What happens when a playwright best known for a one-man show about a seriously overdue library book gets involved in creating a blockbuster musical about an iconic superhero? In one word: Kapow!
BY ALYSON KRUEGER | Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett | PDF download
Here’s something that not one of the 2,000 people packed into the Foxwoods Theater to see the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is probably thinking about: Did Glen Berger C’89—a respected but little-known playwright—betray director Julie Taymor—who had personally chosen him to write the script—by siding with the producers against her in scrapping their original story and writing a new, more audience-friendly version? Or was his action a necessary sacrifice that helped save the show? Is he a hero or villain?
Whatever the answer—and since neither real life nor the actual business of putting on a multi-million-dollar Broadway production operates like a comic book, it’s a little bit of both—there’s no doubt that the Spider-man now on stage is a rousing, crowd-pleasing success. At the performance I attended this past spring, the audience sat stunned at the end before breaking into a standing ovation. We’d just seen Spider-man literally over our heads, dashing from the balcony to the rear of the orchestra to the side boxes as he battled the evil and just-as-elusive Green Goblin. Lights flashed. Spidey’s trademark webs fell from the sky onto our laps. There were thunderous crashing sounds. And then, all of a sudden, a huge mass of green fell onto the stage, and a comic book bubble blew up displaying the word, SPLAT.
Scenes like this one—involving technical feats more akin to Cirque du Soleil than the “legitimate” theater—have been drawing record crowds. In January 2012 the Broadway League, an industry trade group, announced that the production had made more money in a week ($2,941,790 over nine performances) than any Broadway show in history—a record it held for nearly a year before being topped by the long-running Wicked’s take of $2,974,172 during the week ending December 30, 2012. Even before the performance began you could feel the excitement, with six-year-olds and twenty-something professionals alike telling each other, “I can’t wait for the flying. It’s going to be so awesome!”
But if the audience is caught up in the general awesomeness of this production, Berger has a hard time watching it. He can’t forget what it took to get there—and what got lost along the way. “I actually went insane,” he says. “When pressure gets insane, people go insane. It was fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t just watching; I was in it.”
When Marvel first announced plans to make a musical version of Spider-Man in 2002, it seemed like a great idea. Rock-star Bono and his U2 band-mate The Edge agreed to do the music—prompted in part, according to a story in The New York Post, by a joking thank-you from Andrew Lloyd Weber to his fellow musicians for leaving Broadway to him. “We’ve decided to give Andrew a little competition,” Bono said at the time. And Julie Taymor, who had received wide acclaim for transforming Disney’s animated film The Lion King into a unique, riveting—and hugely profitable—theatrical experience, was hired to spearhead the project. Support poured in. “We had always been told, ‘The one thing you don’t have to worry about is money.’” Berger recalls. “People were lining up to invest.”
What followed, though, was nearly a decade of bad luck, financial reversals, technical snafus, artistic and personal differences, physical injuries, and a media snark-fest that would culminate in a New York Times headline announcing that “‘Spider-Man’ Isn’t Just the Talk of Broadway, It’s the Punch Line.”
To make a long story short: In October 2005, the show’s original producer, Tony Adams, died suddenly from a stroke, leaving less effective successors to pick up the pieces. As the Great Recession hit, investors backed out, leaving the show almost penniless by 2009. Most damaging of all, much of the technology that Taymor and Berger had expected to rely on to create comic-book-worthy feats on stage just would not work the way they wanted it to. Delays caused some star actors to leave the show for other jobs, and five cast members were seriously injured as a result of on-stage malfunctions during the show’s legendarily troubled previews in early 2011. Taymor was against making major changes to the plot that she and Berger had developed—largely unconnected to the universe of the Spider-man comic—but the producers (and Berger) felt such changes were desperately needed to salvage the show. Taymor was fired and replaced by a new director, Philip William McKinley, while Berger stayed on to help craft a fresh plot (that many critics dismissed as plain vanilla) in the three weeks before Spider-Man finally opened to the public. In the end, a production that was supposed to open on February 18, 2010 with a budget of $31.3 million, instead opened on June 14, 2011 at a cost of $75 million.
Berger, who’s been there through it all, sees the toll the show’s various hardships have taken. The money issues, the faulty technology, the in-fighting among writers and producers reduced every aspect of the show, from the story line to the acrobatics, into shadows of what they could have been. “It’s difficult to watch because there is so much that we wanted for it, and so much that could have been there,” he says. He calls the experience “a profound examination of the nature of collaboration.”