PLAYING DEVIL’S ADVOCATE
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
NEW YORK CITY — My background is in theater, cable and radio network news, and most recently, comic books and film. I have been, like most folks in the theater community, following news about the broadway production of Spiderman. I chose to refrain from commenting until now. All my reasons aside, I do feel a need to play Devil’s Advocate and offer a few thoughts for those who are speaking out against SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK. Not because I want to advocate for bloated productions with mind-boggling financing, A-List Producers/Designers/Performers, extreme spectacle, unprecedented technical demands, and the ensuing consequences, like injuries to actors and crew or a production that fails to deliver. I offer these thoughts only to suggest points that are NOT being made and because innovation invites failure, criticism and things that are unfamiliar.
My strong opinions on the difference between theatre, spectacle and popular entertainment have made me skeptical of this production since first hearing about it years ago. Too many times, I believe, we have all experienced broadway and film productions that seem to forgo storytelling and rely on visual spectacle alone. Often, this characteristic seems to go hand in hand with high production costs and millions of dollars in financing. (Primarily because pulling off the technical demands and costs behind spectacle require A LOT of money.) All of these less-endearing elements come together and are highlighted by the news surrounding this much talked about Spiderman musical.
And what a plethora of news coverage there has been. The New York Times has certainly been enthusiastic about covering all the flaws and problems, to the tune of what I have come to see as a biased editorial directive. People in the theater community feel strongly about certain aspects with good reason, but witnessing a concerted effort to negate a production before it’s had the chance to stand and speak for itself, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. We cannot realize innovation anywhere, especially in the theater, without risk, without unfamiliar or non-traditional production elements or process. For news coverage to discount the fact of how unprecedented this production is and then, selectively choose to leave out information regarding the problems an “average,” big broadway musical faces, fails not only this production, but any future for innovation in the theater. Before Spiderman gets off the ground, to label it a pariah and a flop just doesn’t give anyone a fair shake. The final production in performance ought to stand and be judged on its own merits, not while it is still in development, pre-preproduction, rehearsals, tech and finally, previews.
Most of all, there is an essential point about this whole production people are overlooking and it’s right there in the title: Spiderman. When was the last time anyone saw a comic book translated into a theatrical platform? Aside from the Vampire Cowboys and other companies who actively are producing material from comics for theater, I am unaware of anything since a failed attempt at Superman sometime in the 1970′s or 1980′s. Not a single bit of the news and blog coverage seems to bring to account how translating a comic book to a theatrical platform for performance on broadway demands an extreme approach. We ARE talking about a MUSICAL based on SPIDERMAN, for heavens sake. The concept alone is extreme. Realizing it calls for exponential demands beginning with incorporating the source material with the music and with the production design framework of theater.
Until I see the production of SPIDERMAN: TURN OFF THE DARK for myself, I cannot advocate for the show beyond throwing caution to the wind. Whether or not Julie Taymor has achieved a new precedent remains mostly left to conjecture and Op/Ed debate. Either way, all that matters to me is seeing us (the theater community) realize a new theatre in the 21st Century, especially considering the legacy of innovations made by theatre practitioners and theorists in the 20th Century. That requires a fearless approach and commitment to a vision because, as we have seen with this production and many before it, innovation and change will not be welcomed with open arms.
Copyright 2011 by Kimberly Cox