20 March 2011

Reviewing the Situation: 'Spider-Man' & the Press

On 8 January, Charles Isherwood wrote a column in the New York Times about reviewing previews. His comments were directed at the argument between the press and the producers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark because some reviewers—Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday and Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, in particular—had published criticism of the production. It was a topical issue because Spider-Man, as you all know, had been running in previews since 28 November 2010 and had recently postponed its opening once a fourth time, this time from 11 January to 7 February, making it a potential record-breaker for Broadway shows in previews. (Isherwood asserted that the Times would honor the official opening, but that the culture editor would reexamine that position should the opening be further delayed. As we know now, that's what transpired.) As a former review writer, I’ve been contemplating the question a little since it arose. The debate seems to be predicated on the dichotomy of reviewing a play in previews because they’re extended and the tickets are at full price versus not reviewing because the play’s not finished and the producers haven’t declared it ready for scrutiny. What no one seems to feel is that this is a false dichotomy because there’s a third option: to write a feature that’s not a review. Though it can still discuss the work as it stands now, a news report can also talk about the delayed opening, the lack of notification that the performances are previews (that is, dress rehearsals), that tickets are selling for full price ($180-$290 for Saturday night orchestra seats) for an unfinished product, and that it’s a money pit. That’s what I’d do. (In fact, that’s what I did in essence when I published an article in the Village Voice about the work on Blue Heaven [”As It Is in Heaven,” 22 September 1992]. Of course, that was at the behest of the director and playwright, and I was attending rehearsals, not a preview—but it’s basically the same idea. I plan to republish this article on ROT in a few days.) It’s simply theater journalism, I think—reporting on a current cultural event, and Spider-Man is unquestionably newsworthy.

Then Ben Brantley published a review of Spider-Man in the Times on 8 February, the Tuesday after what would have been the opening date before the producers postponed it the fifth time till 15 March. Many other outlets also ran reviews of the production. Most were quite negative, though much of the tone really sounded like sour grapes to me. Brantley actually said that he thought everyone in the audience was there to see an accident, and it sounded to me like he was, too. Maybe I read too much into his prose, but it felt to me as if Brantley, at least, wanted the show to be bad so he could pan it.

(I’m not going to capsulize or comment on the content of the reviews themselves. First of all, since I haven’t seen the play, it wouldn’t be fair and, second, there are plenty of sites on the web where a reader can find articles about the controversy which include quotations. Of course, you can go to the individual publications themselves and read the notices for yourselves. The main publications, aside from the Times, are the Daily News, New York Post, USA Today, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Variety, and New York magazine. Like Newsday and Bloomberg News, the Newark Star-Ledger ran a review earlier. Several of the review writers said they expected to re-review the production after its official opening. Several others said they wouldn’t. For my purposes on ROT, it’s enough to note that all the notices were poor to awful. The important point here is that they were written and published.)

The editors and reviewers all say that there was no collusion, according to Patrick Healy in the Times the next day, but the word obviously went out since almost all the press ran reviews. The producers are raising a ruckus over this, for obvious reasons: they think the notices are premature since they’re still actively working on the show. "The PILE-ON by the critics was ridiculous and uncalled for,” declared Rick Miramontez, press agent and spokesman for Spider-Man. “Their actions are unprecedented and UNCOOL!" The day the notices came out, he pronounced it “a huge disappointment. Changes are still being made, and any review that runs before the show is frozen is totally invalid.” I understand this, and I actually support them to a certain extent. In his book The Art of Writing Reviews (http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272), on which I commented on ROT, Kirk Woodward wrote of reviewing a play in tryouts:

The problem is, of course, that these reviewers bring back judgments on what are essentially works in progress. Someone may evaluate the way you’re dressed once you’re ready, but to pop into the room while you’re half-clothed and say, “That looks awful!” is absurd. No more absurd, though, than to report on a work in its tryout phase.

Kirk was writing specifically about out-of-town tryouts, a practice that isn’t followed much anymore, but the principal still holds—and applies in the current case of Spider-Man. In my ROT commentary on Writing Reviews (November 2009). I declared:

Even when the producers charge the same for a seat at the preview as they do for post-opening tickets, they’re still previews. You’re watching a dress rehearsal, you understand. The cast is still working, and sometimes things haven’t gelled—might even be changed before opening. Reviewers who see a performance before opening night aren’t seeing the finished product.

I still believe that, even in the face of the phenomenon of Spider-Man since, as I also wrote:

In many shows, the first time everyone has gone through the entire play with full tech and costumes the way it’s supposed to be seen by the audience is the final dress rehearsal. . . . In new plays, it’s not unusual for new lines and even new scenes to be inserted within days of opening; new songs can be added to musicals. Because of the labor-intensivity of the rehearsal period plus the union regulations, technical adjustments are often brought in at the last minute: costumes don’t fit quite right yet, set pieces haven’t been tested, lights aren’t focused right. . . . It’s more like the first time a cook makes a new recipe—it’s not really ready for primetime.

The further back from opening night you see a play, the less stageworthy it will be—though by “critics’ previews” the show’s supposed to be “frozen.” That only means no more changes can be made; it doesn’t mean the work is complete. To be fair, though, Brantley did write, “I would like to acknowledge here that ‘Spider-Man’ doesn’t officially open until March 15 . . . ,” thus noting that he saw a preview over a month before the production is now scheduled to open. The rest of the column, however, was phrased just like any other New York Times theater review (except, perhaps, a little more negative than most): there was no way to distinguish this review from one of a production that had completed its previews and had been deemed to be “finished.” In my view, that’s the incorrect approach.

Some in the press (and on the blogs) have described the relationship between reviewers and producers as an implicit contract. The producers give the media outlets free tickets for their shows, usually a pair of the best seats, in exchange for the promise that the writers will only see the performance when the producers want them to and won’t publish reviews until after a specific date, the “press opening.” Some critics of the move to review Spider-Man early have characterized it as a breach of the agreement. Others see it as a signal to re-examine the convention. On Huffington Post, arts journalist Leonard Jacobs cast the contretemps as a way to look at “what constitutes a critic and who decides,” because part of the argument review writers are using to justify publishing early is the fact that blog reviewers and on-line writers, with no sense of the obligation that traditional press writers have, are writing reviews or critiques whenever they buy a ticket and see the show. Isaac Butler, who on 5 January wrote on his blog, Parabasis, a detailed critique of Spider-Man, appended a note to his post in which he acknowledged: “I paid full price for my ticket and I have no deal with producers where they give me free tickets in exchange for waiting to see a show when they want me to. I also think that custom is somewhat arcane and should be rethought.” If blogger-reviewers can publish without limitations, where does that leave the print or broadcast reviewer? Some critics and defenders of the advance publication have debated that such web‑‘viewers such as Butler aren’t “critics” anyway and their posts aren’t “reviews.” (Jacobs pronounced, “Butler's post is quite manifestly a review.”) If sour grapes had been on the menu last 8 February, is it any wonder? The traditional journalists find themselves at the back of the line while all this good stuff is happening on their beat. Part of this response, I’m sure, is also a foreboding that Jacobs explains:

If a blogger-critic can attract thousands of readers a week (it can happen now, and will happen more in the future), and if a blogger-critic can buy tickets for a show and write about it, what will prevent that blogger-critic from generating even more readership, even more influence? What will press agents and traditional-media critics do then? How long will tradition, protocol and reality exist in opposition?

If you subscribe to this fear—and it’s certainly not at all beyond possibility, the way newspapers are shrinking and dropping arts coverage as more and more people turn to the ‘Net for news and information anyway—then there’s reason for traditional journalists to fight for a piece of the action. If the producers and some unspoken agreement that was put in place long before they were born are taking away their ability to cover their beat, why shouldn’t they fight back with the means that are at their disposal?

(I must confess here that this discussion has made me consider my own position. I, too, am a blogger and I write about theater, among other subjects. I don’t consider what I publish on performances reviews, but let’s be honest: they are critical analyses of productions even if they don’t fit any academic or journalistic definition of “review.” Now, I generally avoid previews; I like to see a play when the creators have decided it’s finished. But what if I do see a play before it opens? Would I blog on it? I don’t rush my reports onto ROT; I give myself the leisure of taking my time writing down my thoughts—and I even do a little research sometimes, which takes a bit more time. But would I publish before opening? I suspect I would, since I “don’t write reviews,” and I buy my own ticket, and I don’t write for a traditional media outlet. Those are all the same excuses the pre-reviewers (as Jacobs might call them) are using now, because the Isaac Butlers are already doing it. That may be why I feel kinship with the journalists even as I disagree with their final approach.)

Though I sympathize with the reviewers’ position more than a little, at least as I’ve stated it here, I think both sides are behaving improperly. The retributive tone of the reviews is unbecoming—and may make a reader wonder about the writer’s objectivity and sincerity. Are those really his opinions? Is she just twisting the knife while she has a chance? The Spider-Man reviews that appeared in February made it sound to me as if the reviewers and editors were pissed that the producers were holding them off (and charging full price for tickets—several of the writers stated what they’d paid for their seats), so they’ve taken a kind of revenge by panning the show in advance of its actual opening, hoping to damage it. I hope that’s not true, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Further, the insistence that the show’s cost is a reason to review it early is specious. The waste, if that’s what it turns out to be, might make us angry, but it’s no justification for breaching the producer-journalist compact. It may be worth reporting in context, such as to ask why, with such immense expenditures, the sets are so cheap-jack (if Brantley’s assessment is accurate). But it seems unnecessarily mercenary to harp on Spider-Man’s price tag as a rationale for going to print. (What’s the logic? They’re spending like Bernie Madoff, so I get to take a shot at them early? How does that make sense?)

Another claim used to justify the pre-reviews is that the play’s selling tickets and spectators are flocking to the theater, but they don’t know what they’re buying. Really? Isn’t that just a little arrogant? It presumes, first, that the reviewer is really just a consumer reporter whose responsibility it is to judge a product for sale and advise the paying customer whether it’s worth the price or not. I know that some arts journalists think of themselves that way, but most, I believe, see themselves as reporters covering the special field of the arts, in this case theater. Second, it assumes that the ticket-buyers need the reviewer’s opinion in order to make a decision, that the spectators can’t decide for themselves; and third, it takes for granted that there are no other viable sources of information available to the theatergoer—which is patently untrue since they’ve been arriving at the Foxwoods Theatre in droves even without formal reviews based, I would guess, on the scads of articles, reports, and rumors flooding the press, TV, and the ‘Net all this time. No, what this argument sounds like to me is frustration that everyone else is getting in their licks, and the traditional review writer is being left out. It sounds a little juvenile, doesn’t it?

I’ve proposed that journalists write on the production, even critically, not in a review per se, but in a report on the production, its status, its newsworthiness, and its issues. I don’t object to a writer assessing the quality of the production in such a report, but only as a work in progress. If a show’s been in previews for months, like Spider-Man, some evidence of the artistic work should be visible—and it’d be fair game for “reporting” (as opposed to “reviewing”). I don’t think this freedom ought to apply to a show in the normal run of previews, about four weeks, before opening. Though it seems wrong to write an actual review of a show that’s not finished, even if the official opening has been delayed for months because of problems, I think writers can say what they saw at the preview and describe the problems, as well as the assets, that are being presented to paying audiences. It’d be acceptable, for instance, for the writer to point out moments or aspects of the show that look promising, even though that promise isn’t fulfilled yet. I think a writer can couch this in terms that make it clear that work is still in progress and that the current state of the production is not its final form. That way readers can determine if they want to see the show now, in its interim condition, or wait till opening and see it finished. They know where they and the writer stand.

Linda Winer’s Newsday column on 25 December last year is a perfect example of what I have in mind. She reported on the aspects of the production that have been in the news (“four premiere push-backs . . . , four high-profile injuries, 19 previews at full price . . . , and public investigations by state and federal safety agencies”) and she commented on the current state of the show (“safety measures are being secured and director Julie Taymor is said to be making much-needed changes to the meandering book”). Winer also remarked on the reviewing debate (“it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can't see the bride before the wedding”). So she was behaving like a reporter on the theater beat, but she didn’t avoid making critical comments (“the surprisingly conventional Broadway-pop score by U2's Bono and the Edge”; ”Joshua Kobak [the flying Spidey], and his daring (especially in a fight scene with Patrick Page's terrific Green Goblin) was a highlight of the show”). Like a news reporter, too, Winer wrote about some non-performance elements of the experience, like audience reaction (“. . . he admired the sets and the special effects”; “. . . he was wowed by the stunts, but acknowledged that ‘the sense that something unsafe might happen is spectacular.’”) And to complete her approach, Winer acknowledged she was describing a work still in progress: “I understand that is the official purpose of previews.” Winer’s article, while including critical appraisal, was a report; it was comprehensive in its coverage, forthright and open, well written and even witty—a perfect model for what I think reviewers should have aimed for in their pre-reviews (though no one else did, from my perspective).

As for the producers, they may be relishing all the coverage, even if it’s been negative for the most part. (No publicity is bad publicity, I guess.) And maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re running in previews for so long. I remember a Papp production of Timon of Athens in 1996 that ran a month in previews and didn’t officially open until a week before it closed in order to keep the press out. Circle in the Square began previews of Hughie starring Al Pacino on 25 July 1996 and didn’t open until 22 August for a scheduled closing date of 31 August (though the theater added an extension until November). In the commercial theater, producers of Home Sweet Homer with Yul Brynner, knowing it wasn’t a good show, stayed on the road for a year before coming to Broadway and suffering from the reviewers’ opprobrium. (After 11 previews, Homer opened and closed on 4 January 1976. I think it may have gone back on the road, trying to outrun the New York reviews. I saw the show at the Kennedy Center in Washington—which had produced it—before it came here, and it was pretty awful.) In 2006, the producers of the stage musical Lord of the Rings tried to run their show, which was getting terrible reviews I recall, all over the place, mostly outside the U.S.—it may have been a Canadian product. I assume they lost a lot of money (and I don’t know if they’re still running somewhere like Canberra or Auckland), but my guess is that they knew the show would be lambasted in the New York press, so they kept it out for as long as they could to make money before the inevitable dénouement; they never did get into New York in the end. Considering how much they’re spending on Spider-Man, its producers obviously need to recoup as much of the cost as they can before they let the press affect their box-office appeal. (I don’t know if the economics works for them, with $65 million at stake, but I can guess that that’s their strategy. They’ve also been using focus groups to get spectator feedback—like a TV producer or a candy manufacturer.) Spider-Man isn’t doing out-of-town tryouts (they say their elaborate tech makes that impractical), so they’re using previews for the same thing. Unfortunately for the producers, previews in New York City don’t actually prevent the New York press from getting into the theater; it only means that convention is supposed to prohibit the reviewers from publishing before the play opens. Obviously that only works for a limited time. They got caught in February; we’ll have to see if anything comes of the publication.

With the wasted money—not to overlook wasted talent and energy—I don’t have much sympathy for the producers on this. Everything I’ve read, not just the reviews, tells me this is an unworthy effort. (If, as some say, Taymor’s working as if this were a movie, not a stage play, it’s kind of shameful since she’s a product of the stage, not film. Linda Winer, by the way, asserts Taymor’s intent is “to compete with arena rock, the Spidey movies and video games.”) The photos with the Times review showed characters in cartoon/comic book costumes. That’s more reminiscent to me of Disney on Ice than a legit stage musical. Taymor’s reinterpretation of the Lion King cartoon figures was brilliant—but she used stage conventions and traditions (intercultural ones to a great degree) to accomplish that, and that was fantastic. But this is almost like live-action CGI—the designers just translated comic book characters to 3D. It’s not interesting to me, theatrically speaking. The writing sounds like it’s just a pastiche of scenes with no cohesion, and until the February reviews, no one said much about the music that I’d read. The names most associated with Spider-Man, along with Taymor, are Bono and The Edge, the composers. Why hadn’t anyone written about their work? It made me suspect it isn’t very good—at least not for the purpose it’s intended. (My suspicions seem to have been right: Brantley subsequently dismissed the music without really describing it and even Jay Lustig, a pop music reviewer who wrote the Star-Ledger’s early notice of the production last January, didn’t say much about the U2 team’s contribution. Peter Marks of the Washington Post wrote half a paragraph panning the score and Charles McNulty gave it a whole ‘graph of bad-mouthing in the L. A. Times.)

If the producers are going to throw away $65 million on this kind of muddle and then diddle the press (not to mention the spectators) the way they have, I don’t feel particularly well disposed toward them. I still think the reviewers ought to have held off on running actual reviews and opted for something more reportorial, as Winer did. The producers don’t deserve complete indemnity, especially since, as it seems, they’re benefiting from the other coverage at the same time, but given the (perhaps unlikely) chance that Taymor, et al., might manage to fix the mess, they deserve the shot. Maybe the distinction is too small to matter, but the way I look at it, at least, is that a review is a final judgment, while an interim report is an honest appraisal of where the work is right now. Linda Winer has proved it can be done right, and her approach should be honored and emulated.

[When stories concerning Spider-Man started to appear, I began thinking about whether there was some aspect of the production about which I wanted to write. I found I wasn’t terribly interested in the show itself despite its reported cost, and even the safety question, the subject of much of the news coverage, didn’t move me to offer an opinion. When Charles Isherwood wrote his column in January about the early reviews, I thought again about writing something for ROT, but I wasn’t sufficiently engaged in the issue to feel that I had anything different to say than was already being published. When the debate heated up, however, with the publication of the February reviews in the Times and other periodicals, I was moved to express an opinion of my own that I think is a little different from those that have been published. So, I’ve added my voice to the conversation—which is, of course, how this process is supposed to work.

[For readers who are interested, here are the sources of the articles mentioned, referenced, or quoted in my ROT article: Charles Isherwood, “Review A Preview? Untangling A Web,” New York Times 8 Jan. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 9; Linda Winer, “Shedding a little light on ‘Spider-Man,'“ Newsday, 25 Dec. 2010, http://www.newsday.com/columnists/linda-winer/shedding-a-little-light-on-spider-man-1.256926 (Winer’s article isn’t accessible unless you subscribe to Newsday); Jeremy Gerard, “Spidey Flails in Taymor’s Tale of Spider Woman,” Bloomberg 26 Dec. 2010, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-27/spidey-green-goblin-flail-in-taymor-s-tale-of-spider-woman-jeremy-gerard.html; Ben Brantley, “Good vs. Evil, Hanging by a Thread.” New York Times 8 Feb. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 7; Patrick Healy, “’Spider-Man’ Early Reviews Set Off A Storm,” New York Times 9 Feb. 2011, sec. C (“The Arts”): 1, 5; Leonard Jacobs, “Ensnaring Theatre Critics in the Spider-Man Web,” Huffington Post 14 Jan. 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonard-jacobs/ensnaring-theatre-critics_b_806101.html; Isaac Butler, “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark,” Parabasis [blog] 5 Jan. 2011, http://parabasis.typepad.com/blog/2011/01/spider-man-turn-off-the-dark.html; Jay Lustig, “'Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark' – a review,” Star-Ledger [Newark, NJ] 18 January 2011, http://www.nj.com/entertainment/music/index.ssf/2011/01/spider-man_turn_off_the_dark_-.html; Peter Marks, “'Spider-Man' on Broadway: No superpowers needed to sniff out this stinker,” Washington Post 7 Feb. 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/07/AR2011020704088.html; Charles McNulty, “Theater review: 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' at Foxwoods Theatre,” Los Angeles Times 7 Feb. 2011, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2011/02/theater-review-spider-man-turn-off-the-dark-at-foxwoods-theatre.html. A couple of sites that I looked at but didn’t name are: John Simon, “Spiderman Birthpains,” Uncensored John Simon [blog], 29 December 2010, http://uncensoredsimon.blogspot.com/2010/12/spiderman-birthpains.html; and Mark Kennedy, “'Spider-Man' Musical Reviews: Too Early To Critique?” Associated Press, on Huffington Post 8 Feb. 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/08/spiderman-musical-reviews_n_820088.html. Some other pertinent sites include: David Cote, “Tune In: David Cote on WQXR's Arts File Friday,” Upstaged [blog], on Time Out New York 5 Jan. 2011, http://newyork.timeout.com/arts-culture/upstaged-blog/672707/tune-in-david-cote-on-wqxrs-arts-file-friday; and Jeff Lunden, “Angry Reaction as Theater Critics Cross the Line on 'Spider-Man,'” Hollywood Reporter 28 Dec. 2010, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/angry-reaction-theater-critics-cross-66191.

[After I wrote this article, the New Yorker published John Lahr’s review of Spider-Man (http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2011/02/28/110228crth_theatre_lahr). Furthermore, a brief notice appeared in the New York Times reporting that the producers had hired a music constultant for the score. Included in that short announcement were unconmfirmed reports that Spider-Man’s producers were talking to a script doctor and a co-director, and that the opening date might be postponed for a sixth time. Later, the producers announced an expanded creative team, a three-week shut-down of preview performances in April and May to revise the play, and a delay of the opening until 14 June 2011. The cost of the production is now reported to have climbed to $70 million.]


  1. The New York Times has published a review (in the "Arts" section of Monday, 4 November 2013) of a new book, 'Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History,' recounting from an inside vantage point the tale of the misbegotten production of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.' Mark Harris, the review-writer, characterizes the book, by Glen Berger, who'd been one of the librettists on Julie Taymor's musical project, as "less akin to a standard anatomy of a disaster than to a post-Watergate memoir . . . in which the teller of the tale shares culpability but at least had an awfully good seat from which to view the crime." Harris concludes that readers finish 'Song of Spider-Man' "knowing two things you didn’t after seeing 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.' Mr. Berger knows how to write, and he can tell a good story."


  2. On Tues., 19 Nov., the New York Times ran a brief article that reported in part:

    "The $75 million Broadway musical 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,' the most expensive theatrical production in history, will close in early January after months of declining ticket sales, one of the lead producers said on Monday night. A somewhat revamped version of the show is being planned for Las Vegas in 2015, according to the producer, Jeremiah J. Harris."

    According to the report, the reason for the closing after a three-year run was poor box-office performance against the high weekly cost of running the FX-laden show. On Wed., 20 Nov., the Times further reported, "Investors and executives with the Broadway musical 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' said on Tuesday that the show will have historic losses of up to $60 million when it closes on Jan. 4." Most Broadway shows, the paper said, cost around half as much as 'Spider-Man,' which cost an estimated $75 million, and lose $5-$15 million if they close before recouping their investments.