Is 'Spider-Man' Musical Beyond Repair? Critical Drubbing Clouds Opening
By Jason Newman Posted Feb 12th 2011 02:00PM
Will the initial round of arachnophobia among the nations' theater critics bring down 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,' director Julie Taymor's $65 million production set to open March 15? A slew of reviews were published earlier this week and the overall consensus was clear: the show is not exactly a critical darling, with reviewers calling it "a shrill, insipid mess," (Washington Post) "underbaked, terrifying, confusing," (New York Magazine) and "so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair." (New York Times).
Many critics traditionally hold off on writing about a performance until it is "frozen," meaning no further changes are made to the show. Yet given four delayed opening dates and a preview period that has run longer than the entire length of some shows, a number of critics broke protocol and reviewed the preview performance, adding disclaimers at the beginning of the piece, but not holding back on their widely vitriolic opinions.
It was an unusual move, but nothing about 'Spider-Man,' whose budget blows away the previous high of $18-22 million set by 'Shrek The Musical,' has been business as usual.
"Reviewing the show early hasn't happened since the 1970s," Blake Ross, editor at Playbill, tells PopEater. "It usually means that there are issues with the show and they've made no secret that they are changing and reworking certain aspects. The critics have had to adapt to a changing media environment ever since every Tom, Dick and Harry with a theater ticket can go and post their own review on a blog or message board. They're only getting more pressure to come up with their opinions and post their reviews faster because there was so much media attention."
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"There was a philosophical difference between people who felt [the producers] had enough time and others who opposed going until it opened," Adam Feldman, theatre critic for Time Out New York and President of New York Drama Critics' Circle, tells PopEater. "Ultimately, it was up to the critics themselves and the publications they work for to decide what to do."
"My guess is that once word got out that the New York Times and the other big ones were going in, nobody else wanted to be left behind," adds Robert Diamond, founder and editor-in-chief of BroadwayWorld.com, one of the industry's leading Web sites.
February 7, the date many reviewers attended the performance, was scheduled to be the show's original opening night.
Compounding the issue further is the question of ticket prices. While many shows will charge less for previews than regular performances, there is virtually no difference cost-wise between a 'Spider-Man' preview and regular ticket. With what will be the longest preview run in Broadway history, certain critics have interpreted that decision as being tantamount to an official performance and, consequently, fair game for review. In January, producers were forced to change the show's website after a complaint from Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, noted that the site did not properly indicate the show was in previews.
But will the spate of critical drubbing even matter? If it does surpass expectations, Diamond notes that 'Spider-Man,' with music and lyrics by U2's Bono and The Edge, wouldn't be the first to see success after an initial bashing. "'Wicked' got mediocre reviews and it's been the best-selling show on Broadway for almost eight years," Diamond tells PopEater. 'Phantom of the Opera' got mixed reviews in London [when it opened] and it's one of the biggest show on Broadway."
Ross is quick to emphasize the importance of critics on a show, but thinks 'Spider-Man' is a unique case. "Theatre critics and reviews are incredibly vital to the importance and survival of theatre, but specifically for a show like 'Spider-Man,' it won't matter as much because I don't think people are going to flock to it because a critic loved it or hated it. I don't know if it sways it either way. For a show like this, word of mouth is going to be the most important factor.
"It doesn't follow a formula that critics would be applauding. It's an entertainment event. It's not the next great American musical. If you go thinking that you're going to see Chekhov, Shakespeare or Sondheim, then you're seeing the wrong show. But if you're going to see a big, bombastic spectacle, then you'll be in for a treat."
For some critics, the reviews can be as much a point of improvement as a critical lambasting. "At least they have the opportunity now to get some feedback and if they do manage to fix some of the problems critics have pointed out, they can turn the story around and be the underdogs and come from behind," says Feldman. "It's in a rough position, but the good news for them is that on March 15, they can say, 'We told you we weren't ready.'" Many critics noted that they will return on the show's opening night to augment or rewrite their original review if necessary.
While producers have yet to announce any major changes to the show before its official opening next month, the group has hired a marketing firm to offer $60 goodie bags in exchange for participant opinions about either the first or second act of the musical. Rick Miramontez, spokesman for the musical, told the New York Daily News this week, "This pile-on by critics is a huge disappointment. Changes are still being made and any review that runs before the show is frozen is totally invalid."
"Things that seem insignificant in the book and dialogue can have a strong and important effect on the overall quality of the show and how it registers with audiences," says Feldman.
"The biggest question now that the reviews are out is if they're actually going to make changes to the show," says Diamond. "Most producers don't have the benefit of getting across-the-board critical reviews while they still have time to make changes to the show. No show has had that many bad reviews and gone on to have a long run, but no show has been a $65 million production about a spider."
"Spider-Man" has been beset with a myriad of problems since conception, with staff deaths, cast injuries, production delays, set redesigns and cast walkouts all adding to the drama. Initial readings for the musical were held in 2007, with Feb. 18, 2010 set as the show's anticipated opening night. In 2009, the show found itself $25 million in debt when Michael Cohl, a noted concert promoter and former president of touring company Live Nation, stepped in as producer and raised the necessary funds.
Now the question is if the people behind the show can reclaim the story back from the press and public opinion. "It changes the narrative surrounding the show," notes Feldman. "It started off with a great narrative – Spider-Man! Bono! Julie Taymor! – then the story changed to, 'Ooh, trouble. Finance falling through and show plagued by injuries.' The narrative that everyone agrees that it's really bad is a tough one to get over. Do I think it's necessarily a killer? No. Especially if the show gets better and the reviews improve even marginally, they can spin that. I wouldn't count 'Spider-Man' out yet. The people involved in it are very talented."
Ross, for one, remains optimistic for the show's success, comparing the show to another bank-breaking, yet eventually successful, commercial endeavor. "Reviews aside, the show has a lot going for it: A worldwide recognized brand, the heads of one of the most successful rock bands of all time and one of our most inventive directors. It's like 'Avatar.' When they kept sinking millions and millions of dollars in a process that took years and years, people thought James Cameron was nuts and then it opened and walked away with a billion dollars."
Whether the same fate will befall 'Spider-Man' remains to be seen.
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