Considering the hype, the brand names involved, and great expense of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the show will probably run for a long time, perhaps even long enough to break even. But if it flops, I doubt $65 million will ever be wasted on a Broadway stage as compellingly again. This is not your typical train wreck.
Imagine the gall it takes to have Spider-Man wrestle a cheap-looking blow-up doll in the most expensive musical in history. Or to have an almost incoherent book so witless that what passes for a joke is a character misunderstanding the difference between “free will” and Free Willy. Then there’s the Bono-and-the-Edge anthem about shoes, and the more mundane issues such as inconsistencies of character (Peter Parker transforms from a nerd to a brooding hipster faster than he does from a man to a spider), of period (His Girl Friday or The Social Network?), and of style (comic books or Greek myth?).
Fixating on Spider-Man’s many problems, however, misses the real story. Julie Taymor took music from one of the most famous bands in the world, a beloved character cemented in the popular imagination, and, working in the most collaborative, homogenous form in American theater, created a deeply personal story that is defiantly her own. Actually, what she’s done is even bolder than that. Taymor, who directed, co-wrote the book, and designed the masks, has made a comic book musical that seems to have no affection for comic books or musicals. Its central theme could be described thusly: Sometimes great power requires great irresponsibility. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron occasionally do auteur work on this scale in film, but in a Broadway landscape dominated by timid, corporate entertainments, Spider-Man is an anomaly: a mass entertainment that at its heart is one woman’s wild ego trip.
The first hint that we’re in for something eccentric comes early on, when a quartet of comic book fans referred to in the program as the “Geek Chorus” debate the meaning and story of Spider-Man. This device, one of many meta elements, introduces us to the real villains in this story: the die-hard fans who insist on conservative fidelity to the source material. The free-thinker of this clique is its one girl. She mocks the boys for reading too many comic books and introduces them to the tale of the first spider: a woman named Arachne, whose story of transformation from mortal weaver to immortal spider was told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Arachne, dressed darkly with a severe expression, appears from the rafters along with a few sister weavers holding columns of yellow cloth. They swing back and forth toward the audience, while horizontal ribbons emerge from stage right and left. The swinging action weaves the vertical and horizontal fabrics into a tapestry. It’s the most stunning, inventive stagecraft of the show, if not the season.
But what in the world does Arachne have to do with Spider-Man? Taymor makes you wait until the second half of the show to find out. The remainder of the first act hews closely to the traditional story of Spider-Man. Humble nerd Peter Parker gains super powers, dedicates his life to fighting bad guys after the death of his uncle, faces off with the Green Goblin and wins. Curtain. With this obligatory material out of the way, Taymor returns to what she really cares about: Arachne, who can often seem like an alter ego for Taymor. She is an outsider in a vulgar world, an artist “weaving worlds,” and at times she sounds like a mystical poet who came of age in the 1960s. “I descended from the astral plane,” she says.
In the second act, Spider-Man is relegated to a supporting role. He retreats from crime-fighting, though his fame only grows. Spider-Man hot dogs and Spider-Man underwear are sold on the streets; rumors about him spread through the press. The cynical merchandising of Spider-Man is an ironic theme for a show that has its own gift shop in the theater lobby where T-shirts cost $40. So is the cruelty of Internet-age media for a show that has been attacked more ferociously before opening than any other in history. Whether intentional or not, this show continually, crazily draws attention to itself. The spider-woman from Ovid (who, not coincidentally, sings the title song “Turn Off the Dark”) is at the center of the media circus, but while others want to use Spider-Man to sell papers and retail, she has other intentions. Backed by new-age music that gives the stage more the feel of a massage parlor than a Stan Lee comic strip, she seduces Peter in what can only be described as a wet dream. Peter floats into the sky and circles Arachne erotically. Parents may have trouble explaining this scene to their kids, in part because they won’t understand it themselves.
Arachne doesn’t just want Peter Parker’s affections—she wants them on her terms. She wants him to come to her as Spider-Man. To convince him to put his spidey suit back on, she invents a vast, preposterous illusion that New York is under attack by a confederation of villains Spider-Man vanquished. She essentially creates her own epic show out of the raw material of a Marvel comic strip. Like Taymor, she darkens it, ruins the plot, and teases you with the idea that there’s a disaster in the making.
How does Arachne manage this? Like Glenn Beck, one of the musical’s most devoted fans, she masterfully stokes fear, paranoia, and panic, manipulating the press into an obsession with Spider-Man. (Sound familiar?) Whereas the first act is a jumble of comic book designs, the second has a much more assured aesthetic: perversely dark, nightmarish and sexual. “You know how spiders chase their mates?” Arachne asks Spider-Man in a climactic battle. “By attacking.”
Julie Taymor isn’t out to attack her audience, but she doesn’t pander to it, either. In her breakthrough hit The Lion King, Taymor conquered the musical theater by showing that theater traditions she learned downtown and abroad could beat Broadway razz-ma-tazz at its own game. Now she aims to win over comic book fans not by adapting the story of Spider-Man so much as building her own competing fantasy world to overshadow him. Her chutzpah is staggering. When Peter Parker sings about the power of believing, one of the most clichéd sentiments in musical theater, it has an edge. Believing in this context means being duped by a fake, a simulation of the world as opposed to the real thing. Choosing to believe is a delusion.
And yet, the show doesn’t let us forget that this twisted delusion began as an act of love. (Spoiler alert, I suppose.) Arachne, who seems at times like a villain, emerges eventually as a romantic hero. Her stubborn obsession to do whatever it takes to get what she wants including creating an artistic fiction that sends an entire city into chaos is the most interesting thing onstage by far. The problem is that Taymor’s theatrical world is not as realized as Arachne’s. Spider-Man eventually ends up with Mary Jane, which may mean that he decided to join the real world as opposed to the world of illusion, or more likely, it’s a concession to convention. Taymor can take some risks, but she can’t have Spider-Man ditch his sweetie for an eight-legged sexpot who has convinced New Yorkers that they are headed for the apocalypse. While Spider-Man passionately kisses Arachne at the end, he must eventually do what all super heroes do and stay faithful to the nice, safe girlfriend. Taymor stops short of giving Spider-Man over completely to Arachne. Trying to fulfill and subvert the expectations of a blockbuster musical competing with Mamma Mia! and Wicked may be a hopeless act of hubris.
The Broadway Gods insist that art must eventually make a deal with commerce. A production on as epic a scale as Spider-Man must draw packed houses of tourists for at least two or three years to earn a profit. Families visiting Times Square aren’t paying $150 to see a show. They want an experience. Spider-Man qualifies, but not for the reasons you expect. When the super hero flies over the orchestra, in one of several high-speed aerial effects, it’s a jolt. But Cirque Du Soleil, whose veterans helped with stunts, has pulled off more impressive acrobatics. Spider-Man is ultimately not unique as spectacle or a rock musical. But as an act of pure artistic will, it’s truly something to behold.