This past weekend theater insiders were surprised when two critics, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday, crossed an unspoken line and published their takes on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, more than five weeks before opening night on February 7th.
The result has not pleased representatives for the troubled production.
"For a major critic to review a Broadway musical, or play for that matter, after only the twentieth preview, is disappointing and uncalled for,” Spider-Man’s spokesperson, press agent Rick Miramontez said in a written statement to The Hollywood Reporter.
“Whatever reason the critic or their editor may have, it does not mask the fact that for decades, musicals have developed in front of paying audiences before critics are INVITED," he added. "While we are certainly not naive about the media scrutiny attached to this production, as we have been accommodating throughout, this unprecedented new development is troubling, to say the least."
Winer’s piece in Newsday on Christmas acknowledged that she “broke Broadway’s gentleperson’s agreement,” by purchasing a ticket for a preview.
The common practice on Broadway is to invite critics to one of several “critic’s previews” right before opening once the producers and creative team have deemed the show finished. Their reviews are embargoed until after the curtain falls on opening night.
But Winer wrote that with all the news about the show -- the opening delayed for the fourth time and audiences buying full price tickets for previews, -- “it seems that critics are now the only interested parties who can’t see the bride before the wedding.”
Her piece was less a review than a report, though she did acknowledge that the show’s vaunted flying effects are “exciting and scary, in a circus way,” and that director Julie Taymor was “said to be making much-needed changes to the meandering book, especially in the weak second act.” The rest of the criticism came from audience members Winer interviewed, one of whom complained the music was “weak” and another who said she “didn’t think this is theater for adults.”
Bloomberg's Gerard wrote a full-out review, although he acknowledged that this was an “interim report” and fully intends to re-review the show and publish it the day after Spider-Man opens. Like Winer, Gerard purchased a ticket (one of the $292.50 “premium’ seats in the orchestra).
He praised the sets, lighting and choreography, acknowledged the short-lived thrill of some of the flying effects, but came down hard on the show itself: “an unfocused hodge-podge of story-telling, myth-making and spectacle that comes up short in every department. Can it be saved? Ask me on Feb. 8.”
Reached by phone, Gerard explained his decision to “breach the compact” that critics hold off on seeing a show and publishing their opinions until asked by the producers. He explains that “in the past, previews were given for a limited time and tickets were discounted pretty heavily.” But, in the case of Spider-Man, the ads don’t acknowledge the show is a work-in-progress and most theatergoers are paying full price.
“My own feeling,” he says, “is that when they postponed from December to January to, now February, asking critics to wait was just too much. I had an obligation to the readers to get involved in the conversation.” He adds that with his review “you’re getting more than gossip, more than a hospital report, more than a ga-ga report about the flying.”
Gerard, who has covered theater for the New York Times, Variety and New York Magazine, as well as Bloomberg, points out that there are several precedents. When shows tried out regularly on the road, critics like Richard Coe in the Washington Post and Elliot Norton in several Boston newspapers reviewed unfinished products and “were proud to be part of the process.”
And a couple of Broadway shows with unusually lengthy preview periods, Nick & Nora (1991, 71 previews) and Sarava (1979, 39 previews), were reviewed by critics before they officially opened. While Gerard doesn’t see his interim review of Spider-Man as the start of a trend, he doesn’t discount the possibility of doing something similar in the future should circumstances warrant it.
“I’m comfortable in doing the responsible thing,” he says. “It’s a show there’s great interest in.”