Of Spelling Errors, Not Paying Attention, and Web-Slinging
"Everything is going to be alright."
So said the engraving on the marble staircase at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan as I climbed up it yesterday, coming from an industry lunch that included as dessert little sugared donut holes … with three dipping sauces. Sigh. But rather than inspire me, that sign just grated on my nerves: Let's get at least one thing straight — "alright" is not a word. It may have been misused so much that some dictionaries include it, but the phrase is "all right." And in that case, everything is not going to be alright.
That kind of thing tweaks me. Sure, there are errors all over the place if you're the kind of word nerd who looks for them; I can overlook a misplaced apostrophe "s" on a hand-lettered sign. But when there's a printed, finalized, official version of something — in this case, engraved in stone — you have to wonder: Did no one along the approval process ever stop to say "That word .. it looks … wrong. Let me go check on this." And the answer: Apparently not.
The same thing seems to have happened with "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark," the Julie Taymor ("The Lion King," so wonderful) directed Broadway musical with music from Bono/The Edge you've no doubt heard (terrible) things about. I got a comped ticket to check it out last night … and they're pretty much all true.
I've been dubious about the musical ever since I heard about it for two reasons: a) a musical? Seriously? and b) have you ever heard a more tone-deaf, corporate created title than "Turn off the dark"? It's like some teenagers got together and tried to be profound and instead made something so off-key that all you can do is go, "aww, they tried."
Instead, we end up with "Turn off the Dark," not as a working title — but as the actual title of a Broadway musical about a comic book character. So I went in with a tablespoon full of salt to the performance. But bear in mind: I'm a sci-fi nerd, and I like musicals. So I was willing to be proved wrong.
And early on — there was some promise. After a useless introduction with a Greek chorus of teens in theory "writing" a Spider-Man comic book, we meet the mythic Arachne — a bold weaver who challenged Athena and was turned into a spider. The presentation on this bit is pure Taymor glory: Suspended women, silks, swings, large-scale storytelling. It's great, and I started to think that maybe this could go somewhere.
Alas, the whole thing bogs down once we get into "Queens High School" and have to start the whole horrible Peter Parker story all over again. How he's not popular (in fact, here he has no friends at all except his crush Mary Jane) and, he gets beaten up by bullies in a full song and dance number. Who cares? Let's get to the web-slinging. But no: There are confusing back-and-forth family scenes, nose-picking musical numbers, and a strange shift in time period. We seem to be in the "modern" day, right until we visit The Daily Bugle, with a zoot-suit wearing J. Jonah Jameson and a typing pool (!) straight out of "Mad Men."
Taymor pokes through at least one more time, which is welcome: Once Spidey starts doing some assistance around the city, citizens emerge in matching masked silver puppet heads, a surreal move that makes the montage they appear in work beautifully. There's also a good song after Parker's uncle dies, called "Rise Above" that takes a moment to kick into gear — and is very rewarding.
Everything builds to the big Spiderman vs. Green Goblin fight scene at the end of the first act. But really, we have almost no motivation here: Why does JJJ hate Spidey so much? Why is the Goblin murderous, and why does he hate Spidey? I know these things are slightly better illuminated in the comics, but on stage they're just presented as fait accompli, which makes me not care.
I'd like to say the fight scene, and the scenes in which Spider-Man swings literally over the heads of the orchestra, is thrilling. It is, in some oddly terrifying way — I kept thinking this 175-lb acrobat might drop on our heads at some point. I also wondered why the Spider-Man suit was so drab, and threadbare — it looked like a costume from a high school play. It was … impressive but not what I figure is awe-inspiring. The wires are obvious, and in the end I kept worrying about someone falling.
Nobody fell, but that doesn't mean what I saw had no technical glitches: The end of the fight scene left Spidey on the balcony and Goblin suspended over the stage; a quick 5 minute break settled things down but it revealed the audience for what we were: Wolves, waiting for just such an incident. By the time Spider-Man swung from off-stage with Mary Jane (we never actually saw any rescue) and lowered her down, it was just pathetic when they couldn't detach from one another for an extended pause. You just had to think: Is this what $60+million gets you?
And so we went to intermission. It was a long day. The network providing us with this opportunity did what they could — there were chocolate-covered strawberries and tiny blue and red cupcakes waiting for us in the lobby. But I was tired, and having been told that the first act was really the one to see, I decided to bail. Yes, that's right, even for free I just couldn't bear to sit through the rest.
But I left thinking about those stairs at the Ace Hotel. There were a lot of approvals on this project. Somebody kept saying "yeah, that works, go ahead." But nobody ever stopped to look at the details and ask the big question: "Who really wants this?" The show may eventually open (there's a big revamp coming in April, in which I hear the song about Arachne's minions and their shoes will be cut … oy) and it may hit the road and make its money back.
But I can safely say that everything is not gonna be "alright." This is bad on an epic, engraved marble, scale.