Why Did Everyone Want Spider-Man to Fail?

11/19/2013 11:59 AM |

I never quite understood why everyone wanted Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to fail. Before even the megabudget Broadway’s musical’s performers started falling from the rafters and breaking their bones, the theater community seemed outraged just by the price tag—many tens of millions of dollars and ever-growing, which had them licking their lips for blood. But, so what? Great work is being performed all over the city, on Broadway and far off, so much that it’s impossible for anyone but the professional critic to see even just a lot of it. One blockbuster Broadway spectacle wasn’t going to change the city’s theater culture, or stop artists with a will from finding a way to get their work seen.

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So if Spider-Man was going to get made, why wouldn’t we want it to be great? Why don’t we want all art, highbrow and lowbrow, big budget and no budget, to move us? Impress us? At least entertain us? For myriad reasons, the musical didn’t. I wouldn’t be so quick to blame director Julie Taymor; though I didn’t see her version, I could see the remnants in the final version officially presented to critics in July 2011. Most observers thought her Spider-Man was a mess, and I bet they weren’t wrong, but pressures from the press and from philistine producers didn’t produce something better. As I wrote then:

What has emerged is an insipid spectacle, reworked and rewritten, incapable of offending the middlebrow tourists who are key to its financial success. Too much money is at stake to fuck around… this Version 2.0 isn’t better—it’s just a blander, by-committee kind of bad, and for that it deserves more of our scorn than its predecessor did… The show now pokes fun at itself, cracking gags about its steep price tag and the Post, like a bullied kid who has learned that if he laughs along with his tormentors they’ll stop picking on him. Spider-Man has denied the part of itself that once made it unique; it has exchanged its individuality for conformity. If the show, with its (repetitive) flying stunts, is meant to attract middle-class families, this is the despicable message it imparts to their children: learn to fit in, kids, and you’ll make a lot of money.

I predicted the show would make a lot of money. Why wouldn’t it? It had nothing to do with whether or not it was “good,” something the haters never understood. By putting pressure on its makers, and thus making it worse, they were never threatening its existence or viability. There’s flying! The tourists will love it! And they did, for a while—to the surprise and consternation of its detractors, the show did well. But because of its huge price tag, it had to continue to sellout for years to recoup its initial investment. And lately, it hasn’t been doing that. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The musical… has been running below its “break-even” point for weeks, a person familiar with the matter said. Last week, it grossed $742,595 out of a potential gross of more than $1.5 million, according to research compiled by the Broadway League. The theater was at roughly 75% capacity, with 9,540 tickets sold out of 12,664 seats that week. [A producer] said the show “wasn’t making any money or losing any money in New York.”

So the show will pack up in January, after one last holidays hurrah, and move to Las Vegas, where the producers say they can make more money. So at last the city will be able to put this behind us: Taymor came back recently with a winning Midsummer Night’s Dream production in Brooklyn and will surely continue to direct popular theatrical productions in the future; soon the Foxwoods Theater will be converted back into a regular theater. Then, we’ll be able to walk through Times Square without a reminder of this thing that brought out the worst in us—audiences and artists alike.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart