This week, many of the leading theater critics attended and reviewed an unfinished performance of Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark on what was previously scheduled as the musical’s opening night. Given that the show has postponed its opening multiple times over, the critics’ rationale for early reviews was that Spider-man’s producers circumvented the system, so it’s only fair that critics follow suit. The whole situation raises an interesting topic. Is it significant that critics weigh in on a show before too much time passes? Or, put more simply, how much does Broadway need reviews? Broadway theater without reviews. In the world of live performance, it has an air of government without regulation. When it opens on March 15th, Spider-man will have had nearly four months of previews. And I’d argue that even the term “preview” is generous. They’re ostensibly dress rehearsals given that the creative team is still determining such details as…how it ends.
Critics write reviews to give their readers and the arts world a smart perspective on new work. In this case, they also do so to assert their value. I imagine it was satisfying for the community of critics to publish largely negative reviews about Spider-man. “So you want to abandon all Broadway protocol? Well, here’s what I thought of your show!” The New York Times’ Ben Brantley panned nearly the entire production, while New York Magazine’s Scott Brown admitted to being “riveted” not by the plot or music but the sheer entertainment value, in part due to the fact that the audience is comprised of “sick fucks”, waiting for the next actor to fall out of his harness.
It’s undisputed that a glowing review can do wonders for a new show or a budding playwright. In fact, the only shows that succeed in spite of bad reviews are large-scale, tourist-friendly musicals, like for example, Spider-man.
I think criticism has greatest value when it does more than laud or loathe a new show: when it offers a new insight about the art form and considers what the artists were trying to achieve. After all, every artist strives to create something amazing. Of course they do. There’s too much money, time, and passion involved to do otherwise.
Regardless of what Spider-man’s reviews portend for the success of the show, isn’t it cause for celebration when the hottest topic in town is arts-related? Even when it pertains to a musical where the greatest anticipation is for the next downfall.