Julie Taymor Blames Twitter For Bad Reviews Of 'Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark'

from the denial-runs-deep dept

If you haven’t been following the massive disaster that is the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, you’ve been missing a massive train wreck in slow motion. Julie Taymor, who was the original person behind the effort was fired in March and has finally spoken out about the scathing reviews the show has received all along (apparently, the only reason to go see the show is in the hopes of catching someone get injured). Apparently it’s not her fault, the fault of any of the other writers, actors, musicians, etc. No, no. You see, it’s all Twitter’s fault. Apparently, with people writing bad reviews on Twitter, the producers overreacted:

Breaking her silence about ?Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,? the Broadway musical from which she was fired in March, Julie Taymor tacitly criticized her former producers on Saturday afternoon for relying on audience focus groups and said that the rise of Twitter and blogs for instant theater criticism was damaging to shows…

?It?s very scary if people are going more towards that, to have audiences tell you how to make a show,? she said. ?Shakespeare would have been appalled. Forget about it. It would be impossible to have these works come out because there?s always something that people don?t like.?


?Twitter and Facebook and blogging just trump you,? Ms. Taymor said during a moderated discussion at the annual meeting of the Theater Communications Group, an umbrella organization of regional and nonprofit theaters. ?It?s very hard to create. It?s incredibly difficult to be under a shot glass and a microscope like that.?

Well, well. It turns out that not only is Taymor not very good at judging the quality of this particular play, but she seems rather ignorant on history as well. Clive Thompson reminds us that the audience in Shakespeare time didn’t quietly type their opinion of the plays they were seeing into the internet, they spoke up about it immediately:

Shakespeare’s audience was far more boisterous than are patrons of the theatre today. They were loud and hot-tempered and as interested in the happenings off stage as on. One of Shakespeare’s contemporaries noted that “you will see such heaving and shoving, such itching and shouldering to sit by the women, such care for their garments that they be not trod on . . . such toying, such smiling, such winking, such manning them home … that it is a right comedy to mark their behaviour” (Stephen Gosson, The School of Abuse, 1579). The nasty hecklers and gangs of riffraff would come from seedy parts in and around London like Tower-hill and Limehouse and Shakespeare made sure to point them out:

These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse,
and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but
the Tribulation of Tower-hill, or the Limbs of
Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.
(Henry VIII, 5.4.65-8)

On top of that, Thompson also points out that even audiences for plays in New York City haven’t always been so nice, pointing to the famed Astor Place riots that happened as anti-England sentiment in New York City at the time caused audience members to start “loudly voicing their disapproval with booing and hissing” during Shakespeare’s plays, leading to the eventual riot:

The most brutal of these eruptions occurred as a result of two rival actors, each of whom was starring in a competing production of Shakespeare?s Macbeth. Celebrated American actor Edwin Forrest, who patriotically extolled the virtues of the American Dream of self-actualization, employed a performing style that was passionate and visceral. English actor William Charles Macready, on the other hand, had an elitist attitude, a poised stature, and an approach to acting that was more subtle and cerebral. When Macready and Forrest both presented the play on May 7, audience members booed and heckled Macready, then started throwing objects at the stage, and the performance had to stop with almost half of the play unperformed. Macready was ready to go back to England; but as Lawrence W. Levine notes, a letter from individuals including authors Herman Melville and Washington Irving?insisting that Americans would be civilized enough to allow him to perform?convinced him to stay. The result was disastrous: although Macready was able to make it through the full performance at the Astor Place Opera House on May 10, a crowd of working-class men attacked the theatre with the intention of causing severe damage. The rioters backed down only after militia opened fire into the crowd, killing at least 22 and as many as 31 people. As Nigel Cliff notes in The Shakespeare Riots, ?Never in the nation?s history had soldiers fired volley after volley at point-blank range into a civilian crowd.? And this infamous event is a disturbing milestone in the lore of the Macbeth curse. Perhaps it is only fitting that the riot resulted from a play that mentions the word “blood” and its variants a whopping 41 times.

It seems like having some fans bitch about a crappy stage production that seemed like a bad idea from the very beginning seems rather tame in comparison, Julie.

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Comments on “Julie Taymor Blames Twitter For Bad Reviews Of 'Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark'”

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Call me Al says:

Dodgy Shakespeare comparisons

The trouble is that Julie clearly doesn’t know her history. She hasn’t read up on how audiences behaved in Shakespeare’s own time and how it was markedly different to our own. She is one of these people who likely refers to him simply as “The Bard” and believes that the audience should listen with devout reverence to every utterance of the actors who so deign to honour them with a performance.

To wheel him out in an attempt to criticise online critics is at best ignorant and at worst completely disingenous.

Call me Al says:

Re: What a stretch! From "anti-England sentiment" to online mobs!

I’m not in New York (or even the UK) and I still found the whole saga about this production interesting.

As for your complaint about mentioning the riots, sure they aren’t a direct example and don’t illustrate or add much, if anything, to the article itself but it was still interesting. Not everything has to be slavishly relevant.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: What a stretch! From "anti-England sentiment" to online mobs!

“Two entirely different causes, casually equated by a writer needing to fill space.”

Out of curiosity, what “space” is needed to be filled by an opinion blog published on an infinitely reproducible medium?

“almost no one cares about Broadway productions”

Then I would suggest that Taymor has more things to worry about than whether the millions of dollars she’s pissing away on the project are affected by people talking about it publicly.

“this is just another of your New York conceits”

I was unaware that anything here had anything to do with NYC. Do you have any information to enlighten me, or are you just one of those people who attack a New York/liberal/whatever conspiracy when you hear facts you don’t like?

Hulser (profile) says:


?It?s very scary if people are going more towards that, to have audiences tell you how to make a show,? she said.

Well, on the face of it, this statement is quite true. If you pander to the lowest common denominator, you end up with something that most people like, but fewer people love. As the Shakespeare story illustrates, there have always been ways for the audience to provide their feedback. But because the Internet (Twitter, blogs, etc.) allows for an unprecedented amount of feedback, the dynamic changes. I don’t know much about this production, but I can easily see a group of producers (who are more beholden to investors) making so many changes based on what they read on the Internet that the show ended up suffering.

It could be simply be that no one party is to blame, but that this is just a high profile example of a broader phenomenon, artists trying to pander to their audience rather than trusting their instincts and focusing on the art.

DoggyDork (profile) says:

Re: Pander

The producers/investors weren’t pandering.

I saw a very early preview (for free) and I came out with the following observations:

1. The story wasn’t strong enough to sustain a 3+ hour (before intermissions) show.

2. The music was weak and seemed to be filler rather than following the tradition of moving the story along.

3. The “gimmick” of the show was the stunts. not the music, not the story, not the actors, not the sets. It was all about the stunts.

4. The lighting was sloppy, the staging overdone and there was very little added to the production by either. Both sets and lighting design detracted instead of, again, moving the story along.

5. After X amount of weeks of rehearsal, a cast is supposed to be professional in previews. The purpose of previews is to give a practice, full performance. Like a dress rehearsal. You can’t ask for a line in dress, nor should you ask for a line (which several actors did) during a performance with a paying House.

6. The music was far too loud for the size of the theater and the rent mics didn’t help.

While the show was good intentioned, I can get the same rock/stunt vibe from Cirque du Soliel without watching them trash a beloved comics character.

When the director doesn’t see the inherent flaws of a show because s/he is too close to it, it’s far better for the producers to look at unbiased sources for a true read of how the show is doing.

All Twitter, blogs, etc. are doing is giving them that unbiased source to draw from.

Ms. Taymore is a gifted director, what she did on The Lion King was incredible and groundbreaking.

All her good intentions were wasted on Spider Man, as Bono and The Edge didn’t deliver songs that could power the action and move the story along. It’s pretty simple. Good music and a good story will give you the foundation for a great show.

Sadly, the foundation was lacking for this one.

John Altieri (profile) says:

TAYMOR'S REMARKS re spiderman

Huge fan of your column. In this case though I have to say that Ms. Taymor has a point. The Shakespearean plays were not changed because of the audience?s rather vociferous remarks. Focus groups are a risky proposition at best. To change the specific details of a production by trying to make sense out of a chaos of random comments is ridiculous and arbitrary. Any work should follow the focused vision of it’s creators. If it sucks then it sucks. I’m glad ole Bill didn’t change Lear or Hamlet because some Elizabethan thugs
got their codpieces in a knot.

Deirdre (profile) says:

Re: TAYMOR'S REMARKS re spiderman

Actually the plays of Shakespeare have been retooled in many ways over the centuries including Shakespeare’s own lifetime. Some of his plays such as King Lear exist in two different versions, both with authority. Certain passages would be emphasized or changed depending on current events or the tastes of the audience.

Nina Paley (profile) says:


I don’t think she’s blaming Twitter and Facebook, she’s blaming producers for reacting to them and other focus groups. She has a point, and this is not an unusual pattern. I’m not defending the Spider-Man show, which I haven’t seen (and didn’t want to) but it’s true that nothing kills a unique vision faster than placing audience feedback above the vision.

AdamR (profile) says:

Re: Producers

“I don’t think she’s blaming Twitter and Facebook, she’s blaming producers for reacting to them and other focus groups.”

She is trying to shift blame away from herself. The show was a over a year behind schedule and was already hovering around 60 Million + to produce! To make matters worse she trying to say hey Shakespeare never had this happen to him, well when she can write and produce something near Shakespeare then she can try and use his name. She let her ego run the show and this is what happens when you over value your talent.

That Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Producers

this portion grabbed me…
“to have audiences tell you how to make a show”

Once upon a time one had to wait for the weekend box office to be tallied to get an idea how it was fairing.
The world however moved forward and people tweeting what they liked or hated about something (people are more often likely to express hate over like), but no one has been trained in how to handle this instant feedback and to have grains of salt handy.

With standard reviews you figure out who might have an extra axe to grind with a producer or actor, and you weigh their review as such in your mind. With the power of Twitter or Facebook they are probably using number of followers as the metric as to the impact these statement will have. They pat themselves on the back for being so cutting edge while the show that would not die continues to flounder.

Embracing new technology is not bad, but blindly following it is bad. If you see a trend on Twitter where someone is complaining about not seeing some of the show for to much smoke being pumped out, that is something to correct. Someone complaining the spandex was not quite red enough, should be dismissed.

In the end, you do need to pay attention to what the audience wants (connecting with them pesky fans), or they move on… but you can not please all of the Twitterers all of the time (or you end up with a train wreck of a show).

Oh and Nina in my fan moment of the day, I enjoy your work very much.

Trails (profile) says:

She's right

I’ve been living an unconnected life for the last few years. I got overwhelmed by the information overload. I went to see Spiderman without having tainted myself with the vile intertweets or blogmails.

I found the show to not be a total hackneyed recycled piece of derivative junk with uninspired songs and acting who’s only redeeming quality(just barely) are the stunts which are just this side of a travelling circus trapeeze act. Thank god I turned off my connection!

Anonymous Coward says:

?It?s very scary if people are going more towards that, to have audiences tell you how to make a show,?

Then… don’t invite those audiences to your theater? This happens all the time with bad movie releases, the press is locked out and the studios rely on advertising and marketing, often to great success. People are sheep, twitter is evidence firsthand about that.

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