Canby in the Spider-Manic Web

Back in 1994, after 25 years of reviewing movies, critic Vincent Canby began reviewing theatre. In an age when such films as Jurassic Park, Terminator and Die Hard were becoming proving grounds for newer, more dynamic special effects, Canby believed that theatre would once again allow him to review artistic drama rather than technological spectacle.  He soon found that he was wrong: special effects were almost as prevalent in Broadway shows as they were in Hollywood films.

In a NY Times article, Is Broadway Fogbound in a Special-Effects Age?(1-16-1994), Canby observed that “switching from films to theatre is like moving next door;” that Broadway plays (in particular, musicals) had become an “escalating evolution in stage trickery roughly equivalent to movies’ infatuation with, and emphasis on, ever-more-special special effects.”

Movies audiences were becoming so accustomed to and, invariably jaded by, the shock effect of special effects that this cinematic hocus-pocus was becoming more and more ineffectual. The generation of special effects had become endless: hordes of resurrected dinosaurs on the rampage (Jurassic Park); actors being turned into walking masses of mercury in one seamless take (Terminator 2); cars blowing up with the dazzling brilliance of a nuclear explosion (Die Hard); and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Scenes of cinematic sorcery that may have been great for the moment while the moment lasted, which usually wasn’t very long; audiences wanted and expected more increased bangs for the ever increasing bucks they were shelling out for movie tickets.

Broadway producers, anxious to woo this new generation of movie-goers to the theatre, began employing their own form of special effects. Of course, rampaging dinosaurs, mercury-metamorphism and nuclear explosions aren’t as easy on the wicked stage as they are within the realm of celluloid; but there’s still a trick or two that Broadway could play…even if it’s at the expense of the overall production.

Canby cites three musicals and how, in his opinion, the tenuously gratifying moments of special effects become even more tenuous on Broadway:

Ask almost any six people what they remember most vividly about “Miss Saigon” and they’ll probably say the landing of the helicopter. In “The Phantom of the Opera” it’s the collapse of the chandelier. “Tommy” will be recalled for the volume of the music and the hypnotic use of lights but also for the sequence in which paratroopers appear to jump from a perilously high platform through a stage-floor opening the size of a Broadway manhole. As the paratroopers fall, the members of the audience think as one: any false move and some unfortunate actor is going to go splat. The fright is delicious, even if it is bogus.

Vincent Canby is dead and gone but the shows go on…along with a glaring myriad of sights, a cacophony of sounds and, of course, a preponderance of special effects. Whereas in Hollywood, the (now) standard multimillion dollar “blockbuster” routinely features special effects over actors, on Broadway this phenomenon wasn’t as pervasively outrageous…until now.

“Spider-Man” (thrilling comic book hero of my childhood, $65 million Broadway cataclysm of my old age) is due to open for the fifth time; it’s the longest running show…in previews.

Spider-Man “is 10 times more complicated to [technically rehearse] than anything else, and the preview schedule allows for only very limited rehearsal time” – 12 hours per week, said Michael Cohl, co-producer of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” noting that the new final scene still needs work. NY Daily News

If Vince Canby thought, 15 years ago, that the like of collapsing chandeliers, descending paratroopers and landing helicopters were bogus gimmicks meant to shock, what would he think of the needlessly dangerous stunts and needlessly outrageous devices, besides the “customary” special effects, of this needless musical? I think he would conclude that Broadway is headed down a path to finally surpass Hollywood’s propensity for spectacle over substance; as a result, theatrical displays featuring less delicious because less bogus frights. If anything, Broadway’s future will rest on special effects used as sheer artifice to disguise poor acting, insipid music and awkward dancing; in short, a lousy overall production.

As I’ve said before, I’m still waiting for the ultimate in sensationalist entertainment—Godzilla: The Musical! Now on Broadway!

(originally posted: 01/15/11)

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This entry was posted in I Say!.