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Barbie Zelizer Headshot

Let Broadway's Spider Man Finish What It Started

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Since it opened in previews at the end of November, the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has drawn unprecedented attention from the news media, online websites, theater community and public. Though much of this attention has been driven by a concern for the production's safety, its intensity and prominence call to mind a moral panic, motivated less by the production's well-being than by upholding the arts in their present form. Spurred by the immediacy and rising role of new media, a less authoritative old media and a Broadway community unnerved by challenges to its longstanding aesthetic and social order, the attention shows no sign of dying soon.

The spotlight has been unrelenting since the production was conceived nearly nine years ago. As its creative team -- Julie Taymor, Bono, The Edge and Glen Berger -- lost and reestablished funders, worked up a $65m budget, and both intrigued and annoyed a Broadway community dismayed by the effect of an expensive musical about a comic-book hero on the complacent Broadway order, the production garnered unrelenting scrutiny. Attention spiked when early accidents raised the question of whether or not the creative team was taking too many risks and endangering the cast, and Broadway websites, in the best of times energetic trackers of theatrical shows, pummeled the production. When the show's first preview was halted multiple times due to technical malfunction, websites received hundreds of thousands of online hits, late-night television crafted parodies, and media reviewers tackled the show, violating the tacit agreement not to do so until previews -- performances held before critics are invited to visit -- were over. By the time last week's incident unfolded - in which dancer/aerialist Christopher Tierney fell when his harness malfunctioned -- the perfect storm for a moral panic had been set. Within hours the Broadway community weighed in on the morality of pushing performance thrills at the risk of safety. Calls were made to close the show, sue the creative team and put Julie Taymor in jail. Not only did Spider-Man surface as a trending topic on Twitter and a breaking international news item, but it became the target of a potential legislative hearing on safety standards.

Was this excessive attention -- unprecedented in Broadway history -- only about safety? Or did it also underline concerns over what the elaborate production could do to a community ironically profiting from the successes and risks taken by one of the musical's creative team? As both a media critic and a relative of one of the cast members, I think the latter.

When relentless and often spiteful attention plagues a production in previews, the creative process suffers. Though accidents, always possible in live theater, are never good news, what happened was not unprecedented. Accidents have beleaguered large-scale productions like Cats, Starlight Express and Wicked, often multiple times in a single production, and theater professionals were able to work around them without frenzied media and public attention. Different here is the onslaught of critical attention toward a show still working out its kinks. After the AEA pronounced last Monday's accident the result of "human error," New York state legislators held a press conference about the show's safety even while new safety regulations, suggested by OSHA and the New York State Labor Board, had already been rehearsed.

The mainstream news media have jumped into the spotlight for reasons of their own. A few days ago the normally reputable news organizations of Newsday and Bloomberg News further broke the tacit agreement not to review a show still in previews and offered "pre-reviews" of the production. The New York Times, citing the full price preview tickets, cautioned it would "wait, but not forever" to review the show. But previews, customary with shows untried off-Broadway or out of town, have extended for weeks since the late 1970s, and charging full price for previews alongside discount tickets is now more the custom than not. Spider-Man has run only 20-odd previews and discount tickets are available, suggesting that the mainstream media's clamor to review the show prematurely is out-of-synch with general practice.

The sudden interest in an industry that normally gets little mainstream scrutiny is peculiar, and its origin seems motivated by more than just safety concerns. Driven in part by the frenzy of new media and social networking sites and the corresponding and increasing sense of irrelevance on the part of mainstream news media, the scrutiny towards Spider-Man draws too from the angst created by challenging the hierarchy of the arts. Despite the unprecedented attention to multiple aspects of the production, bypassed in discussion have been the underlying anxieties about what the production suggests more broadly -- about the viability of long-held distinctions between high and low art, between theater, movies, comics and circus, and between enlightenment and spectacle.

Moral panics occur when concern over a perceived threat to the social order sparks intense media attention, often irrational public debate and the involvement of people not immediately associated with the issue at hand. Is the difference between a Sondheim musical and a comic book adaptation creating an unnecessary panic about Broadway's future? As new media play off of their newfound centrality and old media try to stay relevant, a moral panic riding on the back of safety concerns has been able to hide the underlying unspoken threat to the Broadway order.

While much of what has unfolded this past month has no doubt helped build a safer environment for actors, much of the scrutiny -- the rush to judgment, impassioned and often ill-informed critique, unrelenting media attention - has also made it harder for those same actors to concentrate on their work. As a taskforce prepares to examine the broader safety of theatrical shows, it is worth remembering that moral panics often drive a rush to institute policies which may then create problems of their own. In the meantime, the damage done to the production by its own community, the media and the public could stifle the development of Broadway's ever shifting social and aesthetic boundaries.

Safety remains supreme. But there is a better way to ensure its centrality. Lost in much of the back and forth of this moral panic has been the resourcefulness of the cast, crew and creative team, who need room to breathe so as to resolve the issues before them. To assume they cannot or will not is distracting, disruptive and disrespectful of the often-shaky creative process. As one cast member posted on Facebook, "for all you people who think you are helping out by closing down the production to make it safe for us...please stop tripping and let us do our jobs."

Still in previews and nearly six weeks away from opening, the cast, crew and creative team of Spider-Man should be allowed to finish what they started. Turn off the media and public spotlight and the moral panic that drove it, long enough for them to do what they need to do without every move being watched, debated and criticized.