Excerpted from Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, by Glen Berger. Out now from Simon & Schuster.
“What you’re watching is the stem cells of a protean imagination dividing and dividing and dividing, right out of control. ... The result is savage and deeply confusing—a boiling cancer-scape of living pain. ...”
And that was our good review. Seriously. Scott Brown declared in New York that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was “never, ever boring,” although that pronouncement came at the end of a sentence that began by describing the show as “hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar.” So, yeah, there were some qualifiers in there.
To many of those hard at work at the Foxwoods, reviewers showing up in the beginning of February was like hearing a proctor shout “Pencils down!” when you had three more answers that you knew, and just needed to write down before you turned in your—“Taymor! Cohl! I said ‘Pencils down!’” Your first thought isn’t that you should have gotten through your test faster. Your first thought is: That proctor—what an asshole.
And certainly several of the critics took an extra dose of asshole pills the day they typed up their reviews of the show. Peter Marks at the Washington Post confessed: “I haven’t seen every stinker ever produced, so I can’t categorically confirm that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark belongs in the dankest subbasement of the American musical theater. But its application certainly seems to be in order.”
I spent the morning wading through sentences like:
- A “65-million-dollar sinking ship, which goes down with all hands.”
- “The creature that most often spreads its wings in the Foxwoods is a turkey.”
- “The tale doesn’t so much unfold as ooze out.”
Sometimes you don’t need thick skin as a playwright, you need a hazmat suit. Ben Brantley had been sharpening his knives for so long in anticipation of the day he could review our show, our flesh must have felt like a yielding pat of butter. For a critic of his stature, it must have been a sensuous experience to write that the performers wearing Julie Taymor’s masks “bring to mind hucksters handing out promotional material for fantasy-themed restaurants.” Or to say Daniel Ezralow’s choreography was straight out of the early 1980s, and “pure vintage MTV.”
But it was one sentence that gave him away, one sentence that allowed everyone working at the Foxwoods to dismiss Brantley’s whole review with a “whatever.” The head reviewer for the paper of record wrote: “Spider-Man is not only the most expensive musical ever to hit Broadway; it may also rank among the worst.”
For everything wrong with the show, moments of undeniable inspiration peeked through the clouds. It was the reason no one in this theatre wanted to close up shop. So Brantley’s review only strengthened our resolve to do an end run around him and the rest of these Pharisees. Scott Brown, for one, concluded in his review that the show should never open; that it “should be built and rebuilt and overbuilt forever, a living monument to itself.” Both Julie and Michael had begun some serious consideration of this option. After all, Cirque du Soleil employed “soft openings” for their shows, working out kinks for a year or more before “freezing” a show.
Anyway, the notion surely wasn’t viable. A lot of the revenue-generating hype for the show was a result of what Scott Brown dubbed “Spidenfreude”—the taking of delight in Turn Off the Dark’s misfortunes. So even though the Feb. 12 episode of Saturday Night Live featured a law firm specializing in lawsuits related to Turn Off the Dark; and even though there was a micro-budgeted stunt-musical called The Spidey Project that was getting a lot of publicity and opening in New York on March 14; and even though yet another cheeky stunt-musical called Spidermann was garnering buzz and opening in New York on March 13; all of this hullabaloo over our show was due to end any second.