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Lights up on Spiderman (the Taymor Version): A Scathing Review of the Scathing Reviews

By Laura Strausfeld

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark

Music and lyrics by Bono & The Edge
Book by Julie Taymor & Glen Berger
Foxwoods Theater
213 W. 42nd St.
Tickets: (800) 745-3000


To quote one of Bono's convoluted lyrics, "Open your irises."

Something's afoot. I paid (half) the price of admission to enjoy a good afternoon of schadenfreude with my kids on their spring break in March. I'm an (off-off Broadway) theater director and admit to admiring Julie Taymor enormously. That doesn't mean I wouldn't have been happy to see evidence of her Icarus moment. (No one's yet offered me a $70 million-dollar directing budget.)

But what I saw--in scene after scene--was Taymor's genius and the glaring injustice of the reviews I'd read (most notably Ben Brantley's) and of Taymor being fired by the shows' producers. On that point, the show was packed and the audience appeared to love it. Were they blaming Taymor for the boatloads of money they were making before the show closed for retooling?

If you're reading for a now moot recommendation, you have it. Spiderman was a phenomenal theater experience--despite the unconscionably horrible music and lyrics. My ten-year-old son had his fingers in his ears for the entire second half. The songs, without exception, weren't just unsingable and unmemorable; they were unlistenable. That only elevates Taymor further in my estimation, not only as an artist, but as a human being--or perhaps as a businesswoman. If I'd been in her web, I would've brought Bono down with me. But as far as I know, she hasn't publicly stated the truth of her directorial dilemma: she was given music that bites.

Every character who crooned in the show became Bono, which means he or she was obtuse and megalomaniacal. The main anthem--"Rise Above," sung by Spidey near the end (it opened with the typically pretentious lyric: "When the ones who run the firehouse / Are the ones who start the fire…")--made it explicit: Bono is Spiderman. It wasn't a surprise, then, that Spidey sang this to the character with whom Taymor was most identified. That would be the mythological Arachne. One of her very unfortunate James Cameronesque lines was, "I'm the greatest artist living today." Arachne, like Taymor, did rise above the fray in the end--by killing herself off to spare Spidey. It was all too rich. When the female ensemble members reacted to the Daily Bugle editor's persistent refrain that Spiderman wasn't any good, they were practically beseeching the audience to take note: "How can the Times' say this sucks when we're sitting here having such a good time?"

From what I understand, Taymor took on the hubristic task of reinventing the modern musical. Who among us, with a budget of $70 million, would do otherwise? I can't say she succeeded wholesale, but she did create the most visually imaginative show I've ever seen on Broadway. The opening image--of six swinging women weaving a tapestry that spans the entire stage from top to bottom--was itself worth the price of admission. From the foreshortened desks in the next scene, to the endless play of scale and perspective throughout, the show wasn't just visually captivating; it was enlightening. Like great art, it made us see how we see. (The second act, I will concede, was video-heavy and less interesting than the first, and I did wonder if that was because 1) Taymor ran out of steam, or time, or 2) Bono's second-act music was so much more wretched than the first that Taymor just gave up.)

Which all leads to the question of what's afoot--or rather, afoul? I saw Das Rheingold at the Met last fall, mainly for Robert Lepage's beastly set, which reputedly cost $16 million. No one's tallied the cost of the Met's entire production, which might be at least twice that for a much shorter run than Spiderman has already had. Nor has anyone broken down Spiderman's budget to see, for instance, how much of it was really Taymor's to play with. I don't mean to denigrate Lepage. I do mean to wonder, however, if he would have been canned had Spiderman been his baby.

I confess to not knowing much about Bono before seeing Spiderman. I've respected his social activism but found him embarrassingly humorless next to Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert on TV last year. Aware now that he perceives himself a superhero, I would want to ask him to "rise above" himself and resuscitate his Spiderman collaborator publicly. I would applaud a new ending to this debacle: Arachne, aka Taymor, doesn't die in the end. . . . And maybe a few new and decent musical numbers.


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