Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark: An Open Letter to Julie Taymor and Company

NOTE:  The following blog contains plot spoilers.  If you want to know nothing about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as it was as of Sunday afternoon, December 5, please come back another day!  Thank you.

Dear Anyone and Everyone Involved in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark:

I have been one of your biggest supporters out here in the blogosphere.  My second blog EVER was about your show, and I've been with you since announcement, through delays, casting, re-casting, more delays, fair press, unfair press, more delays and a barrage of garbage put out there by other folks who seem determined to undermine your work.  And I bought a ticket knowing full well that it was a preview - a work-in-progress.  And you know what?  I'm glad I did.  But not because I loved the show.  Not even close.  But because I appreciate all of your effort and dedication toward bringing us something a little more than just spectacle and a whole lot more different than we are used to seeing.  And even as it stands as of the "very first Sunday matinee ever" as one of your producers told us before the curtain rose, you have succeeded in bringing something unique and challenging to Broadway audiences. 

 Before I express my concerns, I do want to offer some praise to go along with my concerns.  Here is something I thought I'd never say about a musical, post 80's/90's mega-musical:

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has provided this jaded, quarter century-plus of theatre-going patron with about 8 minutes of the most amazing things I've ever seen live. 

Literally left breathless, I still am not 100% sure that I actually saw what I saw from "the flying circle."  In short, the flying sequences that take up the entire theatre - stage and all levels of the house - are even more spectacular than any words in print or production photos could ever do them justice.  Seeing Spider-Man attack crime in general and the Green Goblin specifically right in front of you is way better than the movie, even if you can see the wires (which you stop noticing almost immediately)!  If movie magic could ever be produced live, this is as close as it gets.  Bravo.  And I say that even including the two times the show had to stop due to technical difficulties. Neither time was lengthy, and both pale in comparison to the horror we might have witnessed if such precautions weren't being taken.

And I think it noteworthy to let the public who hasn't actually seen the show before that the rest of entire show seemed well-prepared, rehearsed and ready for public consumption, not a messy "dress rehearsal" as some have suggested.  Act one, in particular, is really very good.  85% of the way there toward being excellent, in my opinion.  If I may, powers that be, a "keep it" list:
  • The cohesive, singular visual style of most of act one - its use of the comic book milieu and forced, ever-changing perspective - is right on in keeping with its source and is dazzling to watch.  Sometimes, it is hard to even believe what you are seeing is actually happening right before your eyes, in a good way.
  • Introducing Peter Parker (Reeve Carney) as an uber-geek, hounded and bullied by his classmates is all too timely and the number "Bullying By Numbers" is catchy, well-danced and a great combination of words and actions. 

  • The entire sequence of Mary Jane Watson (Jennifer Damiano) and Peter walking to vastly different homes, but with the same teen-angsty results is both poignant and visually stunning - a comic book brought to life. 
  • The introduction of our villain (Patrick Page) is perfectly over the top, and his inner conflict between doing the right thing for humanity and trying to please powers larger than he is time tested. 
  • The "DIY World" number is jarring and kinda scary, but still very interesting. 
  • And, most importantly: the cast, from top to bottom is uniformly good; the leads are doing an exceptional job in an almost impossible work environment of such public scrutiny.

As I said, the first half is about 85% there.  The second half is, well, unbelievable, too.  But for all the wrong reasons.

But now, as one of your biggest supporters - and potential return customers - I have a challenge for you:  Change my my mind about two things I NEVER thought I would say about my favorite art form, the Broadway musical, with Julie Taymor attached to it in any way:

This musical has too much music.
  • For every number that works - the ones I mention above, plus "Bouncing Off the Walls" and "I'll Take Manhattan" in act one and "If the World Should End" and "The Boy Falls From the Sky" in act two are terrific and work well as it is.  The rest sound all the same: dreary, over-wrought, and pretty much background music for some visual display going on. 
  • Let's be completely honest, much of the time in an action show all you really need is background music.
  • With the exception of those numbers I mentioned, and potentially the title number, the rest feels like filler.  Something to consider as you continue working on the show.

Theatre is a visual medium, and too often this musical tells too much and doesn't show enough.
  • Sometimes, when an important plot point comes up, it happens so fast, it doesn't register and leads to confusion.  For example, the death of Peter's Uncle Ben, which differs from the movie version.  It happens so fast, that if you blink, you miss it.  And it leads to some questions:  How does Peter know that famous saying, "With great power comes great responsibility" when his uncle only gets half of it out before dying.  And why does Peter forgive Mary Jane so easily when she is involved in his uncle's death?
  • Other times, an important plot point gets a larger treatment, but the visuals and the lyrics don't make a connection that leads to any kind of understanding.  And that is the perpetual problem with the character Arachne (bravely, if not well-performed, by an under prepared understudy - America Olivo, on for an ailing Natalie Mendoza).  Her songs are cryptic at best, and feature a style that is a mesmerizing drone - in the sense that you are lulled into a stupor, not drawn to because it is good or interesting - that is so slow and full of long-held Enya-style wailing that causes one to lose track of the the ideas being put forth.  The character sings the title number, and ostensibly tells us why the show is called that.  I have absolutely no recollection of a single lyric.  As I said, this style is uniformly this character.  As currently presented, she adds nothing to the story, muddles the ending and is, well, boring.
  • With no big number or even an introductory scene, the newspaper editor, J.J. Jameson (Michael Mulheren) and his blustery style come out of nowhere.  He barks out orders and insults and manipulates the news.  That we can get, but why does he hate Spider-Man?  Fear? Not liking being upstaged?  Arachnophobia?  Sure, he is comic book one dimensional, but what is his deal? (And nailing the Spider-Man costume to a cross is very inappropriate in this context.)
  • The same thing could be said for all of the things that Osborn/Green Goblin hates.  Why is Spider-Man his enemy?  Why does he know Mary Jane is Spidey's weak spot?  Why does Osborn hate/fear the military that comes to his lab?  They are never mentioned and all of a sudden show up.  Who are the "Let It Be" people and why do they matter to his work?  They are mentioned several times, but we never see them.  I have a feeling that maybe you are relying on our knowledge of Spider-Man from the comics and films...

  • One of the best things in act one is the montage of Spidey saving New York from a variety of thugs in a stunning montage of flying and gymnastic fetes.  The worst thing about act two is that a half dozen super criminals are conjured up to fight Spider-Man.  They parade around in a fashion show of evil, and then Spider-Man fights them by doing a few martial arts moves in front of giant LED screens that have their image on them.  Why isn't there a montage/action sequence of Spider-Man saving the world from these monsters?  It would be awesome to watch.  If you have to use those LED screens, use them in place of the fashion show to introduce the mayhem they cause, then, in a long, exciting fight sequence let us see them live and done in by our hero!  Show don't tell, Julie.  Show, don't tell!
  • And while we are talking about the fashion show, let's talk about the other issue in act two: tone.  Are you going for campy?  You seem to have scrapped the comic book flare of act one for over the top fashion shows, shtick about Peter not recognizing sarcasm (like the kid gives a crap while the world crumbles around him.  How much can a 17 year old take?), and perhaps the most laughable - in an insultingly bad way - moment in recent memory - a bunch of lady spiders robbing shoe stores to get shoes for all their legs!  Even the costumes are campy - bad campy.  Since there is no more than comic book style camp elsewhere, this makes no sense and is really not funny.  I'd get rid of the spiders and their shoes if it were me.
  • But the absolutely most problematic thing about the show is the ending, and with it, a lot of telling not showing.  The Green Goblin returns.  Why?  Dream? Nightmare?  Is Peter dreaming it all?  Is he trying to kill himself?  Why don't we ever get to see Spider-Man actually save Mary Jane?

The bottom line here is that maybe you are trying to do too much.  Pick a tone and stick with it.  It needs more action.  It needs less story.  And just tell your story.  For what it is worth, the duality of things that are pushing all of the main characters - Peter, Osborn/Green Goblin, and Mary Jane - are interesting enough.  (Dark versus light, right?  Turn Off The Dark?)  You don't need to add literary weight to it with Arachne.  Get rid of her (no offense to Miss Olivo or Miss Mendoza) or give her a clear, PERIPHERAL reason to be there.  Focus on the main characters and add another flying/action sequence.  You'll lose about 45 minutes of running time, still get to use all the super cool technology, and you'll have a much more entertaining show.

One final thought:  Earlier this season, I attended a performance of Elf: The Musical, which is not 1/10th the project yours is.  But I saw it with a very similar audience - tons of small kids.  There was not one moment of that entire show where they made any noise other than clapping.  No rustling of seats, no talking.  No falling asleep out of sheer boredom.  During act one of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, it was exactly the same.  They were as good as gold.  But in act two, they talked, they moved, they rustled candy wrappers, and I saw at least three dads with sleeping 4 year-olds draped over their shoulders walking out.

Just something to think about.

I wish all of you nothing but the best, and I hope that I get the chance to see a much better completely finished product.



  1. Hi, Jeff. I don't expect I'll be seeing Spiderman- it's never interested me in any format (I haven't seen the movies either), but I appreciate your enthusiasm and I hope the show will work on the things you suggested. Just because it doesn't interest me doesn't mean that I want it to fail, either.

  2. Hi, Jeff. I loved your comments. I saw Spider-Man at the second preview, and many of my comments echo yours. Take a look if you get a chance and let me know what you think.


  3. David!

    Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts as well.

    It will be very interesting to see how all of this pans out, huh?

    Stay in touch!


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