Monday, February 14, 2011

An Entertaining Night At the Theater = Disquieting Thoughts on American Journalism

Last Saturday, this blogger, man about town that he is, or rather, man who bought his theater-loving wife a Christmas present, went down to New York and caught "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the musical customarily preceded by the adjective "troubled," a newspaper word meaning "oh, so much bad stuff you wouldn't believe."

We attended the play less than one week after reviews in the U.S. media which were historic in nature. Critics stretched the boundaries of their mastery of the English tongue to tell their readers and listeners how rotten "Spider-Man" was. "This musical is irretrievably broken beyond repair," said the Times. Don't look for that in the TV ads.

There was one exception. One prominent U.S. commentator LOVED "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." That would be Glenn Beck -- weaver of conspiracy theories, seller of gold, noted American looney tuney.

The balance of the reviews did not spur optimism as I walked up 42nd street to the theater. I looked at the marks being hustled into their caricatures drawn and thought "I'm gonna feel just like those suckers in about three hours, except I'll have paid $300 to do it." But hell, what lover of American popular culture doesn't deep down, want to say he saw the WORST musical in Broadway history?

That's not what I saw. For the record, Beck was right, or at least more right than the critics, who were not merely wrong, but pathologically so. They saw a show that wasn't there. "Spider-Man" may not be to every taste, but it doesn't FAIL. It's not terrible, just odd.

Again for the record, "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" struck this critic as a splendid show that was a mediocre musical, because the songs and lyrics, written by Bono and the Edge, were very weak. Most of them were as dull as the op-ed pieces Bono punches out for the Times, with that irritating droning background hum that's made U2 rich enough to dabble in other art forms.

But the spectacle was spectacular. Nobody got killed in any of the aerial stunts, which were terrific. The sets, staging and special effects were startlingly effective, and the cast ranged from perfectly acceptable (female lead) to outstanding (second female). Nobody wanted their money back, there was lots of applause, and, yes, the theater was a complete sellout, as it has been since the very first preview performance three months ago.

So what brought on the venom from the reviewers? What made "Spider-Man" an object of loathing rather than bored dislike? Why did none of them say, "I can't recommend a musical with such poor music" which would have been fair if in my view misguided criticism?

It wasn't a traditional musical? It's no "My Fair Lady." But Stan Lee ain't George Bernard Shaw, either. "Spider-Man" had an incoherent, silly plot? No kidding. It was based on a COMIC BOOK!! So the lead villian/doomed lover was the mythical Greek spider Arachne, looking to escape the eternal curse of the goddess Athena. Let me assure the guardians of the theatrical arts that this lifelong comic book reader has encountered countless plots more insanely detached from reality than that one. For Marvel Comics, it's actually pretty middle-of-the-road.

The only reasons I can come up with to explain a reaction so shared yet so different from my own are not flattering to the critics themselves. The easiest one is to assume that theater critics are, spiritually anyway, just like they have been portrayed in plays and motion pictures -- that is, inside each one is a poorly aging, bitter, bitchy poof dying to get out in print.

My second guess, which I believe is probably closer to the truth, is even less flattering to those critics. These reviews were personal. The critics didn't care for "Spider-Man's" endless delays of a formal opening night, or the highly publicized injuries to cast members helping spur ticket sales and let their disdain for the Commerce of "Spider-Man" totally shape their view of the musical's Art.

There's nothing worse you can say about a person who gets paid to deliver their opinions in print than to charge that they're hiding their REAL motives for giving an opinion. We all have prejudices. An honest commentator admits when his or her have been touched the subject of their commentary.

But I'm feeling good about people and life today, so I'll offer my charitable interpretation. The reviews of "Spider-Man" were what they were because the critics were just clueless. They came expecting one art form, Broadway musical, got another, weird Vegas mega-act, and could not compute the difference. That's a bad professional failure, but it's a failure with integrity.

To the critics, I offer this sentence of advice. Try always to remember that Ethel Merman did not sing "There's No Business Like Art Business."

To Glenn Beck, here's another sentence of advice. Have you ever thought of changing your journalism specialty?


Post a Comment

<< Home