Over the summer, I caught a performance of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway. I expected a fun circus-like experience and good music. It certainly delivered on the circus part.
The superhero's infamous aerial acrobatics (an actor fell early in the show's run) were impressive, and one or two songs were good–most notably the inspired anthem Rise Above. But most of the show never got above plain goofy.
I still don't understand the title.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway
So, about the music. Halfway through I noticed there was no orchestra. No pit. No musicians. Anywhere. Could they really piping in canned sound? Was that even possible?
And the answer–I should have known–is no. Productions like that need live orchestras. They need conductors and musicians to keep time with the action.
In the case of Spider-Man (as I learned here), the orchestra was simply hidden, split up and buried away in two small rooms in the basement of the Foxwoods Theatre.
Each room has a video feed. The brass and strings sections have a monitor in their room that shows the conductor, who occupies the other room along with the guitarists, keyboard player and drummer. The conductor, in turn, has a monitor showing the stage. And in the theatre itself, monitors are mounted on the balcony so that the actors can see the conductor as well. (I noticed while watching Spiderman fly above the audience, the coolest part of the show.)
It's a clever solution to a commercial imperative: clearing space for more seats, and thus more revenue.
But there was more to it. It wasn't just technology connecting the splintered company. As I knew going in, the music to Spider-Man was written by members of U2's Bono and the Edge. What I didn't know was that a band–a different one–was involved in its performance.
The band is Carney. Carney's singer acts on stage, playing the part of Peter Parker, musical numbers and all. His bandmates sit in the basement with their instruments, contributing to the orchestra.
So the show has this weird synergy within and between rock bands, something which fits into a growing phenomenon in theatre. Rock bands and musicians are integrating themselves into stage musicals, in uniquely symbiotic ways.
Stage musicals have poached rock bands before. Think Jesus Christ Superstar, which cast Deep Purple's lead singer in the concept recording that preceded its Broadway opening. Meatloaf performed in the Rocky Horror Show and Hair. Rock operas in general have sought to capture the excitement of live concerts and channel it into a narrative.
But these days bands and rock artists are going further, actually writing musicals themselves. Most recently, John Mellencamp joined forces with Stephen King on Ghost Brothers, a gothic heartland story true to form for that duo. Sting is writing a musical set in the shipyards near where he grew up in Northern England.
Blazing the way, however, are lesser-known bands like The Lisps, an an indie group from Brooklyn, who wrote and performed a brilliant show a couple of years ago called Futurity, which they billed as "a steampunk Civil War musical".
Futurity follows a Union soldier marching south with his company toward inevitable bloodshed who dreams of building an intelligent machine–the Steam Brain–capable of ending war. Along the way, he corresponds with Ada Lovelace, the English mathematician credited with first conceiving the computer. The two pursue a long-distance intellectual romance, sharing their utopian visions even as those visions seem doomed.
The show deserved a longer and wider run, and much more exposure. It was thought-provoking, energetic and original. The Lisps researched period folk music, and built an elaborate contraption that not only stood in as the Steam Brain, but also housed the band's drummer and his kit. Musicians played their instruments on stage as they acted; there was no separation between actors and accompaniment (something I believe the Tony-winning musical Once does too).
The good news is that the recording is available on iTunes. But if audiences are lucky, the excitement generated by bigger acts will bring Futurity back, and encourage more shows like it.
There must be other bands and musicians writing and performing in stage musicals. Know of any?