Hey, Broadway-Based 'Spider-Man' Boosters: Twitter's Not A Supervillain

Spider-Man hangs over Manhattan

Hung up: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark has hit a few snags. Twitter, it will be argued here, isn't one of them. Jacob Cohl hide caption

toggle caption Jacob Cohl

There's been a fuss, and inevitably a counter-fuss, about the early previews of the much-delayed, notoriously troubled, gahonkingly expensive Spider-Man musical that's readying itself for a January opening on Broadway.

Justifiable fusses? In several cases — and on most sides. Let's review, shall we?

Yes, theater artists do need an audience to gauge the effect of their work. Yes, the way theater functions requires that its makers must be able to fail, and then to fix, without critics' poisoning the well by formally reviewing a show that's not ready.

And yes, as both Broadway veteran Manny Azenberg and Broadway newbie The Edge — yes, that Edge — suggested in an All Things Considered story last night, this $65 million show is by most accounts a thing like no thing that's come before.

(You read that right: We're talking about a Broadway show with a budget larger than that of many movies.)

That said: No, a judicious report on the public reactions of a paying audience isn't the same thing as a review. No, nothing much has been said this time that wasn't said when The Lion King — also the most expensive musical ever, at the time, also an improbable musical directed by Julie Taymor — tried out in Minneapolis toward the end of the last millennium, and as I recall, that one turned out OK.

(An aside: Look, I said a judicious report. No one should ever mistake Michael Riedel — whose New York Post gossip column is one of the commercial theater's more boorish chronicles — for anything other than a mischief-making pot-stirrer. Note that while Riedel's first-night report mentioned the lady who stood up and shouted about the repeated delays, it didn't bother to say that the rest of the audience reportedly booed her.)

And no, Spider-Man fanboys aren't ipso facto unreasonable for griping if they've plonked down a hundred bucks to see a show that arguably isn't ready for an audience. As David Cote wrote at Time Out New York's theater blog Upstaged this week, the cost of tickets to "what amounts to a glorified workshop" means it's "hard to find out who's the villain here."

(Another aside: If I were as big a comics geek as I am a theater geek, I'd cheerfully cough up that hundred bucks as the cost of admission to a fairly singular evening of experimentation.)

But even if you disagree violently with all of the above, perhaps you can join me in asking this question: Why do people wanna blame the Twitter for all this fuss?

Sure, the message-board threads at Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat contain as much look-at-me foolery as they do useful commentary. Certainly, some theater bloggers do little more than recapitulate plot points. And without question, there are some Twitter users who can be thoroughgoing jerks.

But to suggest that tweeting theatergoers or Facebooking ushers or blogging preview patrons — or honest newsgatherers who report these reactions in a measured way — are making it harder for artists to make art?

That's just silly. It hasn't stopped otherwise sensible people from suggesting exactly that. But it's still silly.

There's a reason actors tell you they don't read reviews. (Some of the sturdier ones do in fact read reviews, but most will tell you they don't.) It's because even after a show is ready, they don't want praise to go to their head or criticism to undermine their choices. Instead they trust their instincts, their colleagues, the process that got them to opening night.

That's the same reason Julie Taymor — one of the stubbornest, most inventive art-makers working in any medium today — almost certainly isn't paying any attention to Twitter and All That Chat right now. Neither are Bono and The Edge. What's being said there can't possibly be interesting or useful to them. They're the artists. They'll fix what's ailing the show, or they won't. They'll emerge vindicated or frustrated. Neither outcome is likely to hinge on input from strangers on the Internet.

To put it another way: Making good theater in the Age of Twitter is no harder than it was in the Era of E-Mail, or in the Perilous Time of TV Sweeps or after the Dangerous Advent of the Printing Press. People have always talked smack on the sidewalk at intermission. The trade journals and the truly obsessive have always tracked the conversation. And the genuinely creative have always known that if you believe the praise, you have to believe the brickbats — so they tune it out, take it with a grain of salt, learn to turn the buzz to their advantage.

What is harder these days, maybe? Making a buck. It's not Broadway's artists who worry about who's saying what during previews. It's Broadway's producers and publicists. The people, in other words, whose job it is to pay the artists and draw the crowds to the art — and to squeeze some dosh out of them as they pass through the theater door.

Is there a risk that the noise about the Spider-Man musical will spook backers, or make some potential audiences think twice about booking seats?  Maybe. On the other hand, producers announced Tuesday that they'd sold a million dollars' worth of tickets in the 24 hours after that supposedly disastrous first preview. So maybe that old saw about bad publicity still holds true.

Meanwhile maybe, just maybe, some of those anxious folks down at the commercial-theater docks will notice, once the current racket subsides, that the rope they're clutching so tightly has gone slack — that the good ship "People Really Shouldn't Tweet At Previews" has sailed — at which point maybe they'll start to think about how to surf the next wave of buzz.

Because as I expect you know, if you've read this far, there are some smart, passionate, articulate people on the Twitter. And even on All That Chat. Finding them, talking to them, engaging with them might just be as good a marketing strategy as waiting around to quote a critic who's weighed in in the ... what do they call them again?

Oh, right: newspapers.

(Full disclosure: I write about theater for a newspaper. I've been known to tweet at intermission. And I'm just barely acquainted with The Green Goblin, who's been known to give good Shakespeare when he's not being The Grinch. Haven't asked him about any of this, though, as I expect he's busy.)



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