BOOKS AND ARTS JUNE 15, 2011
Has any show in the history of Broadway been as written-about as Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark? We at TNR have not abstained, yet our commentary was but a drop in the sea of coverage that the disastrous musical has occasioned. In the past week, in The New York Times alone, there were five articles focusing almost exclusively on the subject; a complete search reveals over two-hundred hits from the Times. And while the Times has been leading the charge among New York papers, a quick search reveals 79 references in the New York Post and 69 in the New York Daily News.
Admittedly, the musical’s narrative is innately appealing to theatre-wreck-rubberneckers. Almost like clockwork, news of setbacks and disarray has arrived since rehearsals began last summer. In December, one of the actors fell from a platform, breaking several ribs. In January, an overhaul of the entire sound system was ordered. When the show opened for previews in February, it was almost universally panned. In March, director Julie Taymor was summarily fired. The show has racked up so many expenses that it is now the most costly in Broadway’s history, twice as expensive as any show before it. It also claims the dubious honor of having held more previews than any other. By the time it officially opened last night (after multiple delays), in my informal assessment, it will be among the most talked-about shows ever. Springtime for Hitler could only aspire to the type of publicity that this show has precipitated.
One explanation for the endless fascination is, of course, its mythic dimensions—part Icarus, part (the producers must hope) phoenix. As the story goes, Julie Taymor—who earned downtown theater-cred before moving uptown with the mega-successful Lion King—was brought in to play the role of chief visionary, hired to be both director and co-writer. Over the course of the past year, it seems, her ambitions grew too grand. Her attempts to color the plot with elements of Greek mythology were generally disliked. The production staff grew to epic proportions, at one point employing 23 costume designers and 35 stage hands. Two days before she was fired, she apparently sensed the heat, commenting at a TED conference that she was “in the crucible and the fire of transformation.” On the eve of the opening, the general fall from grace—not only of Taymor, but the show in general—had been implicitly acknowledged. Mythic resurgence metaphors were manifest: “This thing could work,” commented Bono, one of the show’s composers. “Biggest comeback since Lazarus.”
But there’s another narrative driving the coverage: a painful, wrenching break-up story. When Bono and fellow-U2 band-mate The Edge were initially brought on to compose the music, they apparently swooned at the prospect of working with the storied Taymor. They had “some of the best days of our lives daydreaming about what you could do on a stage,” Bono told The New York Times. But by the time Taymor was dismissed in March, they were willing conspirators in her ouster. A recent story in the Times headlined “Superstars Never Guessed the Size of ‘Spider-Man’ Challenges” reads like excerpts from marriage therapy. “We were tip-toeing around her,” said The Edge, of Taymor’s more difficult periods. “I felt fairly impotent,” said Bono, when the scale of the productions problems became apparent. The reporter summarized the attitude of the two musicians toward the break-up as both “bittersweet and cathartic.”
So perhaps the media’s fascination with this debacle is somewhat forgivable. And I’m sure there are many more reasons behind our attraction to this story. But, after being bludgeoned by Spider-Man all year, I’m not all that interested in exploring this meta-story any further. Surely, there are other cultural things to write about. Summer movies, perhaps? X-Men, Green Lantern, Captain America? Sigh.Our obsession with superheroes appears unstoppable.
Chloe Schama is the assistant managing editor at The New Republic.