Sunday, March 13, 2011

Spiderman The Musical and The Lowest Common Denominator

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to see Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway. After reading reviews in which it was panned, hearing from friends about the trainwreck it was, and catching articles online and in the paper about various accidents, it was pretty clear what to expect going in. And by the end of the evening, it was even more clear that I got exactly what I paid for. (My ticket was comped). 

Before anyone asks, yes, they stopped the show during the first act while there was a flying sequence with Spiderman and the Green Goblin. Both were stuck suspended above the audience for a few minutes as stage hands rushed out and slowly retrieved them from their wires. The audience was rather good natured during the process, probably because anyone who hasn't learned to expect that must have their head in the sand. Though, frankly, if this is still going on when previews started in November, I'm not sure they're ever going to work it out completely. Furthermore, if they haven't worked it out, I don't agree with them continuing to charge full price for tickets during the preview period. But we'll address that later. 

The show began with a "greek chorus" of dorks discussing their new Spiderman comic book. We get a flash-forward to the end of the show, and a glimpse of Spidey and MJ, and the set that is the real star of the show. But back to the dorky comic book kids. Instead of an origin story, they want to do the origin of the origin story, and we get a woven web of swinging chorus girls as they tell the myth of Arachne the weaver who was turned into the world's first spider. We assume this will be relevant later. 

Cut to a high school classroom where we find Peter Parker, whose performance I actually quite like until he starts to sing in an obnoxious Bono-esque character voice. (A surprise and a half there). We see Peter bullied, and we see how badly his and MJ's home lives suck. On a field trip to a laboratory filled with genetic experiments, he is bitten by the mutant spider that turns him into the superhero we all know and love. Then, in a scene that caused me to turn to my friend and whisper "Are they serious?", Peter Parker dressed in a 5th grader's Home Ec project Spidey suit battles an inflated wrestler for long enough that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. (I have this thing where it makes me uncomfortable to watch other people look foolish). 

After winning the fight, Peter Parker walks home with his cash when all of a sudden, there is a laughable car crash that kills Uncle Ben. I'd put my cynicism for aside for a moment and remove "laughable" from that sentence, but in reality, I'm just being honest, as the audience did in fact laugh out loud as it happened. The "With great power comes great responsibility" line is given the boot for now in favor of having Uncle Ben's dying words be a reference to a song in the show, "Rise Above". 

Meanwhile, the scientist from the genetic laboratory that housed the spider that originally bit Peter is busy being harassed by the government for his gene splicing technology. Due to his upstanding moral fiber, he refuses to let the government have access to his technology. Instead, he turns it upon himself, jumping into a pod borrowed from The Little Mermaid's Ursula, accidentally killing his wife, and turning himself into the Green Goblin, who coincidentally, is quite lacking in moral fiber, but has a green piano that he plays on top of the Chrysler building. (That's another embarrassing moment, but the audience eats this one up, so it will probably stay.) It was at this point that Spidey and the Green Goblin commence in the fight that would cause the first hold of the night, and end the act. 

The second act is a disaster for which the term "hot tranny mess" actually would apply in the most literal of ways. It features a scene in which an angry Arachne calls upon an ensemble of spiders, who come out donning, not extra spider legs as one would expect, but extra human legs complete with stockings, garters, and drag queen heels. They are easily upstaged, however, by the fashion show of villains in elaborate costumes that are pretty much Julie Taymor and the costume designer's masturbation come to life onstage, parading across the stage for her own pleasure and to stroke her own ego to no real point or purpose. (They are all destroyed in the span of about a minute and a half later in the second act in a cartoonish video montage projected onto large screen)

I'd try to follow the plot of the second act, but it's difficult to decipher. Arachne seduces Peter in his sleep, and he misses MJ's show. MJ is tired of his crap, and Peter, in his frustration tosses his Spidey suit in the trash. This enrages Arachne, who unleashes hell on the city in the form of a variety of supervillains. We find out later that none of this is actually real, but a fabrication of Arachne's to try and ensnare Peter. 

It ends with a scene that is blatantly stolen from Phantom of the Opera, so if you don't want either show ruined for you, I suggest you skip ahead. Having kidnapped MJ and trapped her in a web, Arachne fights with Peter, who then offers to stay with her forever in order to save MJ. In Phantom of the Opera, the same scene plays out with the Phantom realizing that even though Christine may choose to stay with him and end his unbearable loneliness, she would do so only out of love for Raoul, and that hard as he may try, she will never truly be his. In a truly heartbreaking moment, he sets them both free. 

Now, in Phantom of the Opera, where the characters and their motivations have been well developed for you, none of this is actually said out loud, the above merely describes his internal thought process that can be inferred by the audience. In Spiderman, sadly, those points are all painfully spelled out for the audience in a monologue by Arachne because no one in the scene has been developed well enough for such inferences to be made if they are not clearly stated. That doesn't make it any less embarrassing to watch. The audience actually laughed out loud. (As they did at many times when it was hardly appropriate... a comment moreso on the writing and less so on the audience).

So what? So it's a bad show. There have been loads of those in recent years. What bothers me is the fact that we're willing to settle for this. The original figure of 65 million dollars has been estimated to have risen to over 100 million. I can't even fathom how much money that is. 100 million dollars for Bono and Julie Taymor to masturbate on a Broadway stage and we're willing to take that. There's no substance to the show, no plot, no character development. Nothing but flashy lights and costumes, and a couple of stunt doubles hooked up to wires. They're catering to the lowest common denominator, and we're not demanding anything better. 

And it's not just that. It's all over the place. Movies, music, entertainment... we're settling. We're not demanding anything better. We're okay with shitty lyrics, autotune, explosions, and special effects. Where's the depth? Where's the humanity? I understand that some stuff has to be just meaningless fun or we'd go crazy, but still... can we demand excellence from somebody? Anybody?

Since writing this, Julie Taymor, ironically enough, has been fired. Although, if you read the articles, they'll phrase it a little differently...


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Celebrity Idolization

Newspapers. Magazines. Television. Lovelyish. Everywhere you look, there is some new article or photograph or sex tape about some celebrity pariah. And every time it happens, we're all compelled to look. Has anybody noticed that we care about this crap a lot more than we should? 

Is Hayden's boyfriend too tall for her? Oh my heavens, Justin Bieber cut his hair! Is Miley getting fat? How badly did Christina fuck up the national anthem at the Superbowl? And most importantly, what has Charlie Sheen done and said today? 

Do we really have nothing better to do with our lives? There are people today who are famous for absolutely no reason at all apart from the fact that the American public is willing to pay attention to them. What has Paris Hilton ever done to deserve the attention she receives? Why do we continue to perpetuate the popularity of Snooki and her crew when they do nothing but destroy the already limping reputation of New Jersey (since no one is smart enough to notice that they're actually all from other states, mostly New York). 

Debates rage on over whether or not teachers in Wisconsin are being paid too much, though I have yet to see many stand up and complain that there's no reason why Kim Kardashian should be paid millions to appear across magazine covers to discuss her cellulite. I mean, really? You're concerned about whether you might be paying too much to the people who are educating the youth of America and preparing them for the workforce while Charlie Sheen is sitting pretty on 2 million dollars per episode of a crappy sitcom to blow on cocaine and hookers and you don't even blink? Priorities, people.

The fact of the matter is, we idolize people, sometimes for talentless autotuned music, sometimes for mediocre acting, and sometimes for absolutely no reason at all beyond having a sex tape or being able to party harder and get arrested better than anyone else. How many so-called celebrities are actually famous without having done anything worth being famous for? We make them famous because we give them the attention required to be so. We know the name of every finalist on American Idol, but I highly doubt as many people could name recent Pulitzer or Nobel Prize winners. 

But at the end of the day, it's our own fault. We're the ones giving these people the attention they need to continue their ridiculous lifestyles. We're the ones who send the papa razzi after them so that we can see pictures of their ridiculous lifestyles. And maybe it's because we're jealous, and because we want a taste of things we can never attain. But maybe if we weren't so busy putting other people up on pedestals for no reason, we could actually accomplish something ourselves. 

If no one paid attention to Lady Gaga's ridiculous stunts, she would stop doing them. If no one talked about how ridiculously expensive Paris Hilton's useless birthday gifts were, maybe she'd keep it to herself. We're the ones going to their movies, and watching their TV shows, and buying loads of their ridiculous merchandise. Twilight is subpar teen literature that should haunt the shelves of Barnes & Noble's young adult section next to all the other teen vampires, but it doesn't because we're willing to give it a degree of attention far beyond its actual merit. In fact, we shun things that actually might have merit. No one reads the classics anymore. What does that say about us?

It says we have no standards anymore. We're content to let the entertainment industry pander to the lower common denominator, and we're happy to take that place at the bottom of the totem pole and wallow in it with our trashy reality TV and gossip tabloids. And you know what? It's fucking pathetic, and I'm disgusted by it. 

Don't worry, American Public, this is only the first post of the week in which I point the finger at you for allowing the degradation of our culture. But digging into the 65 million dollar debacle that is Spiderman really deserves a post all its own.