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.