- Hey, Julie Taymor: Edward Albee knows your pain.
Watching the downfall of the festering musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has become spectator sport at this point, with director Julie Taymor leaving her own creation as the musical announced a three-week shutdown for a script overhaul by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. This is the result of reviews that brought out the best vitriolic prose our nation has seen from critics in years (My favorite, from New York Magazine: "The result is savage and deeply confusing — a boiling cancer-scape of living pain."). The shutdown, says NY1, will also make the Spider-Man musical ineligible for this year's Tony awards. BAHAHAHAHA. That's a good one. Thanks for the laugh, NY1. Surely, Glenn Beck is devastated.
Meanwhile, Washington's Arena Stage is celebrating a superhero in American theater: Distinguished playwright and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Edward Albee. Arena will be hosting 30 staged readings of Albee's plays, and full-scale productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and At Home at the Zoo. What they won't be hosting, though, is Albee's brief and terrible foray into musical theater: His adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was basically the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark of the '60s.
The two shows have much in common: They were both based on extremely popular films, with high-profile cast members (Mary Tyler Moore was cast as Holly Golightly), and did very poorly in previews. They also both relied on a last-minute rewrite as a last-ditch salvage of the show. Albee was called in to redo the script after previews in Philadelphia and Boston went poorly, but he transformed the story of sprightly Holly Golightly into something darker: A writer narrating his creation of the perfect female character, and then growing increasingly more jealous of her until she abandons him. Kind of like Spider-Man's "Geek chorus," which narrates the action as they create fan fiction and debate the origin of the Spider-Man legend. Fortunately, Breakfast at Tiffany's cast members weren't subject to the worst of the Spider-Man hazards: injuries.
Albee's Holly Golightly is more open about her prostitution than the movie, and the characters differ greatly: The musical Holly is best friends with rival Mag Wildwood, and when Holly is arrested for drug charges, she spends five lonely nights in jail and has a miscarriage. Hookers and their pimp boyfriends try to cheer her up, to no avail. When her former lover Carlos bails her out, she leaves her cat with the heartbroken writer, and takes off for Europe — eliminating the film's repentant kiss-in-the-rain scene. "Moon River," the hit song from the movie, didn't make it into the musical. People expecting the frilly fun of the movie were understandably disappointed.
And so were the cast and crew. The film had four previews on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre, but never officially opened. Spider-Man has had 99 previews at the Fooxwoods Theatre, and also has not officially opened yet.
“He transformed our lighthearted musical into a dark and rather gloomy semiopera,” actor Richard Chamberlain, who starred opposite Moore as the writer Jeff, wrote of Albee in “Shattered Love.” “I had never known professional failure before and I was stunned and heartbroken... The audience yelled back at the stage during performances, before walking out.” He continued: “In theater, there is something called magic. Sometimes it arrives, sometimes it doesn’t. It definitely didn’t arrive at Tiffany’s.”
Albee, for his part, recalled being over his head in an interview with the Hartford Courant:
"'Edward, this is David Merrick and I'm having a show in trouble out of town.','' related Albee at a Yale event last week. "And I said, 'That's nice, David.' " It was an adaptation of a book by Truman Capote that I admired and Merrick had made a musical of it and he was 'in trouble in Boston,' which was the way he put it. Would I like to come up and fix it? The fact that I had no experience working in musicals made me think that David had much more of a sense of humor than I thought he had. I was tempted so I signed on.
"I got up there in Boston and discovered that what they've done was take Truman Capote's novella and turned [the leading character of] Holly Golightly from what she was in the book into a tramp who was also a virgin, which was the neatest trick of the week.
"They made perfectly safe, middlebrow, mediocre and, I thought, extremely boring musical that would have probably run a year on Broadway. I managed to turn it into a disaster that never opened on Broadway.
"They gave me three weeks to get rid of half the cast and the director and get a whole new stage design and throw out the songs and replace them with others they had cut and rewrite the book."
Then Albee added sardonically: "Maybe if they had given me another two weeks I may have gotten there. It was an instructive experience."
And what did he learn?
"Fear and loathing."
Chamberlain's site offers some video of the rehearsals and music, which includes a segment where he's inexplicably sliding down a child's playground slide. You can hear the songs "Holly Golightly" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." For what it's worth, Moore's costumes are fun. When David Merrick, the producer, decided to shut down the show, he ran an ad in the New York Times that said it would close, “rather than subject the drama critics and the public to an excruciatingly boring evening.”
Will Spider-Man ever open? Not until June, at least. Bono, who wrote the music, is intervening. So is OSHA — the Department of Labor slapped the musical with three workplace safety violations. But the more pressing question: Who's going to direct this tangled mess now?