December 23, 2010

The "unmitigated disaster" of Broadway's "Spiderman."

"'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,' the Broadway show currently in previews in New York, aspires to redefine the genre with music from Irish rocker Bono and death-defying aerial stuntwork."

It's been death-defying so far, but not injury-defying. When you're watching a movie, you know that if somebody died making that stunt, they wouldn't show it. Remember Brandon Lee?
The mysterious death of Bruce Lee's son was sure to achieve a cult status all its own. The story goes that actor Brandon Lee was shot on the set of his final film, The Crow, in the middle of filming a scene; and that his death was left in the final cut of the movie....

Brandon Lee was indeed shot while filming. It was a tragic accident involving a gun firing blanks. A fragment of a dummy bullet, from a previous scene, was lodged in the gun and fired into Lee, fatally wounding him. Some mystery remains surrounding the film of the incident, with some saying it was destroyed, and others saying it was confiscated by police. It was not used in the movie. The scene was rewritten and reshot using a double, and the manner of his death is different than what happened in the fatal accident.
But if someone gets killed in a live-theater stunt, the audience witnesses the death. It's supposed to be part of the entertainment that the stunts look risky, but if you are not confident that the actors and stuntmen are perfectly safe, deriving pleasure from watching that feels wrong — or it should. And taking a child to the show becomes utterly unacceptable.

Which raises other questions: Why are Broadway shows aimed at children in the first place? Why did they move into the special-effects/adolescent domain that movies dominate? Remember when theater was aimed at adults, and the more snobbish adults would look down on things like "Carousel" and "South Pacific" as too middle-brow? Now, the heights of "Carousel" and "South Pacific" seem unreachable — except in revivals of "Carousel" and "South Pacific."

Broadway, it's all wreckage.


Pogo said...

"Why are Broadway shows aimed at children in the first place?"

Because their offerings to adult audiences, well, "Their appeal was becoming more selective".

PatCA said...

I think Julie Taymor has finally gone too far--lack of story perhaps, papered over with stunts? That's the movie way.

As in movies, the only place where a non-nihilistic story with values is allowed is in children's movies. I imagine Broadway is the same. If people can pay ten bucks to see a nihilistic movie, why would they pay fifty to see it on stage?

Richard Dolan said...

"Why are Broadway shows aimed at children in the first place?"

You're not spending enough time in NYC, and so are sounding a bit off here. Time to get out and take a breather.

In NYC, there is plenty of entertaining theatre aimed at children. The New Victory (42nd near 7th Ave) does it very well, for example, and manages to produce shows that entertain an audience ranging from 5 to 75. BAM just finished a run of MMorris' Hard Nut - the theatre had lots of kids laughing and enjoying the show (including mine).

And this sounds completely off: "if you are not confident that the actors and stuntmen are perfectly safe, deriving pleasure from watching that feels wrong — or it should." If that were true, the circus would never have survived as a form of entertainment. I'm taking my kids tomorrow (the Big Apple, behind the Met Opera House). The circus performers do some risky stuff, and the possibility of an accident is part of the circus-thrill.

Whether Spiderman is a flop in the extravaganza genre, whether its stunts are well performed or not, isn't much of a basis on which to start draw large conclusions about 'Broadway.'

traditionalguy said...

The costs to put on a Broadway play are considered a big risk. What if no one comes to see a stupid title, unless word of mouth finally kicks in. And then the locals are coming, but they eventually run out. Then the show goes on to profits ONLY if the tourists keep coming to NYC visits with their kids. That naturally selects productions that are re-makes of Movies and TV series that are already pre-sold to attract those visitors. This is the Disneyization of Broadway. No more family plays like My fair lady are running. So it's Mary Poppins or The Lion King, etc. The Legally Blonde movie re-make was actually very good entertainment, as was Jersey Boys.

edutcher said...

First, Spidey is as much a grown up thing as he is for kids.

Second, we make movies out of computer games, old TV shows, and toys so why are we surprised there's next to nothing to a show based on a comic book?

(sorry, graphic novel...)

roesch-voltaire said...

We saw God of Carnage and After Miss Julie both strong plays staged for adults so not everything is aimed at children.

Lyle said...

Big time musical theatre is just not a serious money making enterprise anymore. Way too much competition from other forms of entertainment that are way easier to access.

Youngblood said...


Is it actually aimed at kids, or are you assuming that because of that weird blindspot you have when it comes to pulp entertainment?

Ann Althouse said...

"Is it actually aimed at kids, or are you assuming that because of that weird blindspot you have when it comes to pulp entertainment?"

Children of all ages... as they say. To kids from 1 to 92... Blech. And "adult" means porn. I hate all entertainment. Except this blog. And living in the real world, living the real life. And some art that some people made some time. I forget when that was.

jayne_cobb said...

"We saw God of Carnage"

Did it star Cletus Kasady?

Youngblood said...

"And some art that some people made some time. I forget when that was."

Between, what, 1965 and 1973? (Or whenever Dylan's "Golden Age" actually was.)

The other night I linked to Old Crow Medicine Show's take on Dylan's unfinished "Wagon Wheel" (I think he started writing it for Peckinpah's Billy the Kid movie).

Did you catch that? If so, what did you think of it?

peter hoh said...

The Broadway producers want to create an extravaganza that's "must see." At that point, going to the theater becomes an experience apart from the art. It's an extravaganza, and that's not theater.

It's a desperate attempt to cover up the fact that the producers and directors no longer have confidence in theater.

Just as real beauty doesn't depend on plastic surgery, real theater magic doesn't require much by the way of props and special effects.

Youngblood said...

Peter wrote:

"[R]eal theater magic doesn't require much by the way of props and special effects."

I disagree. That's that sort of thinking that has gotten live theatre where it is today, a niche medium slowly swirling its way down the drain toward irrelevance (except in New York). I mean, if I never see a play with minimalist set design again, it'll be too soon.

Richard Dolan said...

Ann: "I hate all entertainment. Except this blog."

Ha. The headshot in her comment says it even better (notice that it's the kind of pose that Obama often strikes). But unlike Obama, she can't really pull off the Grinch thing.

w/v: noticksc - what others are supposed to do with that non-hateful source of entertainment.

peter hoh said...

Youngblood, there's a difference between minimal props, or simple props, and minimalism.

The current Broadway trend might be called maximalism, but I realize that is a word with its own history.

Our Town works with minimal props.

My favorite theater experience was a one man show based on the life and works of Dylan Thomas. The set consisted of a lectern and a chair.

Freeman Hunt said...

My husband and I were discussing this show the other night. I don't see how the actor whose rope broke will ever be able to perform his stunts with confidence again. It's one thing to have someone make a mistake and cause something to go wrong or to misjudge a distance or the like, but to have the rope break? C'mon. How can the actors trust the safety people after so many accidents?

kk said...

For years Broadway has been tending towards what we all the "setsical", wherein the set is the point and nothing else matters. Or, the set is the point, the random pop star who has never written a musical before (because anyone can just do it, right? it's not the sort of thing that requires training and/or apprenticeship and/or experience in the for, right) is secondary, and nothing else matters.

Here's a good rule of thumb: if your show can't be produced for under $5000 by the Springfield Little Theatre and still be moderately enjoyable, it wasn't all that great to begin with.

The sad thing is that there are people writing brilliant pieces of musical theatre, but for the most part, you will never see them because the Spidermans (or Tarzans or Lestats) of the world suck the money and oxygen out of the room.

kk said...

Oh, and here's another problem with Spiderman:

Making musicals that demographically tilt younger male is a bad idea. Which is to say that superhero musicals are probably not the way of the future.

This is also why High Fidelity closed almost immediately -- because it was a musical based on a straight guy movie based on a straight guy book, and straight guys don't make musical ticket buying decisions (at least, not in the quantities necessary to support a musical).

The one exception to this was Spamalot, which did a great job appealing to men more than women, and did pretty well (although not amazingly).

Youngblood said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Youngblood said...


One of the things about Broadway is that a lot of its patrons are from out-of-town. They want a production that they wouldn't be able to see anywhere else in the world.

I actually like that, because it forces theatre back to its roots. In their time, more than a few of Shakespeare's plays were lavish spectacles with breathtaking stage combat and gore. In France, you had the tradition of the Grand Guignol. In the 19th century, you had mock-ups of sailing ships that rocked back and forth as Irish immigrant stagehands slammed hammers against sheet metal to simulate thunder.

I love that stuff, and my debut play was very much in that mode, not because I didn't have confidence in theatre, but because I wanted to take advantage of the strengths of the medium. (A convincingly staged fight in a tiny theatre has a "you are there" quality that no other medium can come close to. Fire off a blank gun on stage, and hearts beat faster and knuckles go white of their own accord.)

After my shows, I'd always mingle with the audience and chat with them, and I found out we were getting good word of mouth, and a lot of people (especially blue collar adults) who admitted that my play was the first that they'd ever come out to see.

Which was a rush.

But the word that people kept coming back to was "entertainment".

I agree that a really great play can be done with minimal props. I'd love to direct Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, and I'm sure that it would do fine without a lot of flash. I saw Chazz Palmenteri's A Bronx Tale a couple of years back, and I was genuinely amazed by what he could do with just his body, his voice, and a streetlight.

But there are a lot of people out there who want that flash, who'd love to marvel at Spider-Man swinging over Manhattan close up and in person, y'know?

I'm not against that at all. Spectacle is a legitimate theatrical tradition, and one of the tools in a director's toolbox.

raf said...

they aren't aimed at children, it's just that today's affluent New Yorker artsy "adults" never grew up.

peter hoh said...

Okay, Youngblood. I'll give you this one, as it pertains to Broadway.

I still like kk's rule @ 5:23: if your show can't be produced for under $5000 by the Springfield Little Theatre and still be moderately enjoyable, it wasn't all that great to begin with.

Trooper York said...

I have been to three shows this year. I wish I could go to more to support the theatre. Not enough people do and it is worthwhile.

West Side Story was great.

The Scotsboro Boys was tedious.

I enjoyed Love, Loss and What I Wore but mainly because of our friend Stacy who was great in it. It was surprisingly entertaining for a reading.

You need to go to a show to support the theatre.

Trooper York said...

A lot of Broadway these days is about putting TV stars in a play to bring in people. Which can be kind of fun.

We saw a great performance by Reba in Annie Get Your Gun.

Also Harry Connick Jr was great in the Pajama Game.

Brooke Shields was pretty good in Wunderfield Town.

And of course the Hoff was undescribable in Dr Jeckyl and Mr. Lifeguard a few years ago. It was simply craptastic. And it ran for years.

Youngblood said...


Like Robert Rodriguez said about film, the reason that low budget filmmaking can seem so much more experimental than big budget filmmaking is that you have to get creative when you can't wash away your problems with the "money hose".

That can be true of live theatre, too. But just like there's room for low budget classics like Night of the Living Dead and sprawling epics like Gone With the Wind, there's room for smaller more intimate theatrical productions and big budget spectacles.

A big budget is a tool. Spectacle is a tool. A small budget is a tool. Intimacy is a tool. They can all be misused.

William said...

This show will probably lose about 65 million dollars. This is the Lehman Bros of Broadway and will inhibit theatre investment for a generation. Juliet Traynor is talented, but there is something manic and delusional about the budget and the whole production....The risk is not just for the actors. How tragic would it be if you were crushed to death by some hapless stuntman falling from the ceiling? Such a death would not add dignity to your life or credibility to the magic of the theatre. I hate to think of a little child whose parent was taken from them by an errant Spiderman.

Methadras said...

The people in Lion King are laughing at the people in Spiderman. Stan Lee must be facepalming right now.

former law student said...

Broadway decided some twenty years ago that the money was to be made from non-theatergoers watching non-theater performed by non-stars. There were any number of productions featuring no name casts, but rather weird draws like Miss Saigon's helicopter. (God knows what the appeal of Cats was.) When the no name actors move on, the show is still the show, so the show can run for years on the original investment. And the non-theatergoers are all the more likely to buy a silk jacket embroidered with the show's logo, because that's the first and last time they're going to the theater.