Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

With great power comes great incomprehensibility

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So I’m deep into the first volume of Stephen Sondheim’s spellbinding memoir Finishing the Hat, which reprints the collected lyrics from the first half of his career, along with “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” I’m not even that well up on my Sondheim—my exposure to his work consists of West Side Story, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd, and a handful of songs from other shows—but as a writer, albeit of a very different kind, I find his candor and insight irresistible. (For a sample, see my recent post here.)

As is often the case when writers talk about their craft (William Goldman comes to mind), Sondheim is rather more interesting when discussing his failures than his successes. At the moment, I’m working my way through the chapter on Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated musical satire that Sondheim created in collaboration with Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book and directed. Especially intriguing is the revelation that David Merrick, the most famous theatrical impresario of his time, passed on producing the show because he didn’t want Laurents to serve as both writer and director. Sondheim writes:

[Merrick] claimed, astutely, that authors, especially authors of musicals, shouldn’t direct the initial productions of their own works. Without a director to argue with, egoistic self-ingulgence might color everything, he claimed…The blessing of a writer serving as his own director is that one vision emerges, there being no outsider to contradict him. The curse, inevitably, is that the vision may turn out to be myopic, there being no outsider to contradict him.

Now, I defy anyone who has been following the latest news from Broadway to read these lines and not think at once of Julie Taymor. The most recent of the many New York Times articles on the ongoing train wreck of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark expresses the theater world’s reservations about Taymor, who was given what amounted to a blank check as the musical’s director and co-writer, in strikingly similar terms:

Julie Taymor signed on as director and co-writer of the script, a dual role that many on Broadway consider risky. Rather than take a strong hand in managing the production, as producers usually do, Mr. [Michael] Cohl [the lead producer of the show] saw his job as aiding and abetting her vision.

The result has been making headlines for months: a visually spellbinding but narratively incoherent show that is already the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway. (In all fairness, I haven’t seen the show yet, and won’t anytime soon, unless I happen to be in New York on a week that TKTS seats are on sale.) And it seems fairly clear, especially after Taymor’s unceremonious departure from the show, that if the director had been subjected to a stronger controlling hand—as she was with The Lion King—the outcome might have been very different.

The lesson here, obviously, is that all artists, even the most creative and idiosyncratic, need someone around to keep them in line. It’s why there are surprisingly few truly great writer-directors in film, and the ones who do exist usually produce their best work with a forceful collaborator pushing back at every step of the way—witness Powell and Pressburger. And it’s why every writer needs strong readers and editors. Without such constraints, you occasionally get a Kubrick, yes, but more often, you wind up with the recent career of George Lucas. Or, it seems, a Julie Taymor. So it’s best to let Sondheim have the last word: “In today’s musical theater, there are two kinds of directors: those who are writers and those who want to be, or, more ominously, think they are.”

A message from Tina Fey

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Tina Fey’s charming article in this week’s New Yorker—in which she shares some of the lessons that she learned from nine years of working on Saturday Night Live—is essential reading for fans of our most unlikely celebrity writer, and especially for those trying to write for themselves. Her advice ranges from the aphoristic (“Producing is about discouraging creativity”) to the cheekily practical (“Never cut to a closed door”), but the big one, the one that every writer needs to bear in mind, is this:

The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s eleven-thirty. This is something that Lorne [Michaels] has said often about Saturday Night Live, and it’s a great lesson in not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top your game and improve every joke until the last possible second, but then you have to let it go.

At first, Fey’s point might seem more relevant for writers on a weekly sketch comedy show than, say, for novelists, whose writing process is both private and infinitely expandable. If anything, though, the advice is even more important for those of us working alone, without a fixed deadline, who might otherwise be inclined to polish our work until it’s perfect, luminous, and dead. This impulse has crippled great writers from Virgil (who asked on his deathbed for the unfinished Aeneid to be burned) to Ralph Ellison (who worked on his second novel for forty years and never came close to finishing it), as well as countless lesser writers who remained unpublished, and therefore unknown.

The fact is that a novel—or any work of art—isn’t complete until other people have the chance to see it. A flawed story that strangers can read from beginning to end is infinitely superior to three perfect chapters from an unfinished novel. And there are times when productivity is a much greater virtue than perfection. Every writer, whether novelist or playwright or sketch comedian, needs to be capable, when necessary, of cranking it out. Even you intend to go back and polish what you’ve done, there are days, especially at the beginning of a project, when a novelist needs to be something of a hack. And that’s the way it should be. (One suspects that the backers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark wish that Julie Taymor had displayed a little more of the hack and less of the artist.)

Which is why deadlines are so important. As Fey points out, writers in live television have deadlines whether they like it or not, but novelists—under contract or otherwise—need to establish deadlines as well. They can be as large as the deadline for completing the entire novel, and as small as the completion of a single chapter or paragraph. But once the deadline has been reached, you’ve got to move on. At the moment, I’m writing a chapter a day, and the results are far from perfect—but, as Fey notes, “perfect is overrated. Perfect is boring on live television.” And, sooner or later, every novel needs to go live.

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