Spider-Man: The Musical; Actually Not Such A Bad Idea?

Posted: July 6, 2009 in Braak, poetics
Tags: ,

Maybe you’ve heard about Spider-Man:  The Musical?  The big-budget broadway musical being directed by Julie Taymor, with music by U2, and featuring Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood?  (I’m going to be honest:  I don’t know who Evan Rachel Wood is.)

You probably thought what most people thought when you head this:  “That’s…stupid.”  If you’re like me, or Holland, or anyone who’s seen Batman Beyond, probably your first thought was of the hilarious Batman musical that Bruce Wayne stomped out of before intermission.

I am here to tell you:  Spider-Man the Musical is not such a bad idea.

Okay.  Okay, wait.  Just listen, okay?  Just hear me out.

I have a long history of being accused of hating musicals, and this is actually demonstrably false.  There are plenty of musicals that I love.  In fact, the confusion stems from the idea that I generally hate the genre of musical theater, when in fact I just happen to hate 90% of musicals in particular.

The reasons for this are myriad, but stem basically from the iron-fisted domination of sappy, formulaic, overly-sincere, saccharine stupidity that’s been foisted on us as an American Tradition.

However, there is not anything implicitly bad about the idea of a musical.  It’s kind of neat, actually, and it’s kind of expressionist:  you use music to express things that you don’t want to specifically state in the script.  Perspectives, feelings, moods, ironic commentary.  I mean, we actually do it all the time in the movies–you tend to forget how important a soundtrack to a movie is until you try watching it without one.  It’s not that big a cognitive step to move from “music as a supporting feature” to “music as a tool of character expression.”  And the idea that people live in a world in which they express things by singing would definitely not be the weirdest cosmology that I have willingly suspended my disbelief in order to accept.  Certainly, not implicitly any weirder than a world in which radiation gives people super-powers.

Anyway, there are definitely a lot of ways that a musical like this could go horribly wrong.

Problem: Too sincere.  Musicals often suffer from this, but it’s usually okay (well, comparatively okay), because we live in a society in which it is acceptable to be sincere about the fact that you love a girl but you don’t think that she loves you blahaaahaghghh…  It’s harder to get people to accept this state of hyper-sincerity about genre stuff (remember the Lord of the Rings musical?  Of course you fucking don’t).  In fact, one of the big criticisms of the Spider-Man movies is how heavy-handed and just sincere everything was, all the time.

Solution:  If the play is going to go wrong anywhere, it’s going to be here.  But, as I said, the idea that musicals have to be super-duper-sincere about everything is an artifact of culture, not of structure.  Music can be used to describe ironic commentary as well–I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Threepenny Opera, but you should be.  Brecht and Weill were committed to intellectual stimulation by departure from Wagner’s zany, art-by-mass-hypnosis plan.  Julie Taymor has got a pretty good track record, certainly in terms of design–and the abstract-design approach (giraffes are clearly guys on stilts, Caliban is imprisoned with his head stuck in a giant brick) is based on the same aesthetic model.  So, well, it could work, right?

Problem: Not sincere enough.  I hate these guys even more than the too-sincere ones; it’s one thing to watch someone sing about how great love is for three hours–it’s something else when they’re fucking winking at you all the time.  You know plays like this:  they fit on my chart under “Musicals About Things You Wouldn’t Make Musicals About Are Hilarious.”  Evil Dead:  The MusicalZombie:  The MusicalMenopause:  The MusicalFuck You:  The Musical.  These are musicals that rely, 100%, on the pre-existing awareness and adoration of the standard-crap musical model; so, the idea of singing something heartfelt and meaningful about something dumb makes us laugh.  Well, it makes some people laugh.  The musical Urinetown leans very heavily on the, “haha, isn’t it funny that we’re singing about something dumb?” trope, and that fucker put me right to sleep.

Solution: Again, there’s a line to walk.  However, the idea that this play won’t be serious enough seems way less likely than that it’ll be too sincere.  But Julie Taymor’s got a solid track record–by departing from the realistic approach Disney had used in its previous musicals, Taymor could have easily let The Lion King become a joke.  But she didn’t.  Titus has some weird, weirdly funny pieces in it (remember when Jessica Lange dresses up as a monster to convince Anthony Hopkins that he’s lost his mind?); Taymor definitely embraced them, but they don’t overwhelm the piece.  And, indeed, the source material itself is already noted for its tendency not to take itself too seriously (when it’s good, obviously).

So, good chance there.

Problem: Dumb music.  There are lots of people that love musical music, and I don’t know what their problem is.  Not only is it always about the same things, not only does it always sound the same, but the actors have to sing identically in order to sing it right.  It’s like, when we sat down to make a great American Tradition, we ended up just making sixteen songs and forcing people to sing them over and over again.  You could switch out 80% of the Rogers and Hammerstein canon without anyone even noticing; even with some of the notoriously famous composers (people really like Cole Porter, and that’s something I’ll never get, either) there’s no really connection between the play and the music.  It’s just a bunch of commercial jingles that they built a stupid play around.

Solution: Well, U2 is probably going to be a big help.  I’ll admit that I also think most U2 songs sound the same:  the Edge plays six notes on the guitar while Bono sings the title of the song very slowly, over and over.  But!  At the very least, their music–which is often dramatic, thematically complex and consistent from album to ablum–doesn’t sound like standard musical music.  It sounds like ACTUAL music, which would be a huge step forward for the genre.

Problem: Dumb stories.  When you talk to people who like musicals, they give you exactly the same arguments about why musicals don’t really suck that people give about why Transformers 2 didn’t suck.  “It’s a musical, it’s not supposed to have an intricate plot.”  “It’s a musical, it’s not supposed to have three-dimensional characters.”  “It’s a musical, it’s not supposed to treat with anything of moral or intellectual complexity.”  Even plays that would be served by it (Once On This Island, for example) get the same, “Oh, it’s not supposed to recognize the fact that Haiti is crippled as a nation because of centuries of racism and colonial oppression.”  All of which amounts to:  “Musicals are supposed to be fucking retarded.”

The Solution: Well, just because musicals are supposed to have flat characters, dumb plots, and utterly lacking in intellectual stimulation doesn’t mean they have to.  All that has to happen is people just need to start writing better stories.  Again, Spider-Man’s got an advantage here:  the source material already has characters that have been fleshed out over the course of 40 years.  There’s mountains of plot to sort through to find one that’s good–and the comic itself has a history of dealing with edgy issues and moral shades of gray.

Problem:  Spider-Man onstage!  He’s got to flip around, and things explode, and the Green Goblin has a jet-powered surfboard in the shape of a bat that he flies around on.  How the hell are you going to do this onstage in a way that doesn’t suck?

Solution:  Julie Taymor.

So, actually.  You’re right to say, “I don’t know that I want there to be a musical of Spider-Man,” because you’re probably thinking of American Tradition musicals, which are stupid, sincere, diabetically sweet (or else self-consciously bittersweet), and all sound the same.  Or, maybe you’re thinking one better of Counterculture Musicals, which are identically stupid, identically sweet, identical sounding, but are too smart to really care about things, oooooh.

However.  The alignment of elements behind the Spider-Man musical actually suggest that it has a better than average chance of circumventing those major problems–leaving it with a better than average chance that it’s not as bad an idea as it seems.

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Comments
  1. Moff says:

    WELL U2 PROBABLY THINKS ALL OF YOUR SONGS SOUND THE SAME TOO

  2. braak says:

    Any musician that can’t tell the difference between “Fuck Those Punk Rock Suckers” and “Love Me Some Sandwiches” isn’t worthy of the name.

  3. Moff says:

    I forgot about “Love Me Some Sandwiches.” I still can’t listen to it without crying, without thinking of…her.

  4. Amanda says:

    When I heard about this somewhere around a year ago, I wanted to throw up in disgust because Broadway is turning into just another version of Hollywood, as opposed to being its own cultural mecca (please don’t start to debate that and tell me that Bway has always been capitalistic and this is a natural progression blah blah blah because what I mean is that at least you had new stories in each medium, not xerox copies. And don’t tell me that there are no new ideas either, because I think you get my point!). AND ALSO, I despise Disney musicals for the very reason I’m inclined to despise Spider-Man, and I’m not sure how to clearly explain what I mean except that it’s something to do with having the overall feeling of a theme park show, as opposed to an example of that ever-elusive genre of Art or Literature or Theatre or whatever it is that has caused live theatre shows to give you the chills, whereas theme park shows just make you want to go on rides…..They don’t reach below the surface and into that part of you that thinks and feels and inspires. Don’t know if I’m making sense but suffice it to say: GRRR TO SPIDER-MAN THE MUSICAL (even the title is stupid: “Turn Off the Dark.” Wtf-?).

    SO

    The reason I wrote all that is to say that I want to hate this show, but they keep attacking my aversions, personally, by hiring people that I FRKIN LOVE like Taymor and Bono and Alan Cumming…..And so I still want to hate the show, but then I start to wonder how the combinations of so many awesomes could equal something ridiculous. Well maybe it could in the same way that a peanut butter and jelly, butterscotch, mashed potatoes and gravy, spaghetti, gruyere cheese, hot dog, cheetos ice cream sundae would be gross: by themselves all of those elements are orgasmic, but together- blechk.

    ANYWAY, I must comment on a few specific things from your blog….sorry. But you chose to write about something I feel very strongly about….Yes, I love musicals.

    1) As someone who professedly hates musicals, I don’t think you can say that all musicals have dumb music. It’s like, someone who hates cheese might think that all cheeses are the same, or someone who doesn’t drink wine would say that all wines taste the same, but this is incredibly untrue and a bit insulting, quite frankly. There have been many musicals where songs have crossed over from the stage onto the radio. Not so much in recent times, but definitely when the Great White Way was at its peak.
    You then go on to say that all U2 music sounds the same and again, this is equally narrowminded and shows a superficial examination of their songs. They haven’t remained a successful, chart-topping group for DECADES for no reason. And you also say that their music will make musical music sound like “real music” and that this will be a “huge step” for the genre, but really I’m not even sure what you mean by “real music”….I could arguably call the work of theatre composers a lot more “real” than some of the top radio artists of today- or even of the past….Would you call Beethoven’s work “real”? Or Britney Spears? Frank Sinatra? But not Cole Porter or Gershwin? Do you know how many Porter and Gershwin songs Sinatra sang? Do you know how often the chords from Pachelbel’s Canon show up on popular radio songs? Maybe you just meant POPULAR music, because I’m not sure how Broadway music isn’t real…It certainly – in many instances, though not all – takes a lot more work and a lot more time to compose. There are no canned beats or sure-fire chord combinations that can be recycled again and again to create a tune that will sell on the dance floor: each song in a musical – if done correctly – needs to work towards a purpose unique to only that story and that show. Sure there are many instances where songs are shuffled together and then the show is written around them, but this is nowhere near a majority. Every genre has its catastrophes as well as its legends. It seems to me like you are talking of only one era in musical theatre history, but in reality the genre is developing and changing all the time….

    2) Anyone who says that musicals are not supposed to have a plot or character depth (or whatever the quote is), is just as dumb – or at least as ignorant – as that statement is.

    As a fellow playwright, I can jump out of my chosen guild and say that I truly feel it is 1000 times harder to write a musical than it is to write a play. There are so many more elements to take into consideration (I can say that from a position of awareness because I write plays, so it’s not like I’m some biased, proud, musical writer). I’m of course not saying you have to like musicals, I just think you can dislike something without furthering steretypes or ignorance about someone else’s mastery. You can aknowlege the skill in something, even if you do not feel particularly enthusiastic about it.

  5. Moff says:

    I just want to add that while I do not by any means think all of U2’s songs sound the same, I do still think “the Edge plays six notes on the guitar while Bono sings the title of the song very slowly, over and over” is really great.

  6. V.I.P. Referee says:

    The only “self-consciously bittersweet” musical I’ll accept is “Chicago” because that cutting emptiness is so relevant to it (the nod to a crashing empire, pre-code era romance—sex + sadness + “getting by despite…” dissapointment—); plus, it’s really, really entertaining. And you’re not pissed when some of the lyrics catch in your head. By the end of it, you feel like a veteran of hoofing and Ziegfeld (no “A Star is Born” sentimentality, here) and actually accept the characters’ motives, like ’em or not.

    I’ll never understand why “Rent” ever came to exist, though. Or Andrew Lloyd Webber (none of it: Him, his stuff and the Sarah Brightman connection). Agreed on your “Cole Porter” opinion, excluding one or two of his items. However, Gershwin has occasionally broken my heart…

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    As soon as I heard this news, the first thing I thought (other than the ‘Batman Beyond’ reference) was, I can’t wait for Norman Osborn to belt out “I know I’ll go crazy if I DON’T. GO. CRAZY. TONIGHT!”

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    Ah-ha! Here is a link to the “Batman Beyond” scene we’re referencing –

    Best part? Elderly Bruce Wayne’s response to Terry, who brought him: “You hate me, don’t you?”

  9. Moff says:

    If anyone’s interested, btw, here’s the lone track available from the musical version of A Clockwork Orange that Bono and Edge were working on in the late ’80s, before Anthony Burgess put the kibosh on the whole project (and an article from the old fan-club magazine for some context). I suspect strongly that the Spider-Man music will hew a lot closer to traditional U2 stylings, which is too bad, kinda; a lot of people would love to hear whatever else came out of the Clockwork sessions:

    U2, “Alex Descends Into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova 1”

    Also, “turn off the dark” is from a song Bono cowrote with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart in the early ’00s called “American Prayer.”

  10. Amanda says:

    That’s really funny about the Batman Beyond scene!

  11. braak says:

    @Amanda: Oooh, well, look at Amanda who wants me to be all open-minded about things. Here’s me, just explaining why I don’t actually hate musicals, and why I’m not willing to write off Spider-Man, the Musical, based on some kind of arbitrary expectations of what things are supposed to be like, but is that enough? NO! I have to ALSO examine in DEPTH what makes musicals what they are, and I ALSO HAVE TO LIKE U2! WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?

    First of all, the idea that all U2 songs sound the same is actually a joke. You can tell because it’s narrow-minded and superficial, and while I sometimes PRETEND to be narrow-minded about things, I think that my lengthy defense of vampire lifestyles last week shows that I am not, in any way, even CLOSE to being narrow-minded.

    Peculiarly, though, you chose to defend your U2 argument with “they’ve been a chart-topping successful band for decades,” which I’ve already explained is a bullshit position (a subset of Everyone Shut Up and Let Buying Decide).

    As I’m sure you noticed, I argued that U2 working on the music for Spider-Man is actually a plus. This is because I like U2.

    Now, as to the problems with the music:

    Look: fuck Cole Porter. I fucking hate Cole Porter. You know what? I’m ALLOWED TO FUCKING HATE COLE PORTER. You know what else? I don’t care how many god-damn Cole Porter songs Frank Sinatra sang because I ALSO DON’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT FRANK SINATRA.

    I do like George Gershwin, though, so go figure. I don’t like Gershwin musicals, though.

    Would I consider Beethoven music to be real music? Yes. Would I consider Brittany Spears music real music? Well, it’s mostly made by the Neptunes, so I definitely wouldn’t consider her a real composer. Also, I think it’s pretty shitty music.

    Now, you could argue that musical music is, indeed, more “real” than most modern radio music, although this would be pointless. I don’t think most modern radio music is real music either–and for many of the same reasons! Like, you know how there are no standard chord progressions in musical theater music? That’s bullshit! Yes, there are.

    Wait, fuck, really? Are we really having this argument? About whether or not modern musical theater as a product of the tradition established by Broadway isn’t STANDARDIZED? Really? Look: my problem is that people who make musicals are under the catastrophically grievous misapprehension that “musical theater” is a style of music. Bands–good bands–that make music are invariably noteworthy for not having a particular style; or, rather, for changing it according to the kind of music that they want to make. Good composers and musicians evolve over time. The musical tradition does not.

    Which is just as well, because “musical theater” is the worst kind of style there is–it’s a prescriptive utility, designed to a) make writing musicals easier, and b) sell more god-damn tickets.

    Also, finally. No one cares how hard you have to work to do something well. You’d have to work very hard to build a bridge out of peanut butter. No one gives a shit about that hard work, though, because you built a bridge out of peanut butter. “Musical theater writers work hard at their jobs” is another bullshit position. I don’t care how hard they’re working–they’re working hard to do something I think is stupid.

  12. Amanda says:

    Oh and @Moff: Re: Also, “turn off the dark” is from a song Bono cowrote with the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart in the early ’00s called “American Prayer.” Aha! Thank you for clearing up one of my biggest “Wtfs-?????” about this musical!

  13. Amanda says:

    Hey now! You must have missed my entire last paragraph where I said of course you don’t have to like anything. I never said you had to like it- that would be very domineering and wrong of me, now wouldn’t it? But then again, you could have missed that last bit because my comment was just so darn long…

    And just because you curse at me a lot, that doesn’t make your side any stronger! I’m not arguing, I’m discussing. What about you?

  14. Amanda says:

    BTW, that last comment was @Braak of course.

  15. Jeff Holland says:

    “I’m not arguing, I’m discussing. What about you?”

    Heh!

    See, Chris, THAT’S why I always say you should tone down the (borderline violent) excitability of your debating style.

  16. Amanda says:

    @Holland: I know what Chris’ style is – he shouldn’t change the way he is – I just called him on it because HE used the term “argument” in his response, so I just wanted to stop before we got into that murky area.

  17. braak says:

    Amanda: Your entire argument is predicated on your position that my complaints about musicals–which are not even necessarily that I don’t like them, but that they are formulaic in terms of character, story, and musical composition, and that their advocates will unreasonably defend them against perfectly reasonable criticisms that you might level against a non-genre piece–are somehow concomitant with my “furthering stereotypes or ignorance about someone else’s mastery”.

    I am well aware of the fact that I don’t need your permission to dislike something. But I am further aware of the fact that I am fully permitted to criticize these things regardless of how hard they are to do correctly. Why, precisely, should I protect the reputation of people like Andrew Lloyd Weber? A man who, it should be noted, can scarcely be harmed by my vitriol?

    If the masters of the modern musical want me to stop saying nasty things about them, maybe they should start doing a better job.

  18. braak says:

    @Amanda & Holland: “Argument” is just when you test two positions against each other. It does not implicitly require invective. I just put it in there because Cole Porter makes me really mad, and everyone’s always talking about him.

    Also, to be fair, I don’t think I ever specifically cursed at Amanda. I’m just cursing, you know. In general.

  19. Amanda says:

    @Braak: I happen to think that Andrew Lloyd Weber’s stuff leaves much to be desired, so I’m not sure why he was brought up… Especially since I said that of course there are many less-than-perfect examples of composition in the musical theatre genre. I did not mention any specifics examples that I found to be good, simply because that would not have been a strong tactic, as opinions cannot be proven. I merely said that one shouldn’t say “all are dumb” or “all sound the same,” etc., when there are definitely many musicals that are excellent and awe-inspiring.

  20. Amanda says:

    and @Braak: When you preface a comment with @____, I believe the understanding is that that particular comment is directed at that person, specifically….

  21. braak says:

    @Amanda: well, I brought up Andrew Lloyd Weber (and what’s with the passive voice here, Amanda? We both know I’m the one that did it) because he’s written a lot of musicals, has made a lot of money from making musicals, has written some of the genre’s most popular musicals, and has spawned a substantial number of hacks and imitators. I would even go so far as to say that the style of music in something like Phantom of the Opera has been adopted as a kind of unofficial standard for how musicals are supposed to be composed.

    Now, clearly there’s some kind of confusion here, because in my very first paragraph after the jump, I said:

    I have a long history of being accused of hating musicals, and this is actually demonstrably false. There are plenty of musicals that I love. In fact, the confusion stems from the idea that I generally hate the genre of musical theater, when in fact I just happen to hate 90% of musicals in particular.

    Now, I thought it would be clear that the complaints I was leveling afterwards were specifically complaints about that 90%, but apparently that was not the case.

    You are quite right to say that some musicals are good. (I think “many” is a stretch, though, and I’m not sure I have ever seen a musical that I would call “awe-inspiring.”) Yes. I am not now, nor have I ever argued, that no good musicals exist anywhere. My dad thinks that musicals are implicitly bad; I think they’re a genre that’s being held hostage to a stupid tradition.

    Finally, re: cursing. Yes, I am drawing a distinction here between “cursing while talking to you” and “cursing at you.” I was talking to you, yes, when I said “fuck,” but the structure of the sentence clearly implies that the bitter ill-will implicated by the word is meant for Cole Porter himself.

  22. Bill says:

    @braak – I don’t think all musicals are implicitly bad. Just 99% of them – and that’s because, while some of them are good, they are almost always done badly. I’m willing to withhold judgement on Spiderman – but I’m not holding my breath.

  23. braak says:

    Also, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that Broadway produced as much original material as we seem to be crediting it with. I mean, yes, it probably produced lots and LOTS of plays with new plots–but if we’re talking about the big hits and things, why would we think that they weren’t based on other source material?

    Cole Porter wrote about eighty thousand musicals, and it’s not like anyone remembers the plots to those (Anything Goes, his most popular, is a standard-fair romcom plot that, in fact, superficially pretty closely resembles Paris; Kiss Me, Kate is an original take on pre-existing material, but it definitely seems to be an exception in the sense that it is both not an adaptation and also was popular).

    I don’t think Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote anything that wasn’t based on something else. Even Oklahoma!, whose plot is so pointless and inane that I assumed it must have been original, is actually based on a novel.

    What are the big classic musicals that we talk about when we talk about big famous musicals? Les Miserables? My Fair Lady? Sweeney Todd? I know VIP doesn’t like Rent (neither, for that matter, do I), but it sure was a hit. Even Cats!

    Practically speaking, it seems to me that Broadway often does better when it steals.

  24. Jeff Holland says:

    Keep listing musicals. Tomorrow I’ve got a comment on “The Producers,” but for Thursday I want to say something about movie adaptations, and while I’ve got plenty in mind, I’m sure I’m forgetting a few that I like.

    That’s right – I like a lot of movie-musicals. Even “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

    Like most things, I blame it on my upbringing.

  25. Moff says:

    The movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar has been known to bring me to sudden and unexpected tears, I’m not ashamed to admit.

  26. Jeff Holland says:

    Jesus Christ Superstar is indeed one of the movie-musicals I will be talking about.

    For it is badass. In its Totally 70’s Way.

  27. Amanda says:

    OMGYES I love the original movie of JCS. Holy cow, SO awesome. The ALW remake was a disgrace and a joke…..Oh well…..

  28. braak says:

    Jesus Christ Superstar is, hands-down, the best thing Andrew Lloyd Weber has ever written. I like it, I think it’s great, I wish there was more rock opera in the world. I am not a hundred percent sure why nostalgia led us to try and recreate the sound of 20s and 40s musicals, though, instead of more Roger Daltry-style music.

    I also really like The Music Man, which I think I’ll write about on Wednesday.

    What else, hm? 1776 (starring William Daniels as John Adams–and, on Boy Meets World, Mr. Feeney was the principal of….John Adams High School!). Victor/Victoria. A Little Night Music. That one’s Sondheim; the thing about Sondheim is, except for Sweeney Todd, which was actually adapted from another source, most of his musicals suffer from second-act breakdown problems. (See: Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park With George–which is a really good half a play, at least–Company.)

    You know, every time I try and talk about musicals, people tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I don’t know where folks get that idea.

  29. Jeff Holland says:

    Oh man, I love 1776.

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