The Ethics of Reviewing “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” During Previews

John Simon, long the toughest of American theater critics and undeniably the most erudite and eloquent writer among them, has launched a blog. His very first post is on an ethical issue: is it ever appropriate for a critic to review a Broadway show that is still in previews?

The issue has emerged because the much-anticipated and incredibly expensive Spiderman musical, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, has been engulfed in all kinds of intrigue since the very first preview: falling actors, injuries, malfunctioning sets and special effects, and most recently the surprise withdrawal of the show’s leading lady. A couple of critics, Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News and Linda Winer of Newsday could not resist paying for tickets and coming uninvited to performances, resulting in one diagnostic feature story on the production’s progress (by Winer) and one full, and not very complimentary, review by Gerard. Simon properly calls foul, describing the act of reviewing a show before its official opening as the equivalent “grabbing a dish from a restaurant kitchen before it is fully cooked, and then judging the meal by it.”

Exactly. The critics have their rationalizations ready, naturally. The musical is the most expensive in Broadway history. Is that a reason to suspend critical fairness? There is unusual interest in the show and its pre-opening travails. Should the degree of interest suspend long-standing critical standards? The usual excuse, also trotted out in this case, is that preview audiences are paying regular show prices—up to $300 a seat—to see the production right now. Isn’t this a case of “the public has a right to know” if the show is a stinker or not?

No, it isn’t. Broadway audiences know that previews are early glimpses of works in progress, and that is part of their appeal. The audiences for previews are part of the creative process, for how they react to a performance will help decide what stays and what gets cut. The prices they pay for the privilege of being Broadway guinea pigs are fair if they choose to pay them.

Meanwhile, the performances leading up to opening are nightly laboratories dedicated to perfecting the formula for an entertaining show. Reviewing these previews isn’t merely unfair; it is misleading to readers and potential audience members, and potentially harmful to the final product. As a stage director, I want my actors experimenting and searching for the best possible approach to the material as long as possible. If they think reviewers are in the house, the performers are likely to play it safe, lest a critic with the rhetorical skills of a John Simon vivisect their effort in print with devastating results to the career, reputation, and delicate egos. Whatever shape it is in currently, Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark needs to be performed in front of an uninformed, open-minded audience and then adjusted according to their reactions and the events, planned and otherwise, that occur onstage. If a critic wants to participate in this stage of the creative process, he or she is welcome, but reviewing what is not ready to be reviewed is unprofessional and wrong, no matter how curious people are.


3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Reviewing “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” During Previews

  1. I posted a reply on my blog. But my main problem with your column is your contention that Broadway audiences understand the preview process. With 63 percent of tickets sold to tourists, some of whom may be seeing their first Broadway show, I’m not sure that’s true. In some cases, they may not even know they’re seeing a preview or what that entails. And I couldn’t find a mention on the Spider-Man web site that the show was in previews. It simply says Playing on Broadway. I don’t think they’ve signed on to be guinea pigs for the creative team.

    • Thanks, Esther. But believe me, Broadway tourists just aren’t theater-illiterate yahoos…not at those prices. Washington, Chicago, Boston, LA and other cities have previews too….and the Spiderman saga has been well-publicized in, for example, USA Today. Let’s put it this way: if they don’t know it’s a preview, its still a performance of a Broadway show. If they do understand previews, then they are signing on to be Guinea pigs. Either way, there’s no deception.

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