Doesn't Make Spidey Sense: What Happened to Legitimate Theater?

This week's edition of Orange Curtains has nothing to do with Orange County theater. Which is why it has everything to do with Orange County theater…

It will be several years before Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark AKA “steaming pile of actor crippling shit,” will debut on an Orange County stage.

Before that, the $65 million musical extravaganza, directed by Julie Taymor who brought The Lion King to the stage, and with music by two guys named Bono and the Edge, will have to open on Broadway.

No easy feat, considering soaring costs for the technologically saturated show, as well as technical glitches and cast injuries, have forced numerous delays.

Originally scheduled to open last February, it's now tentatively supposed to open February 2011.


That hasn't stopped the hype around perhaps the most publicized show in Broadway history. The first preview, shortly after Thanksgiving, was heavily covered, which was quite unusual as most publications wait until the official opening to talk about a show. The preview process, especially for a tech-heavy show such as this one, is designed to weed out all the bugs while not killing any cast members.

After the first preview, it was reported that more than $1 million in advance ticket sales for the next week were sold, an unheard of amount for a preview. And whether that million comprises comic nerds who want to be the first to catch a glimpse of the show regardless of how ready it is for prime time, or they're NASCAR-style fans anxious to see the next accident, that's a lot of buzz. 

And that buzz will likely continue once the show opens. Taymor is one of the hottest properties in mass entertainment (along with The Lion King, she's directed films, including Frida and Across the Universe), the  U2 connection is a gold mine, and it doesn't hurt that the protagonist of the show was a cultural icon long before the Hollywood film franchise broke. 

Clearly, the potential for tourists from Abu Dhabi to Peoria to keep this show running for years is there.

On one hand, great. Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark gives American theater something it desperately lacks: media attention. Once it opens, everyone from Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann to Matt Lauer and Howard Stern will be talking about it.

There's an economic argument used to defend any piece of theater that busts out of the marginalized medium and into the popular consciousness. With so many people talking about a stage play (and potentially seeing it), the piece should raise theater awareness among audiences who generally shy away from what they considered an outdated medium. Supposedly, many will be turned on for the first time, leading to a desperately needed infusion of new blood into theater's audience base.

Don't count on it. Shows like this, while great for the theaters that house them and the investors who bankroll them, are deadly for legitimate theater, in three specific ways.

Firstly, they're not real theater. At least not theater that matters. Sure, they contain theatrical elements–like live actors in an enclosed space. But the reliance on cinematic-infused special effects and a rock score, while dazzling the eyes and ears, undermines what makes great theater great: dialogue, drama and depth. Asses that have never sat in a theater before may flock to see a musicalized Spider-Man, but what their eyes are  seeing is a purely commercial entertainment. It's a form that pays lip service to legitimate theater, but is really more of a multimedia event. Unfortunately, that's the kind of play that these new theatergoers will expect for their next experience.

Secondly, shows like this serve as a disincentive to producing artistically adventurous musicals that aren't solely concerned with feeding their bottom line. It took nearly 20 years for American (and British) theater to recover from the Andrew Lloyd Webber effect. His sadly prolific and popular string  of ridiculously bombastic and insufferably sentimental musicals, which began in the late-1970s,  have dominated mainstream musical theater for far too long. Only after the popular emergence of small-budget, manageably-sized shows like Rent and Urinetown did the balance slowly begin to correct. If the latest Spidey vehicle takes off, look for more producing entities to try to cash in on the next big thing by ignoring anything else.

Which leads into the third reason why shows like this are lethal to legitimate theater: the more heavily hyped, heavily funded commercial vehicles like this succeed, the harder it is to convince anyone to give a fuck about the kind of shows that don't receive that kind of push. The kinds of plays written by serious creative people and produced by serious creative artists.

Think about it: some $65 million has been raised to produce a show about a comic book character. Grant a theater like South Coast Repertory just one percent of that $650,000, and it could award 20 playwrights $32,500 each to write a play about something, ANYTHING that mattered. Or give the entire $650,000 to a playwright like Howard Korder. Just imagine the magnum opus he might create with the kind of time a chunk of change like that could provide.

Of course, that's ridiculous thinking. The people ponying up the money for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark include concert promoters, Sony and Marvel Entertainment. These organizations have a vested interest in the continued success of commodities like U2 and the Spider-Man brand. They have no desire to invest in the future of American theater, nor interest in trying to help sustain the lives of artists who want to write plays that matter. 

You would think that someone like Taymor, who got her start in legitimate experimental theater, would care a little more. You would hope that she might recall her roots, and perhaps use some of her star power to throw a few bones to the kind of theater that doesn't rely on aerial combat scenes and actors flying over an audience's head. And you would think that she would remember Webhead's own mantra, one that he's wrestled with since “Amazing Fantasy #15″ some 48 years ago: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

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