Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark
Theater review by: Witney Seibold
So I got back from New York recently, and I was able to, thanks to a stroke of luck, get into see Julie Taymor’s new musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” for relatively cheap. I am now here, dazed, able to offer up to my loyal readers, a run-down on the experience. Strap in tight, though, ’cause things are about to get nutty.
For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this infamous Spider-Man musical, let me give you the rundown. Yes, it does exist. It opened on Broadway last year, and has, miraculously, stayed running. Julie Taymor, the director of films like “Titus” and “Across the Universe,” and the brilliant theater impresario behind Beckett plays, grand operas, and the stage version of “The Lion King,” was approached by Marvel studios to adapt Spider-Man for the stage. I mean, heck, the superhero boom was in full swing a few years back. Why not make a high-profile, big-budget musical? Taymor’s vision of Spider-Man was one of a classical bent. She kept him in his costume, but felt that the connection to spiders should be tied in with Arache, the character from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She wrote in a Greek chorus to narrate the action, but in her case it was a geek chorus of nerdy guys. The Green Goblin was in it, but his origins differed from any other Spider-Man version of his we’ve seen. Even the Sinister Six appeared in the second act. Bono and The Edge from U2 were hired to write songs.
Taymor’s vision also included some of the most complicated stuntwork the stage has ever seen. Her complicated system of pullies and wires would have Spider-Man and the Green Goblin fighting in midair above the audience. Spider-Man would swing up to the balcony and back down again. The system was so complicated, however, that several of the show’s stuntmen would become seriously injured during the rehearsal process. One actor was accidentally left unhooked to his rig, causing him to jump unfettered into the orchestra pit. He was in a coma for days, and required surgery. When previews began, critics started panning the show for being too weird, the songs for being bland, and the entire concept of a Spider-Man musical too dumb to carry any weight. Even the weird subtitle “Turn Off the Dark” didn’t make any sense. Taymor was eventually fired from the production, and a new director was hired to rewrite and re-tinker the show. The show ended up costing about $75 million, the most expensive show in Broadway history. That means it will have to sell out every show for a solid two years in order to break even.
I have now seen this notorious show, and, to report to the geeks in the trenches, I will offer the following review.
For those familiar with Julie Taymor, you’ll know her bent for the surreal, and for the ancient. Her productions are partly inspired by ancient Greek theater traditions, and her own sense of bizarre modern art. Sometimes it can work: her stage production (what I’ve seen) of “The Tempest” is first rate, and I still feel her “Titus” is one of the best Shakespeare films ever made. Even when her films or shows don’t have a lot of emotional impact (her film version of “The Tempest” was flat and bland), her design is always gorgeous and her directorial choices are always fascinating. So “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” looks fascinating. Her sets bend and unfold in a weird way, forcing perspective, and keeping the visuals off-balance. She essentially tried to make an enormous set look like the forced-perspective drawing on a comic book page. She even added some printed dot-shading and shadows to people’s costumes, so they looked a bit more like comic book drawings. The bad guys’ costumes involved either some twisted masks, or gigantic inflatable prosthetics. Her entire idea was to mythologize Spider-Man into a dreamlike pop-culture explosion of surreal weirdness.
I think I kind of appreciate this approach. Rather than rehashing the Spider-Man mythology for the die-hard geeks, and merely transposing the object of their superhero affection into a new medium (which is what the lesser of the superhero films do), she tried to make the idea of a superhero make sense to her. She had no interest in the teenage-boy obsession with superheroes, and wanted to focus more on the more classical idea of the peerless god-like hero of legend. She wants to explore classical theatrical themes using modern-day modern art images. It’s like making Spider-Man more abstract. Her idea to turn Arachne (T.V. Carpio) into a character within the play may seem dumb to the comic book fan, but I can see where that need comes from. In Taymor’s original version, the spider that bit Peter Parker was actually Arachne reincarnated, and turned into something of a villain; an evil inside spider force that he must overcome.
But then the story was re-worked, and the newly re-worked story more closely resembles the tepid 2002 “Spider-Man” feature film. Spider-Man is no longer a boy coping with inner spider-like demons, but is following the story we all know: Nerd. Bitten by superspider. Gets superpowers. Loses uncle. Gains righteousness. Punches psychotics. Tries to get the girl. In this musical, the entire musical number where Peter (Reeve Carney) discovers he has superpowers is the first part of a montage that also includes the wrestling match, the death of Uncle Ben (offstage), and the decision to become Spider-Man. It’s called “Boucing Off the Walls,” and, while lively, feels rushed. The character from the film, Bonesaw McGraw makes an appearance in the show, but as a gigantic balloon that Peter wrestles to comic effect. It’s then immediately followed by the death of Uncle Ben. All rushed. All rushed. Oh yeah, Mary Jane is in it too (played by Jennifer Damiano), but she’s a prize to be won, and actually starts dating Peter in Act I. No ambiguity there.
Then there’s The Green Goblin. Patrick Page has been getting a lot of acclaim for his energetic and villainous performance, but the night I went, we had his understudy Jeb Brown who, lucky for him, made his Broadway debut that night. The Green Goblin is a geneticist who combines his body with animal DNA (or something) to gain powers, but who loses his wife in the process. Now, half mad and coated with weird Goblin makeup, he decides to capture his old scientist associates, and also make them into monsters by splicing their DNA with animals. There’s Kraven the Hunter (part lion), The Lizard (part lizard), Swarm (part bees), Electro (part, uh, electricity), Carnage (part, uh, blood), and a new character Swiss Miss (who is, uh, part knife). Again, the costumes are wonderful to behold, but I know a lot of you are currently shaking in your chairs, sputtering “But… THAT’S not what Kraven is!” Yes. There are a lot of liberties taken.
The music is actually kind of forgettable. Bono and The Edge may have a strength for rock ballads, but they clearly don’t really know how to write a musical. The songs have no logical ebb or flow, and don’t seem designed to showcase the talent of a singer on stage. It’s like an odd, forgettable rock opera that only sounds vaguely like U2. The songs I liked best were the Green Goblin’s song “A Freak Like Me,” and the “Turn Off the Dark” ballad that Peter sings with Arachne. Oh yes, Arachne is still in the show, but she’s been transformed into a kind of spiritual partner for Peter to pray to. The show’s big show-stopper, “Rise Above” is fine, I suppose, but sounds better with a chorus; I’ve heard Bono sing it, and it sounds perfectly dull.
The stunts are still amazing, and the flying actors really are impressive to watch. It may have injured many, but the wirework, when it works, it a lot of fun. The sets are still gorgeous, even though the gigantic cardboard cutout of Spider-Man catching a falling baby is enough to make anyone snicker.
The show entirely is an off-putting mash-up of three elements. 1) The classical surreal nightmare that Julie Taymor invented, 2) The bland rock opera, and 3) The good-looking and crass Universal stunt spectacular. It doesn’t really feel like a Broadway show. It feels like a theme park attraction at this point. As a show, it fails on a spectacular level. But, looking around the theater, I found that the bulk of the audience wasn’t the theater-loving, well-dressed New York Broadway crowd, but a mixture of teenagers from neighboring states who don’t go to shows often. I guess, for them, this was a unique theatrical experience.
And it was for me too. No other show will ever be like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” It’s rare to see such great ambition staged with such earnestness, and flop about so wildly. I just wish I could have seen Taymor’s unchanged version. I bet it was crazy to the point of being spectacularly bad, and, hence, hugely entertaining. As it was, even though I was kind of expecting it to be bad, I left disappointed.