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stage dive

Stage Dive: On Turning Off the Dark for Good

Last Thursday, I returned to the scene of the crime. I was honoring a ticket I'd booked to Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark weeks ago, back when I'd believed that the show's March 15 opening date would stick. It was a bittersweet reunion. On one hand, SM:TODT was — is — still riotously loony, never at home in its subject matter unless Spidey's in flight. On the other, I realized I was witnessing the end of something. It was the last time I'll see director Julie Taymor's pure, uncut vision of the Web Slinger, with its self-referential fussiness, goddess worship, and vinegary scent of mounting desperation intact. (It will continue to preview through April 19, then close till May 12, then return for another month of previews, opening June 14. Probably.) When next I make the forced march to the Foxwoods, Spider-man will have become the Broadway equivalent of the Barclay Center at Atlantic Yards: Having begun life as a much-criticized Frank Gehry white elephant, it seems doomed to end as a plain old much-criticized gray elephant.

The arachno-fun, I fear, is over. From here on in, producers will call the shots, and I expect the show to become more of the merely competent theme-park stunt spectacular that its money team intended (as opposed to the lavishly incompetent mess-terpiece it is now). Pity. I can take comfort in having tasted the original recipe — twice! It's something I can tell the kids about, an honor akin to having seen The Day the Clown Cried or the Eric Stoltz Back to the Future or Leonardo’s first draft of The Last Supper (the one where Mary Magdalene can be seen making out with Dan Brown over by the sundae bar).

How was Spider-man on the eve of "the change"? More or less its old crazy self. Nobody fell, nothing broke — the show played smoothly, with no (unintentional) errors. I was struck anew by the bug-eyed onanism of the second act and by the stuttery storytelling and incompetent songwriting of the first. ("Bullying by Numbers" ... wow. Truly awful song: shapeless, expressionless, endless. Having dealt Taymor the Death Card, Bono really ought to consider following through and firing himself.) A particularly superfluous scene between Arachne (the obsessed spider-goddess/dreamweaver/all-around Creatrix and Taymor avatar played by T.V. Carpio) and tabloid cigar-chomper J. Jonah Jameson (Michael Mulheren) has been snipped, and the "Geek Chorus" scenes have been radically rewritten, excising most of their rhymed couplets and replacing them with more lucid one-liner banter. I can't imagine they'll survive the scythelike edit that's coming. Nor will those interminable His Girl Spidey bullpen scenes at the Daily Bugle, with their fuzzy apologias for old media and finger-wagging warnings about "the World Wide Web" (still can't believe Taymor and co-author Glen Berger lunged for that pun) or the hapless swipes at cable fearmongers (which apparently sailed straight over Spider-fan Glenn Beck's head). Kiss all that stuff good-bye: I'm guessing it'll be first on the chopping block.

What will be left? Your guess is as good as mine. So guess, please: Are you sad to see old, crazy Spidey replaced by what will likely be a new, sane-and-sensible Spidey — a Spidey in a Cosby sweater, a Spidey who knows how to balance his checkbook? How would you change the show? And if you've anything to say to Arachne Emerita Julie Taymor, vent below. (She might even read it. She's got more time on her hands these days.) What shall become of the "mother being taken away from her family"?

Only a sub-bastard with a heart of solid Kryptonite would take pleasure in the fall of the queen. She is, by most accounts, tremendously depressed that her nine years — nine years — of work have ended in a Richard II–style usurpation. She apparently refused to alter the show substantially, especially her notorious Sunset Blvd.–meets–Sandman second act, and had it forcibly wrested from her mandibles. Will this harm her storied career? Only insofar as it injures her confidence, I'd guess. Spidergate pretty much buried the negative reviews of The Tempest, so there's a plus. Most of all: If Hollywood really is the new model for Broadway — big tentpoles, big blockbusters, big egos, big disasters — then a gi-normous Titanic like this could only enhance her profile — or at least her mystique, which might be more important. After all, you don't hire Julie Taymor to bring in your production of Our Town for under seven figures. You hire Julie Taymor to stage Ender's Game: The Musical on the moon. (Sidebar: You probably don't hire Julie Taymor to write it.) She'll always be in demand at a certain rarefied echelon of mega-art.

That said, I wonder if she'll want to return to that echelon right away. Taymor got her start making fantasy worlds out of paper and fabric. Now, her big-budget follies are being compared unfavorably (and a little unfairly, given the whole apples-and-oranges factor) to the shoestring spectacles of guerrilla bootstrappers like Les Frères Corbusier, the Kneehigh Theater, and the Fiasco Theater. Could we expect to see a return to the fundamentals from Taymor sometime in the next few years, after the spider bites heal? I hope so.

Photo: Jacob Cohl