What’s that mantra Spider-Man’s always brooding over? Something about power and responsibility? Well, I don’t flatter myself as having much of either, but I have been meditating on Peter Parker’s motto quite a bit ever since the producers of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark pushed back its opening date for a third time.
Now this “troubled” yet nonetheless lucrative megamusical — The People’s Musical according to noted theater-diva Glenn Beck, who considers three-figure Spidey tickets to be the only commodities worth owning in this uncertain economy, other than bullion and bullets — will open on March 15 (“the final postponement!” according to lead producer Michael Cohl), after a record-setting hundred-plus preview performances. When it opens, it will have enjoyed over one hundred free rides, at full price, with no potentially contrary reviews to slow its juggernaut progress at the box office. (Spider-Man continues to gross close to a million dollars every week, with average ticket prices around $100 — in a down economy.)
Preview performances are part of the normal, healthy development process of any play or musical. Every show makes use of them, and every critic keeps his or her distance until they’re finished. (Some changes and adjustments simply can’t be made without the participation of live audiences.) But the producers of Spider-Man have quite demonstrably abused, confused, and perverted this long tradition of creative civility between theatrical endeavors and media outlets, charging up to $250 for what sounds an awful lot like … rehearsals. And they seem disturbingly comfortable continuing to do this indefinitely; indeed, we have no guarantees that the next opening date will stick, or the one after that. And so, after careful consideration, I’ve decided to respect the original revised opening date, February 7. A review, or something not unlike one, will appear on or shortly after that date.
I know, I know: I said I wouldn’t. And I maintain my reservations. I respect and cherish the preview process, and I’d hate to see a new “pop-in” precedent set — the idea of “pre-reviewing” unfinished shows appeals to me not in the slightest. (This almost certainly won’t happen, by the way, if only because critics want to see a completed show and write a single, definitive review.) I could buy a ticket and review it right now, of course, but I think that might be playing right into the hands of the producers. This is, after all, a show widely derided on national late-night TV for its incompetence, its conceptual incoherence, and its tendency to do bodily harm to its cast — yet it continues to set box-office records, week after week. To the backers of the show — who I’m hoping aren’t as critical as they now seem — a continuing dribble of negative press might be preferable to an avalanche of critical assessment on opening night.
The producers, whenever they plead for a few more weeks, tell us this is an unprecedented show, and this lack of precedent must be respected without stint or cease, while crucial dollars are recouped. So I respond in kind: I’ll be writing an unprecedented early review of an avowedly unfinished show (followed, of course, by a final review of the finished show — on March 15, or whenever it occurs). This isn’t churlishness, and it isn’t something I plan to make a habit of. But in service to our readers, whose money and time are at stake, it’s not something Vulture and New York Magazine can avoid. And so, after curtain on February 7, the dark will be turned off here at Stage Dive. And if I’m found the next morning hanging from a lamppost, smothered in web-goo, I suppose the cops will know whom to question.