Hello, musical theater lovers. Welcome back to The Musical Theater Lover’s Corner—we’re glad you could join us. This week, we’ll take an early look at a show that’s likely to be the biggest spectacle ever to hit the Great White Way. And no, I’m not talking about the Aaron Sorkin-penned Flaming Lips musical (is that even still happening? My half-assed Google search on the subject didn’t really come up with anything more recent than March of ’07), or the perpetually-delayed John Mellencamp/Stephen King ghoulish collab, “The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County” (which is now, apparently, opening in Atlanta next April). No, my friends, this week we’ll be discussing an infinitely more audacious production than either of the two aforementioned projects: Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man.”
The New York Post reported yesterday that the budget for “Spider-Man” has apparently ballooned to a jaw-dropping $40 million, officially making it the most expensive show in the history of theater. As I’m sure most of you Broadway mavens out there are well aware, Julie Taymor has never been one for minimalism in her artistic endeavors, as was apparent in her multiple-Tony Award-winning production of “The Lion King,” and her pseudo-successful forays into the world of filmmaking, “Across the Universe” and “Titus” (which we here at TMTLC are obligated to defend, simply for its use of the delightful Alan Cumming—as far as we’re concerned, Mr. Cumming can do no wrong!).
And given the early buzz, “Spider-Man” will be no exception—not only has a source close to the show predicted “18 pages of designer bios” in the Playbill (this is according to the Post—we here at Modern Jackass don’t have anything resembling enough clout to procure a primary source), the “Spider-Man” crew has already been aggressively scouting the Hilton Theatre (currently home to the disastrous “Young Frankenstein”), as it is apparently the only New York theater large enough to house the behemoth of a production. Add what’s inevitably going to be a mind-blowingly decadent (but potentially awesome) score by Bono and The Edge, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide (Bono-fide? Too much?) three-ring circus of musical theater extravagance. Or a disgraceful money-vacuum that will deliver a crippling blow to the legitimacy of the art form. Could go either way.
Broadway musicals, at this particular moment in history, appear to be at a crossroads, and the advent of “Spider-Man” could factor in to the general direction of the art form in the years ahead. On the one hand, you’ve got your big-budget, Vegas-ready fluff pieces, packed to the gills with elaborate set pieces, shimmery costumes, show-stopping dance numbers, and a general sense of spectacle, seemingly intended to distract the audience from the fact that there is a paucity of enriching content. I’m talking about shows like “Young Frankenstein,” “The Little Mermaid,” even, perhaps—dare I say it—“The Lion King” (but I have to qualify that with a personal disclaimer—as a budding musical theater aficionado during the mid ‘90s, I had a particular affinity for the work of Brian Stokes Mitchell, so I was understandably crestfallen when his exceptional “Ragtime” was shamefully overshadowed by a barrage of animal puppets at the 1998 Tonys).
On the other hand, there have been a slew of recent musicals that have refreshingly tested the limits of the genre, looking to revitalize musical theater and take it in new directions while simultaneously maintaining a reverence for the sanctity of an art form where characters spontaneously burst into song and dance. Shows like “Passing Strange,” “In the Heights,” and even “Title of Show” provided exciting twists to the concept of the Broadway musical, and yet were still able to acknowledge the musical theater traditions from whence they came.
This dichotomy in current musical theater philosophies is the reason “Spider-Man” will play such an important role in the culture when it finally debuts, adorned in forty million dollars worth of glorious excess. While Julie Taymor does indeed enjoy being ostentatiously over-the-top, she also takes herself very seriously as an artist (much like Bono and The Edge, appropriately), and this could either be the key to “Spider-Man’s” success, or the root of its catastrophic demise. In a best-case scenario, Taymor will be able to meld the two Broadway schools of thought together to create a lavish, profound spectacle of a theatergoing experience, effectively merging the worlds of big budget theater with artistic innovation, and ushering in a return to the age of the critically-acclaimed, big budget Broadway smash.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a large scale, ornate Broadway production take itself seriously and become a popular success. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Broadway was all about the big budget epic—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Mis,” “Miss Saigon”—but that trend has diminished as audiences have been continually subjected to tired rehashings of a once-great Broadway motif. Anybody seen “A Tale of Two Cities?” Yeah, me neither.
If Julie Taymor is able to create a final product with a relative degree of artistic integrity, “Spider-Man” could be the first show of a new era of big budget Broadway musicals that aren’t created solely to entice confused tourists from Iowa to spend 90 bucks on tickets so they’ll feel like they’ve experienced New York Culture. I mean, for all its lavishness, “Spider-Man” certainly has the potential for greatness: a director with a proven Broadway track record, a score by two of the most prolific and arguably most important contributors to the last twenty-five years of popular music, and millions and millions of dollars worth of the best (?) design work money can buy (oh, and a rumor that Taymor’s “Across the Universe” stars, Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood, will play the leads). “Spider-Man” could end up being some transcendent shit, and could potentially do away with the idea that artistic vision and shitloads of money are mutually exclusive when it comes to today’s Broadway musical.
Or, alternatively, “Spider-Man” could serve as the death knell for commercial Broadway theater, squandering all its resources in a brilliant fireball of profound distaste, destroying any hope for revitalizing musical theater in the mainstream, and depleting potential monetary resources for lower-profile shows in its wake. Sony and Marvel Comics are both credited as producers of “Spider-Man,” but if the show is a massive flop, will large companies want to gamble on musicals in the future? Will we start to see more scrappy productions like “Title of Show” that rely solely on an electric keyboard for accompaniment, for lack of any sort of respectable budget? Will Broadway be transformed into a post-apocalyptic wasteland that we’ll tell our kids was once regarded with some sort of moderate legitimacy? I mean, no, hopefully it won’t get that dark. But “Spider-Man” sure could make a lot of Broadway folk look like pretty enormous jackasses.
Personally, I hope it’s a huge hit. Imagine Jim Sturgess in a skin-tight body suit, hair all mussed, gliding around on an invisible cable through an impeccably crafted facsimile of the Manhattan skyline, belting out some Bono-penned anthem about how great power and great responsibility go hand in hand. Then, he gets lowered upside down, and he and Evan Rachel Wood make out in the rain while The Edge takes a guitar solo that’s strikingly reminiscent of the intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Siiiiiiick.