pieces of theatre in the over 2 and a half hour long spectacle. I wish that Ms. Taymor would have totally abandoned this creation myth of Spider-man, along with the typical Green Goblin and Daily Bugle (please please don’t let this flat grumpy old man version of Jameson is not exciting to watch in the least) bits of the musical and created a full-fledged Spider-man and Arachne musical. Of course this may not have sated fans, but it would have likely been a stronger piece of theatre.
In the end, I believe it is the dichotomy of trying to sate the masses and create good theatre that is personally exciting that may have been Julie Taymor’s downfall in mounting this production. The little subway that rides across the stage may have seemed useless artistically, but I bet a lot of the kids in the audience thought it was pretty cool to look at. Everything needs editing, and this production needs more of it.
I do believe the edits made under the new director will likely make a more entertaining, cleaner, and more commercial show. I also think though, that continued edits under Ms. Taymor – were she to be allowed to go where it seems she really wants to go artistically – could have made a more entertaining, cleaner, more artistically interesting show. And Ms. Taymor’s Arachne-fied Spider-man may have just been a commercial success as well – my father who I saw the show with (and who’s favorite shows happen to be Jersey Boys, Wicked, and the Phantom of the Opera) was very disappointed when I told him that the Arachne scenes were to be cut. He, a most commercial consumer of Broadway, also thought these were some of the most exciting moments of the show. Ms. Taymor’s production was anything but flawless – there was still much work to be done and many “geek chorus” scenes to be cut – but I do believe it had a lot of potential to be an exciting piece of theatre.
The de-Julie-Taymor-ed production of Spider-man Turn Off the Dark will restart previews May 12th, and will officially open June 14th.
Cody Holliday Haefner
Columbia College ’12
Arts Initiative Student Associate