Wednesday, June 15, 2011

'Spider-Man' Is (Not) the Stuff of Legend

It's back. Although it never really went away.

'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' officially opened on Broadway last night, after a record 180-odd previews (some well-reviewed new plays don't run as long), several serious injuries, and a critical bludgeoning on what was meant to have been one of its opening nights, back in February.

At that time, New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote, "“Spider-Man” is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst." After the much-discussed sacking of the show's director, Julie Taymor, and an extensive rewrite, Brantley acknowledges that the show has improved: "this singing comic book is no longer the ungodly, indecipherable mess it was in February. It’s just a bore."

'Spider-Man' is one of those shows that's becoming all too common on Broadway – the show that gets produced because it seems like a sure thing. It comes outfitted with its own brand. Tourists know what they're getting without needing a prĂ©cis, and so long as they are given a spectacle, they will walk away happy. And it's critic-proof.

Which this mostly is. Even prior to the re-work, 'Spider-Man' was one of the few shows regularly playing to full capacity. Whether that was because of the above reasons for why it was produced, or because its troubles became legendary enough that people had to see it just to enjoy a train wreck, hardly matters. It's bringing people in, and may continue to do so.

But no matter how much redemption it might be said to earn in the form of box office receipts, the stories of its troubles will always cling like stubborn cobwebs. Putting aside those audiences, it might be Broadway's 'Heaven's Gate.'

(for those who thought that honor goes to the notorious 'Moose Murders,' which Frank Rich reviewed so memorably in the Times, the difference is that 'Moose Murders' was a comparatively inexpensive production.)

The similarities between 'Spider-Man' and 'Heaven's Gate' are striking. Director Michael Cimino, fresh off his Oscar win for 'The Deer Hunter,' was touted as a visionary (although without question, Ms. Taymor is far more deserving of that accolade). He was given a lot of money and free rein to make his film, which almost immediately ran over budget and schedule. The executives at United Artists were tempted to fire him, but the dailies were beautiful and, after all, the man was an Academy-certified visionary. He finally gave them a film that was five hours and twenty-five minutes long. They forced him to cut it to four hours and the result was famously described by Times critic Vincent Canby as an "unqualified disaster" and similar to a "forced four-hour tour of one's own living room."

'Heaven's Gate' was promptly yanked from theatres and edited down to 140 minutes – this time, without the director's participation. It was then re-released. Roger Ebert was one of many critics who still could find nothing good to say about it. He noted that "If the film was formless at four hours, it was insipid at 140 minutes…It is the most scandalous cinematic waste I have ever seen, and remember, I've seen 'Paint Your Wagon.'"

David Ansen observed in his 'Newsweek' review that “An epic vision isn’t worth much if you can’t tell a story," but Cimino, who wrote the script, wasn't interested in creating a comprehensible narrative. He once said: "I don’t believe in words and dialogue. They are quickly useless. One only gets near people when taking the time to live with them." Which sounds like someone trying to say something "important," but forgetting that dialogue can be a key function in a film.

Julie Taymor does care about story, and would never say anything so asinine. But when she said that “tying this story back to mythology…is something I really wanted to do. It’s something you can do in the theater — go into this absolutely dreamlike mythic place, out of time, between reality and dream world,” it suggested that the story for 'Spider-Man' might be going places that would be hard to follow.

It was not, perhaps, Ms. Taymor's artistic hubris that made 'Spider-Man' such a spectacular mess. She has made films that failed, but her inventiveness and attentiveness have never been called into question. Ironically, she may have suffered from the same problem that helped fell 'Heaven's Gate' – too much money. With so much cash at hand, the show could be turned into an extravaganza of special flying effects, elaborate costumes, and set pieces. A complicated Greek myth plot thread allowed for yet more spectacle. But in the end, all that's created is what Steven Bach, one of the United Artists executives who oversaw 'Heaven's Gate,' described as "the perfection that money can buy, the caring it can't."

This is, after all, why theatre still matters. It has the power to make us care, to create connections in its own fully unique, millennia-old medium. Done simply, but with care for its story – as was the short-lived 'Scottsboro Boys,' 'Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,' and 'Passing Strange,' just to cite a few – theatre can truly connect and transport us. As the late, great book writer Arthur Laurents said, "That was all and it was enough for me: fantasies are better left fantasies."

-- Oh, and here's a 'Spider-Man' that has serious street cred:

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