On an afternoon last week, as I was getting ready to see a preview of Spiderman, I read a New York Times report that the opening of this mega-musical was being delayed again until early February. A month ago, I had purchased my (discount) tickets for a few days before the previously announced opening night: December 20. Since moving to New York, I have tried to see certain shows a few days before their official opening so that I could form a response to the piece before the establishment critics “tell us what to think.” Alas, that plan was squashed when the producers delayed the opening until early January and the latest delay in the opening means that the show I saw may have little to do with the show that opens in February.
For those of you who do not live in NYC or are not addicted to the theatre gossip websites, getting Spiderman up and running has turned into a show unto itself. Delayed first by funding problems (the current cost is estimated to be $65M and counting) and then by its much ballyhooed techno-gymnastics, the rehearsals were plagued with injuries and initial performances included as many as five complete total halts to the show. In fact, before my preview performance began, one of the lead producers spoke to the audience, explaining that we were about to see a preview and it was possible the show would have to stop – I had already told a friend, who was scheduled to see it a few days after me, that we could compare stops after we had both seen the show. The producer went on to explain that should the show be stopped during our performance, the stage manager’s headset would be broadcast over the theatre’s speakers so that audience could hear what was going on “behind the scenes” during this interruption — a sort-of “reward” for being guinea pigs.
I am sorry to report that show played without interruption the night I saw it. But this experience does provoke some thoughts on previews and what used to be quaintly called “out-of-town tryouts.” My passion for theatre was formed by out-of-town tryouts. Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia in the 1960s, I would take the train into Philly on Saturday afternoons to see the latest show in its pre-Broadway run at one of the four functioning road-house theatres. I saw good and not-so-good shows. Mame, with the extraordinary duo of Angela Landsberry and Bea Arthur, was among the former; and Kelly, a legendary flop about a man who jumped of the Brooklyn Bridge and survived (three times!), was among the latter.
One of the major changes over the last few decades in the way some Broadway musicals are produced has been the elimination of out-of-town tryouts. Cost has been the main reason given for this change. As certain types of musicals became bigger and more technically complex, producers felt it was too expensive to fully mount the show in a theatre outside of New York prior to opening. Instead, these producers have opted for an extended preview period in the City. Generally, this has proven to be counter-productive. While the mainstream critical community has generally accommodated these productions by not reviewing the shows until their official opening, word-of-mouth (and that new vehicle for the word-of-mouth, the internet) has taken over the evaluation of shows during long preview periods. This means that the fate of most shows is sealed before the public is “told what to think” by the establishment critics. The role of critics has not been eliminated; their impact has just been altered. They still have a significant influence on the length of a show’s run, particularly with the shift in the Broadway audience to a much more tourist-based demographic. Tourists now make up over 60% of the Broadway audiences, a reversal of the split between locals and out-of-towners just 20 years ago. A recent report by The Broadway League (the owner’s and producers’ organization) noted:
For show selection, critics’ reviews were the most influential factors for playgoers, followed closely by personal recommendation. However, 48% percent of theatergoers at musicals said that personal recommendation was the single strongest reported factor in deciding which show to see. (Press Release 12/8/10)
There are still shows that use the old pre-Broadway out-of-town try-out scheme. The Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC try-out towns have been replaced by Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. I first experienced Wicked’s sorcery in San Francisco (before Joel Grey replaced Robert Morse as the Wizard) and Ragtime’s epic majesty in Los Angeles (before Audra McDonald assumed the role of Cole House’s wife). Wicked opened to mediocre reviews in San Francisco (as it did in New York – but went on to defy critical opinion to become a cult hit). Ragtime opened to glowing reviews in Los Angeles, only to be over shadowed by The Lion King-mania (and good but not glowing reviews) on Broadway.
And that demonstrates an essential difference between the two routes to Broadway. Out-of-town try-outs provide a very different environment for working on a musical. Unlike shows previewing in New York, try-outs receive reviews by the local press at the start of the try-out run and audiences know they are seeing a work-in-progress. Theatre history is full of stories of shows that received bad press out-of-town only to go on to being major hits on Broadway. When Hello, Dolly opened in Detroit, a local critic dubbed it the equivalent of a “blue baby,” so David Merrick booked it into an extra try-out run in Washington to allow Gower Champion and company the opportunity to make sure “Dolly will never go away again.”
Unlike straight plays, musicals are collaborative efforts. A whole range of individual artists – music and book writers, directors, choreographers, designers, etc. — have to work together to produce the end product. The only way to know how these elements will come together into a fluid and engaging production is to see how an audience responds in a theatre. There are many wonderful stories about the “miraculous” changes wrought out-of-town. Fiddler on the Roof’s Anatevka went from being a major 10:15 dance number to a plaintive song of mourning as the villagers exit their homeland into the unknown at the show’s end. “Comedy Tonight” was added as the curtain raiser for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,setting up the ribald tone for the evening’s entertainment. Out-of-town try-outs provided time to add and delete songs, change dialog, and even add and eliminate characters (not to mention the not infrequent changes in personnel, both behind the scenes and on-stage). There was also time to make additional changes between the out-of-town closing and New York opening.
In theory, extended in-town previews are supposed to provide a similar period for exploration and revision. But, as this season’s musicals demonstrate, it’s not the same. There were reports about Spiderman’s difficulties from day-one, even in the mainstream press. Injuries and stops in the performances were reported. The web was full of details on the opacity of the second act and ho-hum score. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown suffered from similar pre-opening negative buzz. Lincoln Center Theatre delayed the start of previews twice and a few days before I saw the last preview of “Women on the Verge,” the mainstream press reported that a major production number had been moved from Act II to the start of the show. So, as I sat watching the mess of “Women on the Verge” unfold — with sets changes that were far more complex than necessary, a book that was clearly struggling to find a stage equivalent for Almadovar’s cinematic lunacy, and a wonderful collection of Broadway’s performing royalty making bad choice after bad choice – I kept thinking about how this show needed work outside of the glare of Broadway. If only it had opened out-of-town…
There is an alternative route that has become increasingly effective: workshops (always a part of in- and out-of-town schemes) followed by productions by smaller New York companies off-Broadway prior to a transfer to Broadway. Perhaps the best example of this in the recent past was Grey Gardens, which received several workshop productions followed by a successful off-Broadway run at Playwright’s Horizons. In fact, Playwright’s Horizons has a grant from the Mellon Foundation to produce three musicals in a similar fashion. More commonly, the in-town road from workshop to Broadway relies on the chance of a show coming along at “the right time in the right place” and the determination of the production team to get their show to the Great White Way. Recent success stories using this route include In the Heights, Next to Normal, and Avenue Q (the latter two, in my opinion, the best and most original shows of the last decade).
So, you ask, how was Spiderman?
Does it matter? After all, you will never see the show I saw. Ms. Taymor has already indicated she will be changing the show’s finale, reworking the second act, adding and deleting songs, and who knows whatever else. But here are my general “out-of-town” thoughts:
The show has lots of visual stimulation. The sets and the flying spectacle are consistently interesting. However, somewhat surprisingly, the design and direction lack an overall conception, one of the hallmarks of Ms. Taymor’s work. It looks like over the many years of the show’s evolution, the collaborators had many different bright ideas and, rather than molding those ideas into a unified whole, they simply poured huge amounts of money into using every idea as it was conceived without any reference to the dozen or so other ideas represented. For example, there is a beautiful use of weaving banners to form the spider-goddess Arachne’s web-like tapestry at the start of show, but that theme is never used again, even though Taymor has centered the action around Arachne’s redemption. There are wonderful moving representations of the New York skyline that contrast with the black and white, forced perspective cut outs of Peter Parker’s (a.k.a Spiderman) newspaper environs, but his home is created with moving panels that form 3D walls. Unlike the extraordinary unity of concept found in Taymor’s The Lion King and Magic Flute, currently Spiderman is more like a series of “E” ticket rides.
Contrary to “the buzz,” I found the second act much more interesting than the first. While the first act is the Spiderman we know (and many love), the second act is Ms. Taymor’s effort to make the proceedings mythic. The main thrust for the action is Arachne’s effort to mate with Spiderman and escape the curse of Athena. But for some inexplicable reason, Ms. Taymor and her book collaborator, Glen Berger, have chosen to frame the action of both acts around a collection of four teenagers (the “geek chorus”) who are writing the story we are seeing. In Act I, their arguments about the plot are a distraction that frequently slows and interrupts the flow of the familiar story. In Act II, the members of the Geek Chorus more directly interact with the characters in their story. However, these interactions, in which “the geeks” ponder what should happen next, only interfere with the sense that we are watching something mythic (i.e., outside of the imagination of four teenage computer freaks).
The book writing is humorless and flat. There are many places in the script where an old fashioned “book doctor” could make the dialog much more snappy and character-specific. The music is less than thrilling. A few songs work particularly well; most add little to the story, the flow, or the spirit of the show. And then there is the flying – it’s quite impressive and it certainly adds excitement at crucial points in the story. But in the end, this is not Cirque du Soleil. It’s a musical play. Mary Poppins flies over the audience too, but that show has a unified style and story that engages its audience.
Surely there will be much more weaving of this web over the next seven weeks of previews. I’m tempted to buy another ticket for a few days before the newly established opening date. The producers have guaranteed the audience that the opening will not be pushed back again – but, of course, that’s what they said the last time they delayed the opening. Maybe they should consider taking it out-of-town for a while where would-be pundits like me could not interfere with their efforts to make the show really fly.