Suspend Your Disbelief

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Spider-Man, and killing your darlings

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Image credit: Spider-Man on Broadway

Last week, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark fired its director, Julie Taymor. Already the most expensive musical in Broadway history, Spider-Man has been universally panned by critics—and it hasn’t even officially opened yet.

The show’s decision to let Taymor go was apparently in part due to her refusal to alter the script, even when everyone around her agreed it wasn’t working. Reports the New York Times:

According to four of her colleagues, Ms. Taymor boxed herself into a corner with the producers in the last few weeks by rebuffing their requests to allow outsiders to make changes to the show. She would not meet with some of them, and she did not act on suggestions for improvements; at one feedback session with the cast, some actors argued for strengthening the central love story between Peter Parker and M. J. Watson, but Ms. Taymor insisted, “It’s there.” The Edge, Bono and the producers also expected that she would make far-reaching changes in the show’s critically panned Act II, but after attending recent performances, they concluded that she lacked the objectivity to ruthlessly reshape the show.

Taymor had been working on this script for nine years. Is it any wonder she had no objectivity left? Any writer would have trouble killing darlings after such a long time.

Having not seen the show myself, I have no position on its merits or the wisdom of the producers in removing Taymor and bringing in a “script doctor.” But I feel incredible sympathy for her and her story, flawed though it might be. A friend of hers summed up her reaction for the press:

“Julie’s an extremely sensitive person, and she has always felt like a mother to her plays, a mother to her characters,” Jeffrey Horowitz, a friend and artistic director of New York’s Theater for a New Audience, said Wednesday. “This is like a mother being taken away from her family. She loves that family. She wants that family.”

As a fiction writer, I may write stories that don’t work at all. I might spend pages and pages on characters that are unbelieveable and plotlines that are flimsier than spiderwebs. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve done so. But because fiction writers work alone—and because, for most of us, no one is impatiently clamoring to present our work to the public—we have time to figure those mistakes out on our own. We can keep hammering away at the pieces that aren’t working, shoving them under our beds or into locked desk drawers, pulling them out months or years later and trying to work on them again. Or, as often happens, we are free to keep the arcane and possibly out-of-place references to Greek mythology, the underdeveloped love story, the “geek chorus” that only we think is clever.1 We can spend years laboring on stories and books that will never work. And at some point or another, most writers do.

But that’s where Taymor is in a different situation. Hundreds of other people, from actors to set designers and producers, are involved in her work. She doesn’t have the leisure to work the kinks out of the script on her own, let alone the ability to doggedly stick to something that isn’t working. The producers, tired of waiting, have brought someone in to put her darlings out of their misery.

And I feel bad for her. It’s one thing to murder your own darlings when you know it will make a better piece. It’s another to have someone murder them for you when you’re fighting, however misguidedly, to keep them alive.

1Just… read the plot summary.

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