As “Spiderman” the Spectacle careens toward its opening, despite costly delays, a cacophony of controversies, serious human and technical mishaps and injuries, it looks likely to be a critic proof hit, in terms of paying off its producers and insurance premiums. Perhaps the endangerment or public death of some “Spiderpeople” will assure its ticket sales even further. But the toll that it’s taking on talented performers, and Broadway theater puts me in a state of PTSD as I recall the weeks preceding the opening (and quick closing) of my first Broadway show.
In 1972 I was cast in the bleeding edge sci fi rock opera “Via Galactica,” starring Raul Julia and Irene Cara. I was totally green and not just in the color of the body paint I wore in my role as Geologist on a newly inhabited planet. I was one of many idealistic unknowns who committed to the show. The “knowns”—the gifted Galt MacDermott, the ingenious British designer John Bury, the not yet knighted Peter Hall, couldn’t have had better pedigrees for approaching a piece of such ambition: there was a space ship that sailed over the orchestra; trampolines cratered into the stage to bounce us like ‘low gravity’ might, and a massive rocket tail would blast us all off at the show’s end in quadraphonic sound. We were thrilled to be part of such groundbreaking ambitions.
The brand new Uris Theater (now called the Gershwin), the largest house on the Great White Way was being rigged for our big entrance, on the heels of an experimental show called “Dude” having just been the biggest bomb Broadway had yet seen at about a million bucks. Our budget was exceeding that and counting. And in week five, all us ensemble kids knew we were in trouble. It wasn’t just from the ankles sprained by hooking onto craters’ edges as we leapt in elaborate dance routines; the body paints that didn’t wash off; not just because the rocket ship crashed through a trampoline into the bowels of the Uris in rehearsal, with we screaming actors sustaining physical and psychic wounds.
We knew the book was drowning in Dadaisms. The story was obscured by lyrics that led to nothing but momentary moods as gorgeous mic’ed voices merged with Galt’s music. The simple high concept one liner must’ve sounded great when pitched to the producer, but the execution moved folks to jeers at previews, nearly killed many involved, and indirectly led to one dancer’s death.
Led by a charming Raul Julia as an intergalactic garbageman, and belting Irene Cara as the flying Narrator, the cast, many in casts masked by clever costumes, dwindled as we approached opening, our spirits plummeting as rumors spread. Was this opening night the pinnacle for which I’d danced so desperately, studied with Stella, sung my lungs out? The dehumanizing diplomacy of our director and producers inducing us to endure the risks with promises of improved effects, increased hazard pay and respectful reviews was depressing. They didn’t really care a fig for our safety in their ‘show must go on’ fervor. We had to believe they were delusional rather than deceitful, as all leaders in irreversible crises must sometimes be. We had to believe because we needed the the paycheck, and the Broadway credit.
Bravo to “Spiderman’s” innovators. Julie Taymor is a genius, Bono is a good god among men. The Cirque de Soleil style has spawned a new dawn of Olympian athleticism and derring do drowning out any need for a compelling human story. They are all mood makers extraordinaire in a new era in art that intends to keep us in hyper-adrenal shock and awe. But this is not the Broadway theater I knew and loved, whose plays purged us with their Aristotelian catharses. It’s a theater that aims to compete with 3D Imax movies, the Superbowl, and natural disasters in impact.
Having had electrodes applied to capture the motion of my body and e-motion of my face for roles, having watched how appealing computer generated creatures have become, how powerful the Pixar product is, I know where entertainment is headed. It’ll be way cool. But, I fear today’s children will never know how to suspend disbelief and use their imaginations to meet artists halfway in simply good stories. I dread that plainly eloquent actors in tender well written tales will become passe. Replaceable robot parts and auto-tuned digitized deliveries will be preferable to the vulnerable, visceral, fragile, imperfect humanity of dancers, singers and actors. And technologically gifted wiz kids will be the real stars of stage as well as screen.
As artists’ human gifts are negated, masked so that we’re interchangeable objects like pawns on a playing board, as we contribute our souped up voices to iconic virtual images, as more of us are willing to sacrifice our lives and limbs at far smaller fees than football stars, most of us will become disposable.
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