Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I logged on this morning to write about the Spiderman delay--one last time--but before doing so, thought I’d read up on what some of my colleagues posted on the topic this week.  We have a meeting of the Drama Critics Circle coming up and one of the topics is whether one should go ahead and review Spiderman in advance of the rescheduled March 15 opening.

I see that Michael Riedel--the gossip columnist for the New York Post--is clamoring for critics to purchase their own tickets for the February 7 performance--which was to have been the opening.  He suggests that the Spiderman folk are hoping the critics will purchase their own tickets on various dates and the reviews will trickle in having no impact.  He also suggests that the only review that will count is Ben Brantley’s NY Times notice.

Adam Feldman of Time Out New York said in his January 15 blog post:

exactly what I was going to say in my post today--and that is that we should leave Spidey and the creative team alone to do their work due to the fact that musicals are complicated of themselves let alone trying to coordinate all the never before seen technical elements that are being attempted in this show.

Looking at the line up of musicals slated to open this spring, most of the new shows have tried-out out of town (Catch Me if You Can, Wonderland) or been successful in London (Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Only the Book of Mormon has had a workshop and a reading but will also be in previews in New York City. The other musicals are revivals (Anything Goes and How to Succeed.)

Adam mentions Hello, Dolly! and the preview period out of town as an example of what can be won in an extended preview period.  Back in 1952, the so called glory days of musical theatre, the great director Joshua Logan was faced with having to preview the musical Wish You Were Here in New York City for a similar reason as Spiderman’s--the complicated set.  Wish You Were Here had a swimming pool onstage. 

The show opened to bad notices.  Logan greeted the cast the next day beaming, “It looks like we’ve got a hit!”  He then put the show back in rehearsals and with the aid of Jerome Robbins and Donald Saddler made necessary changes. (This was in the days before Actors’ Equity controlled how many hours a cast could rehearse while in performance mode.) Logan used to stand to the side of the house and watch the audience during the performance of the show.  When he saw faces looking bored he knew something was wrong on stage and set about to remedy that. He then invited the critics to return for another look.  The show became a smash hit introducing young Phyllis Newman and Florence Henderson to New York audiences.

Another example of a show that was changed after it opened in NYC was Camelot.  Camelot was overlong in the extended out of town tryout (“Camelot, cost-a-lot, cut-a lot” was the saying.)  Moss Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe all become so ill out of town they had to be hospitalized.  The show opened in New York without Moss Hart’s magic touch.  When he had recovered from his illness, he came to see the show and made some cuts that tightened and improved it.

The musical Merrily We Roll Along tried out in New York City and suffered at the hands of the gossip columnist Liz Smith who kept reporting how many people were leaving the theatre night after night as changes were put in effect.  How dispiriting that must have been for Hal Prince, Steve Sondheim, Larry Fuller and the young cast. Years later I attended a one night concert of the show and remarked to my companion at intermission, “I don’t understand why this show wasn’t a hit.”

These tales are now part of theatre lore. Who knows what will happen when the reviews of Spiderman come out--whenever they come out-- as far as issues of quality of the songwriting and storytelling.  I applaud the creative team for taking the time they feel they need to rehearse the new cast members safely and insert rewrites to enhance the show.

I agree with Adam Feldman that this may well change the nature of previews in New York for technically complicated musicals and plays and I applaud that idea.  To not acknowledge the time needed to accommodate technical advances is absurd.  We are no longer in the time of rolling wagons and painted backdrops after all!

The extended delay may also cause Actors’ Equity to reconsider how many hours a week an expensive show in trouble can rehearse without overtaxing the cast and crew.

Perhaps even the pricing of previews will change.  If I have any “issue” with extended previews, it’s that they used to be advertised as “low priced previews” and now they are charging regular prices and beyond. 

The next time you’ll hear from me on the topic of Spiderman will be midnight of March 15, 2011 when my review in the Yonkers Tribune and Westchester Guardian will appear.  That is--unless there is another delay.


  1. John,

    I think you're completely missing the point.

    I'm pretty sure that nobody is calling for an abandonment of the "no reviews during previews" for all shows. It's specific to Spiderman and the way in which the producers are misusing the concept of previews in order to make money - possibly at the expense of the theater goer or stunt actor.

    The opening of previews had been postponed for over a year for them to work on all aspects of the show including the script, stunts and music. In fact, the first night of previews would have been early november had they not experienced a serious accident which pushed first night back to the sunday after thanksgiving.

    I would contend that the producers drew a line on the ground and insisted the show start previews in November regardless so that they could get money in the bank over the holiday period.

    Having seen one of the early previews, I am not sure that the show was ready for previews (heaven forbid opening night). I can understand starting previews in order to gauge audience feedback and make necessary adjustments (e.g. Second act is abysmal, please change). But they were clearly not ready behind the scenes and had frequent stops due to technical issues, some of which caused injury to the cast.

    Ignoring the decision to start previews too early for a second, you then turn to the decision to extend the preview period while they work on the script. Each time they postpone the opening by a month, they have another 60,000 people watching a preview who paid to see the finished product.

    According to Variety, Spiderman has grossed over $10 million to date. Less than half of that was grossed by selling tickets to people who signed up for previews.

    If you are serious about not reviewing shows before they open, then somebody needs to address the issue of baiting crowds into the theater then explaining to them before the show starts that they are seeing an unfinished product (but don't worry, "all the aerial stunts will be performed" - implication: you might get to see one go wrong if you are lucky).

    Certainly most of the audience is not naive enough to think they are going to a non-preview, but I guarantee you that many of them were too apathetic to change their hotel and tickets and are judging their broadway experience based on the way that this production has treated them.

    So, complain all you want about how the rules are being broken. But you just ran across a production produced by rock and roll promoters. On tour the rules are different. You create a studio album - it gets reviewed. You do a week of rehearsals to an empty stadium. Silence. You open your world tour and everybody reviews it. You spend the next 2 months polishing the tour and hope that people get their money's worth. But the only people reviewing it after opening night are bloggers and reporters for the Metro.

  2. Mr. Simon...Thank you for your fairness and equitable treatment of a show that will prove its value over time. As a theatergoer who enjoys trying new things and revisiting the established gems of the past, I honor your objectivity. Those who have taken a catty stance on the issue of Spiderman seem to have done so at the urging of one rather vicious and angry man who prefers schoolyard gossip to true criticism. As the prior post reveals, there is plenty of residual anger about the grosses from Spiderman, which would suggest that audiences are coming to the show for its spectacle, as well as for an evening of storytelling. So be it. May all Broadway shows do well. It's a business as well as an art, after all. My thanks to you once again.