Broadway producers will always try to manipulate the press. They schedule preview performances to work the kinks out of productions — usually running a month or so, often at full ticket prices — before they invite critics to performances in the days before opening night. Newspapers and other media outlets go along because it's a long-established custom and, besides, the success or failure of a musical comedy is not the end of the world.
But then came Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the hotly anticipated, outrageously expensive ($65 million) musical about a comic book hero.
Enough was enough on Broadway this week when many critics published reviews of the show, even though it doesn't officially open until March 15. Producers are furious that the reviews ran before what they call a work in progress is ready. Critics argue that the production had been running for 10 weeks and was charging as much as $275 a seat, and they could no longer hold off judgment.
The reviews appeared around Monday, which had been the show's opening date until a few weeks ago, when it was pushed back for a third time. When the show finally does open, it will have had the longest preview period in Broadway history.
Generally, the reviews of Spider-Man were thumbs down, ranging from the savage ("a shrill, insipid mess" wrote Peter Marks in the Washington Post) to baffled ("sketchy and ill-formed" according to Steven Suskin in Variety). The all-important review by New York Times critic Ben Brantley deemed it a "seriously depressing disaster."
My favorite assessment was by Scott Brown in New York magazine: "It's by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar. But never, ever boring."
I was in New York in December when Spider-Man had been in previews for several weeks, and already it was generating buzz on the Internet and in news stories for technical glitches and a string of scary accidents, such as a 35-foot fall by an actor who fractured his skull. I was tempted then to attend a preview, but I had other shows to see. Plus, I was glad to wait until director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and her creative team got things as right as they could.
However, once the Spider-Man opening had been delayed ridiculously often — and once the show was drawing so much attention — critics had no choice but to weigh in. A few of the pans have come across as a bit too gleeful, and some critics didn't see the main cast. Marks reviewed a Saturday matinee that featured an alternate as Peter Parker instead of star Reeve Carney.
It's interesting to compare the travails of Spider-Man with those of Wonderland, which had previews in January at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa before heading to Broadway. I have seen the Frank Wildhorn musical half a dozen times while covering its tryout at the Straz Center in 2009 and its subsequent revisions. It has gone through major changes, sometimes from one performance to the next. So my definitive judgment will be of the April 17 opening in New York.
By the way, Wonderland is a flashy, high-tech affair costing $16 million. It's hard to fathom where the vastly greater amount spent on Spider-Man went. Producers stand to take a bath.
Still, I would never underestimate Taymor's ability to turn catastrophe into triumph, and I expect that the opening of Spider-Man will spawn a whole new batch of reviews. If it's true that no publicity is bad publicity, then maybe the producers know what they are doing.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.