The Spider-Man Musical Is Closing. The Playwright Explains How It All Went Wrong.

Behind the scenes.
Nov. 29 2013 11:00 AM

Spidenfreude

As the Spider-Man musical finishes its ill-starred Broadway run, the playwright’s behind-the-scenes story of its frantic opening months.

Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark
Spider-Man the Musical was really a diabolical machine designed to test humility.

Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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.

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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 proctorwhat 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.

Spider-Man the Musical was never Spider-Man the Musical. I see that now. It’s always been nothing more than a diabolical machine built by the gods to teach humility. And now Turn Off the Dark—this entire enterprise—was about to leap off the edge with its unclipped safety cable dragging behind it.

Producer Michael Cohl believed the show would be a hit if there were just some more clarity in the story currently onstage. Designer Rob Bissinger—like Edge—couldn’t make heads or tails out of the ending.

“It’s a Gordian knot,” I told him. “And heck if I know how to untie it.”

Spider-Man doesn’t kill his adversaries if he can help it, and the webslinger certainly couldn’t kill Arachne—she spent half of Turn Off the Dark as an anguished woman just trying to help him. Also, he literally couldn’t kill her—she was immortal. So, really, the climactic battle could only resolve with Arachne allowing Peter to be with Mary Jane, the goddess Athena transforming Arachne into a young woman again, and Arachne ascending into the stars.

But because Arachne’s spider legs were attached to a twisty belt that was impossible to take off without the help of stage managers offstage, no miraculous transformation could occur as Julie had always envisioned. Awkward staging makeshifts had to be employed instead, resulting in hundreds of audience members leaving the theatre every night scratching their heads. And that was on a good night—when the web net actually succeeded in making it into the web-net scene (which stage manager Randall White predicted wouldn’t happen two or three times every week).

* * *

Bono once told me one of the secrets to U2’s crazy-long career.

How had these four men—each with a strong personality and unique understanding of his craft—been able to work together for over thirty years? The four of them realized long ago that if they were arguing over a song, then that was an instant indication to the defenders that the song wasn’t good enough yet. “Because,” Bono said, “when something is good, truly good, there is no arguing.”

The unflinching conversation that could have happened on Jan. 7—and Jan. 8, and every day after that until this thing got solved—was finally happening on Feb. 26. It had taken until today, when we needed a lawyer to play den mother. Today, after a dozen major papers had already practiced vivisection on us in the Broadway operating theatre.

Michael admitted at the top of the meeting that he made a mistake. He said he should have convened the meeting weeks before. He said it was “out of a respect for Julie and her vision” that he hadn’t. There was a lot of irony in his voice when he said that. Julie snorted. They could hardly look at each other.

The meeting was five hours long, and not one of its eighteen thousand seconds was fun. Michael said this meeting wasn’t about who was right artistically. This was about survival. “If Spider-Man were only a $20 million show that needed $800,000 a week to break even, we wouldn’t be having this meeting. But it’s not. So we need ‘the big fix.’” He put it baldly: We didn’t even have enough money to make it to March 15. If Marvel released more funds, it would be on the one condition that the show got thoroughly revamped.

Whether the tussle was with Joe Roth over the final cut of Across the Universe, or with Harvey Weinstein over Frida, or with dubious Disney executives over how little “lion” you actually needed for a lion costume, Julie almost always prevailed when she held her ground. It was only natural that she applied the same strategy here. But the circumstances were different in this case in one key way: In the other instances, the tug-of-war occurred before the film was released or before the play went into production. In other words, “in the eleventh hour,” if not before. And over a year later, in more than one interview, she would mischaracterize March 2011 as “the eleventh hour”: “What’s tricky about my career is that people get really excited, they want all that groundbreaking or envelope-pushing stuff, whatever you want to call it, and then at the eleventh hour, they get nervous. They smell more success if we don’t go too artistic.”

But over 150,000 people had seen Turn Off the Dark by the beginning of March. It had been reviewed by the New York Times. We weren’t in the eleventh hour—we were well past midnight. And it made all the difference. She figured she was merely facing off against a producer. But a tsunami generated by public opinion was gathering behind her. And it was about to crash down on her.

Julie was fired. And within a week, she was being satirized as a narcissistic fruitcake by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. The Spider-Man–Goblin fight was moved to the end of the show. Putting the fight at the end would eliminate all future web-net snafus. The frightening images of Goblin and the Sinister Six in the second act wouldn’t be Arachne’s illusions—they’d be real. In fact the whole subplot of illusions—which was confusing audiences every night—would be eliminated. The undisputed highlight of the show would end just two minutes before the curtain call. How did Alexander the Great untie the Gordian knot? He didn’t. He used his sword.

---

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.

Glen Berger is an Emmy Award–winning television and theater writer. He lives in New York City.

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