Living in New York last summer, I found it hard to avoid talk of the long-awaited opening of “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark,” which finally premiered in June after a record 182 preview performances. These previews were riddled with mishaps, including long technical delays and failed aerial stunts that caused some serious injuries among cast members, many of whom left before the actual opening. By far the most expensive Broadway musical ever produced, Spider-Man will have to become a perennial box-office hit to stand a chance of recouping the $75 million–dollar cost of production. Given the show’s generally negative reviews, the chances of this seem slim, to say the least. Along with its numerous technical calamities, the show’s music—arguably the most important aspect of any successful show—provoked negative reactions from many critics.
There are a lot of different molds into which we could try to fit the motivations for “Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.” It could be that producers wanted to attract a younger audience to Broadway—an audience whose collective consciousness might never be penetrated by Broadway without such a gimmick. Maybe they were trying to modernize theater to meet the expectations of a general public that is growing more and more accustomed to the increasingly immersive magic of Hollywood, including advanced 3D technology, massive IMAX screens, and breathtakingly realistic Computer Generated Images. Regardless, it seems the ambitious stunts were meant, essentially, to place the viewer inside a high-budget action film. The critical and financial failure of “Spider-Man” suggests not only that this is almost certainly not the most practical strategy for theater to pursue, but also that the most basic principles underpinning this strategy are flawed.
Perhaps the industry would be better served by taking a cue from a similar artistic evolution: the transition that took place with the introduction of the photograph. For centuries painters had held a role not just as artists but also as historians responsible for preserving images of the people and places around them. Their brushes were the most accurate tools for passing on a visual record of their time. As photography emerged, though, their position began to change. Artists were no longer the most accurate, least expensive way to preserve a collective memory. Through technology, a photograph could capture an image perfectly in minutes; artists who stayed true to life were suddenly on the edge of irrelevance.
In response to this dramatic shift in the function of paintings, the art form saw a host of transformational movements from Impressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism. Having been nearly completely separated from its role of portraying the world with dry accuracy, painting became arguably the most progressive art form, the art most associated with the avant-garde, at least in the eye of the general public.
The shift also had implications beyond the realm of painting itself. Musicians like John Cage moved music in a similar direction. His famously silent piece, “4’33””, was primarily a reaction to Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, and both fit with the idea of a conceptual product rather than one with a traditionally celebrated aesthetic. Perhaps musicals could find a way to move in this direction as well, rather than imitating their competition with inferior budgets. A live orchestra, a performance that can never be completely replicated, and an energy that builds with audience excitement—these are things that can never come through a screen. Theater will never do Hollywood as well as Hollywood does—but Broadway has its own perks.
As for “Spider-Man,” I would ditch the high-budget stunts in favor of a stripped-down show with a score I’d be humming to myself for weeks after. The runaway successes of “Spring Awakening” and Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” prove this model can work. I still remember the thrill I felt after seeing each of these two shows, and my excitement had nothing to do with the budget—it was and always will be about the live music and the live performances, the magic of Broadway no Hollywood-sized budget can recreate.
—Columnist Sofie C. Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.