The first thing Berger did to prepare for his work on Spider-Man was listen to U2’s music—which, although of course he never let on to his new collaborators, he knew nothing about. The band’s first top 40 hit in the US, “(Pride) In the Name of Love,” came out in 1984, while Berger was in high school, “so it should have been a perfect time to get to know U2, but I totally ignored it!” he says.
Better late than never, though. On attending his first U2 concert, which he immediately made a point of doing, he was “amazed,” he says. “The reach and the sort of earnest impulse of their music are just so inspiring!” He bought all their albums, and listened to them in a row—becoming, “like, a U2 scholar”—and now considers himself a true fan, he says.
His admiration was only enhanced by working with Bono and The Edge in person, staying up all night at their residences in New York or Dublin to write song lyrics and map out the plot.
In Dublin “Bono and Edge live really close to each other, which is really endearing,” he says. “They both have old manor houses, but Bono’s is more like that kind of 18th-century charm, and Edge likes a more clean, modern line, I would say.”
Not only were the rock stars the “smartest, most collaborative, imaginative,” people he had ever worked with, but they were also fun and down to earth. “I work with so many people who are not of their caliber, and yet, they put on such airs and treat people with such disdain,” he says. “If Bono and Edge don’t do that, then really, who are these other people who feel like they can?”
Though she would come to have some pretty harsh things to say about him, Berger insists he also cherished working with Taymor, whom he describes as “a force of nature.” He had seen her work for the first time in 1985, when her production of The Transposed Heads—a musical adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella in which two friends behead themselves and magically have their heads restored, only to each other’s bodies—was presented at the Annenberg Center, and was as taken with her then as the first day he met her during the Spider-Man auditions.
“She’s all art, all the time,” he says. “Our first meeting together, without a break we spent like 14 hours just riffing. That’s how I like to work, and I hadn’t seen that kind of fire in anybody in my life with quite that intensity.”
At first this dream team did “swimmingly,” as Berger puts it. It was a rush to stay up all night, “spinning out the story,” their own interpretation of this iconic classic. They wove a tale in which mythological creature Arachne—a mortal weaver who had been turned into a spider after boasting that her skills were greater than the goddess Athena’s—tries to get Spider-Man to use his powers to transform her back into a human. Of course, she wreaks havoc on society in the process, which Spider-Man has to set right again.
The team held workshops where they tested the plot on various audiences—who responded enthusiastically. They journeyed to Los Angeles (to the same soundstage where The Wizard of Oz was filmed) for a “flying” workshop, where they saw what kind of impressive acrobatics could be used in the musical. “Oh my gosh, it was amazing!” Berger recalls.
Imagining a show and implementing it are very different things, however, as Berger and his collaborators quickly learned. As the production entered rehearsals and then previews in 2010—financial troubles had already delayed the originally scheduled 2009 start—it was clear that many parts of the show that they had planned on just weren’t going to work.
First, many of the technologies upon which the show relied had serious kinks.
“Spider-man is the most technically complex show ever on Broadway,” wrote Patrick Healy, a theater critic for The New York Times, “with 27 aerial sequences of characters flying and scores of pieces of moving scenery, some of which are among the biggest on a New York stage right now.”
Some of the flying rigs could only move front to back and others side to side, meaning the whole plot and staging had to be worked to accommodate these restrictions. The one thing Berger and Taymor really needed to work was a metal ring with a funnel-shaped web, which was going to drop over the audience and provide the stage for the final battle between Arachne and Spider-Man. “And it wasn’t until it was built and installed and we were in tech that it became clear that it wasn’t going to work,” says Berger. “So it’s like, what do you do? There was another plan and that didn’t work. And there was another plan that was just a shadow of the second plan. And what you were left with was something that kind of didn’t even make sense.”
On top of these troubles five actors were injured (broken wrists, internal bleeding, concussions, even cracks in lumbar vertebrae) from mechanical glitches, which resulted in drastic cast changes and bad press. (The New Yorker famously spoofed these injuries on its January 17, 2011, cover.)
Another major problem was that preview audiences didn’t seem to like—or even understand—Taymor and Berger’s vision of Spider-Man.
“I think it became apparent that the story that was on stage was not the story the audience was walking in and expecting to see,” says McKinley, who saw the show multiple times before taking over as director. “Whenever you deal with pop culture, I think you have to be very careful … It’s an iconic comic book! So when the audience walked in they wanted to see Peter Parker fall in love with Mary Jane, transform into Spider-Man, and then rescue her.” Elisabeth Vincentelli, a theater critic for The New York Post, agreed: “It was a completely demented show. It was a real mess.”
As the problems mounted, so did the pressure on Taymor and Berger. (Bono and The Edge were on tour at the time.) The show’s official opening was delayed six times to work out the issues. Besides costing the producers and investors money, the unprecedented length of the preview period wore out the patience of the media and critics. Rather than following the custom of waiting until opening night, they began reviewing the show—and those reviews were overwhelmingly negative. StageGrade.com, a website that gives productions a letter score based on many critics’ reviews, gave Spider-Man an F+.
It didn’t help that the show’s travails were happening right there on Broadway, directly in the glare of the New York press. Most Broadway shows start out of town, so they can gauge audience response and fix a show’s weaknesses away from the spotlight. But the size of this production made that impossible.
“If we were in Chicago working it out, that would be one thing,” says Berger. “But instead we’re staring down the barrel of a gun … It was like we were in this machine and the intensity got greater.”
McKinley reiterates what a tough position they were in: “Nobody wants to work under that [pressure],” he says. “It was such a public, what do I want to say … trial. It was just on trial on a daily basis.”