Risky performance: when it’s not just a metaphor

Will the new Spiderman musical ever open?  It’s been prohibitively expensive to marry Julie Taymor‘s  vision to the music of Bono & The Edge.  I’ve read estimates of $65 million USD: and counting.  One wonders how many years of full houses plus road-show tours it would take to make back that kind of overhead.  Wicked allegedly earned over one million dollars per week, re-couping its initial $14 million in 14 weeks.  Supposing that prices and wages and costs rise the same amount (not necessarily so but we have to start somewhere, right?) that’s over a year before you’ve made back your investment.

But speaking of overhead, there are other more literal risks in Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark. People are getting hurt doing this show.  The news reports are testing that old axiom “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”.   The injuries are real.  But the show must go on.

The incorporation of circus performance techniques into a show are not unprecedented; in fact one could even say it’s a trend right now.

After working for Cirque du Soleil, Robert Lepage seems to have absorbed circus elements into his expressive vocabulary.

Erwartung COC 1992

Giving a whole new meaning to the expression "drives me up the wall".

But as far back as his Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung in 1992, Lepage seemed to have a thing for people walking on walls.  At the time I was thrilled by the effect, but never expected it to become a trope in Lepage’s work.

Yet that’s what’s happened.  For example, in the Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust that premiered at the Met in 2009 (previously seen in Paris in 2001), we see soldiers on wires , and demons dancing with sylphs on those same big walls.  More recently, we’ve seen several characters from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first installment of the Ring Cycle, suspended from wires.  From the very beginning, when we first encounter the swimming Rhinemaidens , until we watch the Gods entering Valhalla at the end, aerial performance is a big part of the presentational vocabulary.

But that’s where the resemblance to Taymor’s Spiderman ends.  Lepage’s use of the circus element appears to be completely safe, and comfortably married to his mise-en-scène.  While there’s most definitely a whiff of the  carnival in the pure spectacle to which we’re treated, it seems to have been carefully constructed with safety in mind.  That’s perhaps the big difference, when we factor in the invisible Ex Machina contribution, from Lepage’s production company.  Taymor and company are struggling in plain view with a much riskier proposition, whereas Lepage & Ex Machina apparently worked out the bugs before exporting their work to NYC and the Met.  During the High Definition broadcast of Rheingold we were even treated to a little bit concerning the orientation of the Rhinemaidens on their first day on the wire.  These are not aerialists, but opera singers, enlisted into a new look opera, and of course it was scary the first time they were suspended in the air.   The methodical simplicity of the Ex Machina approach was never so clear as now, in juxtaposition to the struggles of Taymor and her company.

Taymor's Magic Flute

Don't look over your shoulder Tamino....

One has to wonder if Taymor has asked too much of her team, and now is trying to make too much of a literal leap ahead in stagecraft.  I love the circus & the recent infusion of aerial elements into new venues and artforms.    Taymor’s Lion King and more recently, her Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute both depend heavily upon puppets and theatrical visual effects.  But the puppets are part of a poetic mise-en-scène relying first and foremost upon the imagination of the viewer.

Theatricality usually pushes my buttons, making me more engaged even while making it obvious how artificial the presentation really is.  Taymor seems to have forgotten about the role played by our imaginations, in her attempts to literally make Spiderman fly in the air above her audience.  I hope the show gets off the ground, even if the actors don’t.

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1 Response to Risky performance: when it’s not just a metaphor

  1. The $65 million figure is real enough. To recoup, given the size of the theatre and the show’s running costs (reputedly $1 million/week), it’ll have to play about two years at capacity. It’s possible that Broadway is intended as a kind of loss-leader for the show – it’s designed big, and there have been rumblings here and there that once it’s up and running successfully and safely on Broadway there’ll be some kind of arena tour, for which the grosses would be potentially much, much higher than they could ever be on Broadway.

    Beyond that – the injuries are very unfortunate, but it’s hardly the first show in which actors have had accidents. “Starlight Express”, in London, had a fairly high accident rate, I believe (due to actors on roller skates racing each other at high speed around tracks that were built out into the theatre), and there have been, here and there, some quite serious injuries sustained by actors on shows that would appear to be much less daring than “Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark”, as well as mishaps that could easily have resulted in serious injuries, but fortunately didn’t (Angela Lansbury narrowly missed being brained by a falling catwalk at a preview of the original Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd”).

    Having said that, it does appear that perhaps safety procedures at Spider Man have, shall we say, perhaps not been quite up to scratch. The letter quoted in the article in the link below is a masterpiece of subtext:

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