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'Spider-Man' Turns On the Controversy

By Matthew C. Stone, Contributing Writer

Nearly three months after the first preview of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” trying to say something novel or insightful about the new Broadway musical—a maximalist, high-tech reimagining of the Spider-Man story—is a quixotic undertaking to say the least. The production delayed its opening multiple times, drained $65 million from its producers’ pockets, and was plagued by technical difficulties and actor injuries—but such controversy only served to thrust “Spider-Man” further into the national spotlight.

The Julie Taymor-directed mega-musical has spurred conversations on the value of spectacle, the importance of actor safety, and the fiscal responsibility of Broadway. It’s inspired an article in The Onion, a cover for The New Yorker, and even a spoof on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” Perhaps most bizarre of all, Glenn Beck effusively raved about the production, advising viewers to sell their kidneys in order to get tickets.

By now, “Spider-Man” has been at once parodied, praised, and, as of last week, panned. Though the show does not officially open until March 15, several major critics decided to review the production before its formal premiere. The reviews were largely negative, delivering a probable death sentence to the technically prenatal “Spider-Man.” Among those critics was Ben Brantley of The New York Times, whose commentary ranged from caustic (comparing George Tsypin’s sets to those of a high school production) to downright cruel (ad hominum attacks on Taymor, mockingly calling her an ‘artiste’). “‘Spider-Man’ is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway;” he writes. “It may also rank among the worst.”

In the wake of these reviews, it’s important to remove ourselves from the cacophonous debates surrounding the show and remember that in spite of its troubles—perhaps even because of them—“Spider-Man” has been talked about more than any other work of theater in recent memory. A theatrical production garnering such widespread attention is certainly notable, if for no other reason than that much of the contemporary theater community seems to live in a state of perpetual fear that its craft is gradually fading into obsolescence. Say what you will about the relative merits of the show—“Spider-Man” has become a phenomenon.

There are a number of things that could account for this, from the budget, to the rock star composers (Bono and the Edge of U2), to the many technical marvels the show boasts. However, the underlying reason why we’re drawn to “Spider-Man” is one Brantley inadvertently points to in his scathing review of the show.

Brantley recounts an anecdote about a technical glitch in the middle of the performance. The show stopped abruptly and—in his words—“for the first time that night, genuine pleasure spread throughout the house.” In jest, Brantley then suggests that “this production should play up regularly and resonantly the promise that things could go wrong. Because only when things go wrong in this production does it feel remotely right.”

While ostensibly mocking the show, Brantley stumbles upon the very reason that “Spider-Man” has become an object of fixation for so many—it isn’t the spectacle, but the spontaneity that captivates us.

“Spider-Man” offers the promise of totally unexpected events. On any given night the show may be interrupted without warning, halted mid-act as an actor hangs suspended in the air above the audience. Such events are engaging because they are unexpected, unpredictable. “Spider-Man” taps into the very thing that draws us to theater: the experience of art as a live event.

I do not mean to advocate technical difficulties or actor injuries as a means of drawing in audiences, but the enormous response to “Spider-Man” can serve as a lesson for theater artists everywhere. By creating pure spontaneity on stage and embracing the unpredictability of live theater, we can find powerful ways of making connections with audiences. In an age when the movie versions of “Spider-Man” seem more financially viable and infinitely less dangerous, Taymor’s stage version reconnects us to the power of live theater. Whether the actors are swinging above the stage or simply dangling in midair, it’s that promise of a totally spontaneous event that has us caught in “Spider-Man”’s web.

—Columnist Matthew C. Stone can be reached at mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

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