Some of my colleagues have wondered aloud whether Spider-man will ever be finished — whether it is, in fact, finishable. I think they’re onto something: I saw the show on Saturday night, and found it predictably unfinished, but unpredictably entertaining, perhaps on account of this very quality of Death Star–under–construction inchoateness. Conceptually speaking, it’s closer to a theme-park stunt spectacular than “circus art,” closer to a comic than a musical, closer to The Cremaster Cycle than a rock concert. But “closer” implies proximity to some fixed point, and Spider-man is faaaar out, man. 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. The 2-D comic art doesn’t really go with Julie Taymor’s foamy, tactile puppetry, just as U2’s textural atmo-rock score doesn’t really go with the episodic Act One storytelling. Yet even in the depths of Spider-man’s certifiably insane second act, I was riveted. Riveted, yes, by what was visible onstage: the inverted Fritz Lang cityscapes, the rag doll fly-assisted choreography, the acid-Skittle color scheme and Ditko-era comic-art backdrops. But often I was equally transfixed by the palpable offstage imagination willing it all into existence. See, Spider-man isn’t really about Spider-man. It’s about an artist locked in a death grapple with her subject, a tumultuous relationship between a talented, tormented older woman and a callow young stud. Strip out the $70 million in robotic guywires, Vari-lites, and latex mummery, and you’re basically looking at a Tennessee Williams play.
First, some background for the six people out there who remain (miraculously) unpolluted by Spidey-leaks. (Skip this paragraph if you have been in the loop.) Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark is a much-delayed project announced years ago; producers have come and gone like fall foliage. Taymor, a revered visual artist and anointed director of The Lion King, is at the helm, and co-wrote the book. A proud control freak, she saw in the Spider-man character a peculiarly American expression of ancient myth, and sought to put him in dialogue with the storytelling traditions that bore him. Meanwhile, Marvel Comics and the show’s producers sought to put Spidey in dialogue with tens of millions in front money, on the perfectly reasonable expectation that they’d see a healthy return. (This was back when the movie franchise was alive and kicking.) Since then, the show’s suffered several delays of its opening, the slings and arrows of a skeptical (and shut-out) press, and at least four high-profile accidents, some of them extremely serious.
The plot of the show leaked early, but still defies understanding. Sure, the first act is simple enough. It’s Spider-man’s familiar origin story, his transformation from mild-mannered dweeb Peter Parker into the famous Web Slinger. That arc is scripture for mass audiences, thanks to the first movie, and it’s charmingly carried out here by the L.A. rocker Reeve Carney in the lead role. The storytelling is assisted by a “Geek Chorus” of four nerds — one female (Alice Lee) and demonstrably sharper than the rest. (She goes by “Miss Arrow,” the name of Peter Parker’s feminine nemesis and “opposite number” from the comics.) They dream up a new story of Spider-man, complete with lots of swinging around — and here, Taymor delivers. Once the characters start flying (about 30 minutes in), they don’t stop. The entire theater becomes a human aviary, and at least four sequences are devoted exclusively to showing off the aerial rig.
Then comes the second act, which cliff-dives headlong into the realm of dream and myth, allowing Taymor to interrogate the Spider-man character (and, one senses, her own artistic rationale for taking a corporate job). But her primary interest in Peter Parker is announced early on, in Act One: Where did he get the suit? (He obviously didn’t make it. It’s too beautiful to have been created by a heterosexual teenage boy.)
As a Spidey-story, Taymor’s show is a solid B-minus. (Some of the story basics get garbled and whiplashed, and basic foreknowledge of Spidey 101 is strongly recommended, especially for patrons over the age of 9.) As a pop-art installation treating the subject of pop art, however, the thing is off the scale. What you’re watching is the stem cells of a protean imagination dividing and dividing and dividing, right out of control. Taymor’s mind discards what she’s made as fast as she makes it, always on the move, in search of its next impulse. A series of frames have been erected, one inside the other — the chorus, the superhero “origin story” — in an attempt to contain this monadic, nomadic Creator-force. But it’s no use. The result is savage and deeply confusing — a boiling cancer-scape of living pain — that is nevertheless thrilling.
Did I mention there’s a number where leggy lady-spiders try on shoes?
For those of you who insist on paying a century note for unfinished goods, I’ll try to respond to the burning-est of your burning questions, point by point.
1. Why does Glenn Beck like this show so much? The short answer is: Because it is a kid’s show. (Which contains not one but two chalkboard scenes!) The longer answer: It’s a kid’s show with somebody’s cockeyed gender-studies thesis stapled to its back. The even-longer answer: Beck and Spider-man both exist in a state of perpetual adolescence; both are serious little Trapper Keeper scribblers, stream-of-consciousness free-associaters totally enamored of their own bad poetry. The key distinction: Taymor’s bad poetry is still pretty ravishing. (Though both kinda make you want to stock up on canned food and gold.)
2. Do people fall and die? Not on my night. But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, either. There was a technical glitch at the end of Act One, which apparently recurs on several nights: It has something to do with a climactic aerial battle between Spider-man and the Green Goblin (Broadway superhero Patrick Page) on top of the Chrysler Building. (The Chrysler pistons in and out of this show so relentlessly, it must violate blue laws.) These were the only delays and stoppages I witnessed, but they were enough to mangle an already contorted late-act storyboard into total nonsense.
Not to worry, though: Tech screw-ups are apparently just a cue for Page to start vamping. He’s a master, and one gets the feeling he’s had plenty of practice. He was in the middle of an evil cackle when the stage manager called for a caesura. “That just takes the villainy right out of ya!” he cracked, to enormous laughs. Then he plopped himself down in full foam-villain drag at a prop piano and “played” a reprise of “(I’ll Take) Manhattan,” which Gobby taunts Spidey with, atop the Chrysler. (Yes, it’s true: The show’s most delightful musical moment comes not via Bono and Edge, but Rodgers and Hart.) Carney, his Spidey mask doffed, joined him, sipping a prop champagne flute. “Careful there,” said Page, still half in character, “you gotta fly out over the audience in a minute.” This broke up Spidey, and the audience, too. Page surfed it, swiveled into an aside: “You know, I hear they dropped a couple of ‘em.” Huge, ghoulish laughs. For a moment, we get a glimpse of the show’s potential as English “pantomime” — the sprawling, winking family entertainments they enjoy across the pond. Irony-wise, could it be Julie Taymor’s done by accident what Dance of the Vampires tried so hard to do on purpose?
At this point, I honestly hope they never fix the (non-injurious) glitches: They puncture the show’s pretense and furnish meta-theatrical opportunities that can’t be staged. We’ve had Epic Theater, we’ve had Poor Theater — is this the dawn of Broken Theater?
Corollary: Is it ghoulish that I’m half-expecting someone to fall? You bet! But don’t worry about it: Your gleeful morbidity is part of a larger cultural disease, of which Spidenfreude is only the outermost protrusion. And isn’t that half the fun of “circus art,” anyway? The phrases “death-defying!” and “without a net!” weren’t invented by Julie Taymor and Bono. Look, we’re sick fucks. We’ve always been sick fucks. The only difference is, nowadays we pay more for it than we did in the 1890s.
3. Is this really Spidey? Or something else Julie Taymor made up in her Krang-like crazybrain and labeled “Spider-man”? No, it’s Spidey. Or rather, it’s just as Spidey as Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing was Swamp Thing. Taymor’s doing what any big-name writer does when she takes over a comic-book title: She’s grafting her own obsessions onto it. Comics, despite all their surface pieties and supposed obsession with “continuity,” are an incredibly plastic form, a substrate for almost any sort of storytelling. Taymor’s taken full advantage of that, and announces her intention to meddle in the mythology by hauling out her “Geek Chorus.” The fanboys, who are engaged in some vague act of comics creation, announce their intention to create the most “disgustingly extreme” version of the Spider-man story. They’re challenged by Miss Arrow, speaking for Taymor, who argues with the received Spider-wisdom and posits a higher authority, Arachne (Across the Universe’s T.V. Carpio, perhaps a little too itty-bitty in voice-and-presence for a goddess role). Arachne, any student of the classics will remember, was the first spider — a human woman transformed by Athena after she won a weaving contest against the goddess. Turns out she’s the root cause of Spider-man, the Gaean original predating the male demiurge. In the form of that genetically modified superspider — for she is all spiders — Arachne gave Spider-man his powers. The not-so-subtle implication is that Taymor herself has now entered the stage: Artist and art have merged. (“I’m the only real artist working today,” Arachne cracks.) At this point, we learn that Arachne’s not just a weaver of cloth, but a weaver of dreams, and Taymor begins a light pillage of Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” mythos. (You can’t accuse her of not knowing her comics.) This also gives her free rein to break her own (already scanty) rules: Dream and reality warp and woof into a tapestry of total confusion, and the second act descends into mostly watchable chaos. There’s a supervillain fashion show, an unforgivably punny plot point involving “the world wide web” (it’s a web, get it?), and lots of swipes at the nasty old news media, with all its negativity and print-the-rumor churlishness. (Guilty as charged!)
Oh, it’s all nonsense, of course. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, even with the fervent annotations of the Chorus helping us through. The show’s metabolism speeds up in the second act, even as its central nervous system breaks down, and eventually, even Taymor seems to be feeling a little winded. She starts relying heavily on massive video-screens, featuring naive CGI versions of a villainous pantheon that includes Carnage, Swarm, and Lizard. The second act, taken all in all, is basically how I’ve always imagined the Björk–Matthew Barney honeymoon: lots of atavistic rock-moaning, lots of 40-story phallic symbols, lots of bees.
4. Is the music any good? As far as I could tell, there are only two U2 songs in this show: “Boy Falls From the Sky,” Spidey’s big motif, and “Rise Above,” Arachne’s song. The rest of the music is a warm, not unpleasant ear bath of urgent rock pattern-building. Much of it’s wonderfully cheesy, as if the Edge stepped out for a smoke and ceded the stage to John Carpenter. (Oh, if only!) I don’t expect to see U2 back on Broadway anytime soon, but it’s been fun having them over for an extended, if inconsequential jam. Reeve Carney’s voice is an excellent instrument for this sort of thing: He’s got an extremely gratifying rock tenor, nicely shreddy but never too emo-broken, and closer to Train than U2.
5. What’s it like out there in the audience? What audience? Hate to break it to you, Joe Ticketbuyer, but you’re just part of the scenery. The orchestra seating exists mainly to give us jeopardy (and a target) for the many flying people hurled overhead. Nervous? Don’t worry, you’re allowed to drink in the theater: Never before have I sat in a mezzanine so littered with beer cans! (Not to worry, theater snobs: They were Heinekens!)
So that’s where things stand with Spider-man, on this February 7. As maximalist camp, it succeeds thunderously. Is that what it intends to be? Irrelevant. To ascribe intent would be to limit the power of this show’s occasionally frightening, often confounding, always metastasizing imagination. I recommend Spider-man never open. I think it should be built and rebuilt and overbuilt forever, a living monument to itself.