Photo by Don Kellogg

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Spiderman Turn off the Dark

Let's be clear right up front.  This is not a review.  It's a preview.  I had the unique opportunity to see Spidey roar to life on it's fourth-ever performance.  I went because I wanted to see what a show looked like as they were in the final stages of putting it together.  My fascination with this show is the unique process by which it is being brought to Broadway, not with the show itself.  I don't think I knew anything about the Spidey story growing up.  I stuck to Bugs and Fred and Barney mostly.

Normally, a big new show starts out of town - say in Los Angels, Chicago, or Seattle.  The creative team has never built sets before, never seen how one scene flows into the next from beginning to end, and maybe has only seen the show in a workshop room - never staged at all. They build it all and perform it all in a city away from the eyes of the critical New York press, perfect it, and then, when ready, move it to Broadway for a magical debut.  Makes sense, right?  Sometimes when you are cooking a meal for the first time, you do a "dry run", right?  I know people who get a new job and they drive there 2 or 3 times just to make sure they don't get lost along the way and show up late on the first day!

Well, that's how it all used to work, anyway.  What one of the producers told us on stage just before the preview performance was just this - with one caveat - this show was too big, too complex to do that. There was only one theatre in the world that could handle the massive undertaking - and we were sitting in it.   I'm not so sure I really believe that - but that's the producers' story and they are sticking to it.  And this is where my problem begins.

The house was a sell-out.  By way of history - Spidey's opening has been delayed several times.  So the theatre was filled with people who may have bought tickets month's ago and this particular performance would have been well into the initial weeks of the run - not the 4th preview.  By the sounds of the French, British, German and mid-western and southern US accents all around me - many were tourists.  After all, this is a "big deal" on Broadway, what tourist wouldn't want to get a piece of this action?  The problem is - some of these people paid upwards of $140-$200 per ticket.  (full disclosure, my ticket in the center orchestra, Row O cost me $77).  When you're paying that much to see a show, you may come in with expectations of perfection.  Clearly that was not going to be the case.  I found myself thinking, what's going to happen when these people who paid that much see a show stop, see the lights come up and the actors reset a scene, the stagehands actually on the stage at times?  Will a rope fall on our heads like it did during the first preview? Can I sue them if Spidey falls on my lap and breaks my neck? (OK, i digress...).  Will the people who just expect to be dazzled want to see all that?  Will they walk out in disgust and spread bad news about the show?  Well, here is what I think happened and it's based on, of all things, an interview on Larry King with Al Pacino that recently aired.

Larry was asking Pacino about his performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice on the summer stage in Central Park.  Pacino described how it was a unique stage in a unique environment - tree branches fall on stage, an unexpected wind blows your robe above your head, and occasionally it rains - which of course stops the show.  He described how every time it rained and the stage manager announced that the show would pause, the audience seemed to love this.   Larry grimaced and Pacino went on to describe that he could only speculate that people just love to be a part of something unique - and when rain stopped the show - they got to experience something unique - witness how the actors handled it, how the show re-grouped and moved on.  "Always applause", he said.  As if they were cheering us on for being able to handle the interruption.  They were now part of a performance that nobody up to this point had experienced.  People are people.  They all look at the car accident on the side of the road, and apparently they all love when rain stops a show in central park too.

So I apply this principle to the Spidey phenomenon.  My preview performance did stop.  Spidey got stuck. Randall, the production stage manager sitting up in the first box in a little booth who was introduced to us by the producer prior to the show, indeed, had a moment with us.  House lights went up, he fired off some instructions to the actors and stage hands and in a few minutes, we were back on track. During the pause, of course many people decided it was appropriate to clap, cheer on the stuck spidey up on the mezzanine landing spot.  People felt obliged to blurt out comments, others got up and went to the bathroom (and came back in the dark because we were back on in less than 5 minutes).

My point here is that people seem to be publicly condemning the imperfect product, but actually enjoying it at the same time.  Do I have a laundry list of notes for director, Julie Taymor?  Yes.  Do I think she'll ever read this blog post and call me up to discuss them?  Not a chance.  So I'm going to wait until the show opens to see it again and see just how many of those things are gone from my list.  I'll even promise to post the entire list and cross off the ones that were resolved.  But I do have one idea that maybe if everyone was starting this mess all over again would have considered  - - and here it is - -   Everyone must have known this show was going to be mammoth and expensive and technically complex from the get-go.  The producers have sunk an estimated $65M into bringing this show to life - and it will cost them over $1M in running costs each week to keep it running - above and beyond the $65M investment.

Since they were doing something never done before - why didn't they do something in the ticketing world they've never done before - sell tickets to the early performances as dress and technical rehearsals for a fraction of their costs?   The producers are trying to have it both ways - bring a show to Broadway in one of the most unique ways - but all the while stick to the old fashioned model of pricing and selling tickets and they get angry when reviewers prematurely make negative comments - all the while selling full price tickets to the performances.  If every ticket in the house was $40 and the entire preview period was deemed a "dress rehearsal" from the outset - I believe the concept would have generated unique interest - above and beyond the hype for the show itself.  Sell out the preview period with cheap tickets intended to showcase the initial weeks as a work in progress.  Remember, people like to be part of something unique.  Why not sell your strong point - SpiderMan is unique and every aspect of the production, including the ticket pricing and preview performance model should have been be ground breaking and a novel way to publicly birth the show.  Maybe my idea is flawed, maybe someone already thought of it and poo-poo'd it.  Or maybe it was a missed opportunity.

You'll just have to wait for my review which I'll reserve for when the show is officially ready to be reviewed.  I certainly hope some of the items on my list get addressed.