Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spiderman Birthpains

    A curious item in The New York Times of December 28 gave me pause--actually more than a pause: theatrically speaking, a whole intermission. It concerns the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which two critics went and reviewed even though it doesn't open till February 7. Under ordinary circumstances this would be highly unethical: like grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.
    But the excuse of the two reviewers--Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday--is that at $65,000,000, this is the most expensive show in Broadway history, and worldwide curiosity has been growing. Its acrobatics have caused four cast injuries--one extremely serious involving a thirty-foot fall. Its premiere has been postponed four times, and there have been nail-biting cancellations during three weeks of full-price previews at $75 to $150, and almost the double through brokers. Actors Equity and state and federal safety agencies have conducted public investigations. Director and co-writer (with Glen Berger) Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame, is making numerous changes to the book, particularly in the shaky second act. for which U2's Bono and The Edge, the songwriters, are writing two new numbers.
    With international interest clinging to the much written-up goings-on, critical coverage may have appeared indicated. Still, we know that all is fair in love and war, but is it also in troubled musicals? Mr. Gerard even states that his non-scalper orchestra seat cost $292.50, presumably the kind of chutzpah that calls for no mercy.
    Telephonically queried by The New York Times, he quoted from his notice that it was "an interim report," and promised to revisit the finished show for a bona fide one. Ms. Winer similarly responded to the Times with a quotation from her published piece (hardly a review), asking wasn't it "nuts that critics should be the only interested parties who can't see the bride before the wedding?" Actually, the trope is unfortunate, it being firmly held that the bridegroom--as the metaphor implicitly casts the critic--should not see the bride before the ceremony.
     As I said, Ms. Winer, who doesn't declare her ticket price, doesn't really write a review either. She mostly quotes the comments she obtained from various audience members, and calls her article "preliminary observations." This doesn't diminish the onus. Most newspaper readers are more likely to honor the opinions of other theatergoers than those of the critics. Then again, even these theatergoers managed to be pretty wishy-washy--presumably not for reasons of ethics. The title of Ms. Winer's piece was "Shedding a Little Light on Spider-Man," which light hardly amounts to a struck match.
    Mr. Gerard, on the other hand, writes a full-scale review. Not having had the good or bad luck of seeing the show in previews, I cannot properly evaluate what he has written. It sounds balanced--half of it positive, half negative--either perfectly justified or carefully calibrated to appear neither cajoling nor craven. I consider it, however, unfair to the show, and certainly discourteous to other critics whose publications could or would not cough up $300 for a preview review.
    If the idea is that critics are to be part of the process of helping a troubled show, perhaps they could be invited to the preview performance and make oral comments to the artists.  When Kiss of the Spiderwoman was trying out at New Musicals and was prematurely reviewed in the New York Times and elsewhere, I went up to see it but didn’t write about it—rather, I spoke with the producer Marty Bell about what I liked and didn’t like.
    There have been three or four previous instances of pre-reviewing, but the first time I can recall was in 1979, with a musical called Sarava, which shows how manners, even in such relatively trivial matters, have deteriorated. That one ran prosperous lower-price previews for six months before the papers' patience gave out. Although there were some favorable reviews, there were enough poor ones to close the show. I didn't catch Sarava, but am willing to believe that it got what it deserved; whereas Spider-Man, for all I know, may end up sufficiently improved to merit better. Well, we shall see. Until then, all I can say is we'll see if it's ca va or Serava.




21 comments:

  1. Didn't Pauline Kael "pre-review" Robert Altman's NASHVILLE back in the day in order to prevent the film from being trimmed by its producers? That kind of effort I can understand. In the theater, perhaps, a critic with some clout might help a besieged perfectionist like, say, a Jerome Robbins, if such talented geniuses are still permitted to work in the theater.

    At any rate, welcome to John Simon! Pretty good set of gams you're sporting -- lucky a giant tortoise didn't take a bite!

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  2. It must be some sort of historical distinction to the be the second person in the whole wide world to comment on the brand new blog of the infamous John Simon. Welcome to the blogosphere. For the record, I say let Superman preview as long as it wants. If audiences don't like paying high prices for "previews" they can wait. Nobody's forced to buy a ticket to a Broadway musical.

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  3. Great to see you back, Mr. Simon. I look forward to reading your work.

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  4. Your friend, Michael Reidel, has lead the mob in this appalling practice to which you refer in your wonderful article.Will you call him to account on your next appearance on Theater Talk?
    He has become a latter day Addison DeWitt minus the wit. However, this kind of gossipy venom will sell plenty of tickets. The real tragedy is the precipitous degradation of genuine theater criticism.
    God, we've missed you Mr. Simon.

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  5. Could it be that your degradation of Jeremy Gerard has something to do with his being your former editor at Bloomberg, and is now your successor as critic? And do you really think it is appropriate/ethical for a critic to privately "advise" a producer and then review the production? Hmmm.

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  6. Great to read your post, Mr. Simon! I shall be seeing "Spider-man" this week...but I promise I will not be writing a review.

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  7. Ah, John John,
    It's good to have you back.

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  8. Glad you're back! Of course, you never really left. You're aesthetic sense is always a ray of reality.

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  9. Bloomberg can have Jeremy Gerard. Who cares what he thinks? Pandering rubbish and log rolling. He was an editor? Who is he anyhow?
    Thank you John for your new blog, a constant ray of clarity in a morass of meaningless pop culture.

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  10. To claim that a Broadway musical is in "previews" while its creators appear to be only halfway through writing and staging it, and its opening night is indefinitely postponed, is absurd. In the case of 'Spiderman', the decision to begin previews was purely economic: the producers direly needed ticket revenue to keep this budget-busting production afloat. Only a show with the pre-sold appeal and hype of 'Spiderman' could ever exploit the strategy of selling months of 'preview' tickets to a musical obviously not ready for public performance. Other shows don't have this luxury since they typically face limited demand for preview tickets. How many past Broadway failures might have been successfully 'fixed' if their creators could have delayed opening night indefinitely? 'Spiderman' has an unfair advantage in this respect. So it is entirely fair for critics to post interim reviews of 'Spiderman' since audiences attending month upon month of 'previews' should have the benefit of knowing what they can expect to experience along the way.

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  11. Response to tomlogan: Whether you regard Jeremy Gerard as a genius or an idiot really isn't the point. The point is this: John Simon left Bloomberg involuntarily, and may harbor some bitterness toward his previous editor and current successor. Ethical journalism would suggest that he at least acknowledge his relationship with Gerard. But Simon plays by his own rules, or makes them up as he trudges on.

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  12. Response to critic: Could it be that you are Jeremy Gerard?

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  13. Great site, Mr. Simon, thank you!

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  14. "Whether you regard Jeremy Gerard as a genius or an idiot really isn't the point. The point is this: John Simon left Bloomberg involuntarily, and may harbor some bitterness toward his previous editor and current successor. Ethical journalism would suggest that he at least acknowledge his relationship with Gerard. But Simon plays by his own rules, or makes them up as he trudges on."

    Learn to read, "critic." Simon indulged in full disclosure in an earlier blog post on the same page:

    "These are my views, quite irrespective of those of Jeremy Gerard, my former editor and now successor at Bloomberg News. If Bloomberg News wants to spend the money saved by firing me on buying tickets for shows, however distant, expensive or inexpensive, to be pre-reviewed by him, so be that too. I may judge it, but certainly not begrudge it."

    In other words, he was quite open and minced no words about his being fired. Your implication that Simon was hiding his true, nefarious motives or having a secret, vindictive agenda is false.

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  15. I love it when the feathers fly! Thanks, John Simon! Good luck with your blog!

    Thomas Brady (Scarriet)

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  16. John, the way you make the case for not reviewing seems to suggest that a critic owes his or her professional duties first to the industry, next to fellow critics, and only then (I assume) to the theater-going public. I can see the argument that a critic should render his or her definitive judgment on the finished work, and if a critic can't do that having seen a preview, then that's a good reason not to see one. But given that there is clearly a stronger than usual public interest in the show, and in particular, whether or not it is any good, I think a newspaper is more than entitled to provide its readers with an interim answer to that question. To say that they should not tell their readers whether a show they may pay a fortune to see is worth it out of obligation to the producers of the show or to other critics seems to me to misconceive the role of critics entirely.

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  17. we saw it and jus loved !
    had such a huge advance...pity it never got it together ...

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