Success is never a foregone conclusion. Glen Berger learned this the hard way when he was selected to collaborate with the successful Julie Taymor, Tony Award-winning director of Broadway’s The Lion King, and Bono and The Edge of U2 on a Spider-Man musical. The films, starring Tobey Maguire, were setting box-office records and Marvel was eager to replicate that success on stage. Berger and Taymor co-wrote the book, which was packed with aerial stunts, intricate set pieces, and a new villainess—Arachne—who dominated (too) much of the complex story.
Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark made its home at the Foxwoods Theatre, the second-largest house on Broadway, and began previews on November 28, 2010, with a packed audience and numerous technical malfunctions. Several actors were left suspended in midair, and the show ran almost an hour longer than it should have. When the first preview ended, Berger and his collaborators breathed a sigh of relief. It could only get better, right?
But things only got worse. Repeatedly delayed due to constant technical errors, the musical had its official opening seven months later, concluding the longest preview period in Broadway history. Spider-Man closed in January 2014, leaving behind a legacy of near-fatal cast member injuries, litigation, $50 million in overages, and a $60 million loss.
Glen Berger had a front-row seat to the drama and chronicled his experience in his 2013 book Song Of Spider-Man: The Inside Story Of The Most Controversial Musical In Broadway History. Speaking with The A.V. Club, Berger shares how things went wrong so quickly on what should have been a Broadway success story.
The A.V. Club: What was the biggest mistake made during pre-production on Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark?
Glen Berger: Our biggest blunder was that we only had one workshop, and then we went into rehearsals for the Broadway run of the show. I’m working on another bound-for-Broadway musical now, and we’ve already had four workshops. Every time you hear, “Oh, we’re going to do another workshop,” the knee-jerk reaction is, “We don’t need any more. We can just go straight into rehearsals,” but we learn some new things every time. They provide you the opportunity to get rid of stuff that doesn’t work, songs that fall flat that you thought were amazing, or totally rewrite scenes. I’m all for workshops now.
AVC: You were essentially workshopping the show for a paid audience every night during previews, which is usually reserved for fine-tuning. What was it like working out major kinks in front of audiences and the media?
GB: I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story, but by way of metaphor, just by coincidence, I knew Julie’s assistant director on The Lion King and went to their opening night back in the day. I was coming from work or somewhere, and I had my tuxedo in a bag. I went into the men’s room of the New Amsterdam Theatre to change, and I couldn’t find my pants. I was worried that I’d lost them. I’m in my underwear as all these luminaries are coming into the men’s room, and I’m trying to change into a tux.
In my head I’m thinking, “I’m going to look great, very soon. Goodness gracious, I’m going to look extremely sharp. I know you’re seeing me in my underpants now, but just you wait. I’ve got big plans.” It felt like that working on Spider-Man, every night, for three years. There was always this sense that if we could realize what we originally conceived on stage, we would be fine.
AVC: Is it safe to say that getting your pants on in the men’s room was easier than fixing what was wrong with Spider-Man?
GB: Right, but I think that’s why Julie, in particular, is so resistant to huge changes to the script during the preview process. So many things kept going wrong. We were spending months not even being able to see the original script on stage. Julie’s feeling, and mine at the beginning, was that we needed to see what we had originally intended before we could make changes. It would be foolhardy to do otherwise. At a certain point, for some people—but not everybody—a certain reality sets in. You have to say, “I don’t think we’ll ever be able to implement our original notion of the show, so we need to move to plan B.”
AVC: When did that reality set in for you? How many warning signs did you see during production before everyone on your team saw them?
GB: One of the things I hear from people who read my book is that “it’s clear that Glen thought that he could foresee some of these problems happening, but he was too timid to convey those fears to his collaborators.”
It doesn’t work like that. No matter what you’re doing, you’re never 100 percent about anything. Every choice is always accompanied by a certain amount of worry or doubt. Until it reaches a certain threshold, you don’t act on it; you just sort of carry it with you, and wait to see if it reaches the threshold when you should act. Otherwise, you just become one of those worrywarts, a nervous Nellie who isn’t very helpful.
It was similar, I think, in our case. When I look back, I can remember a day where I thought, “Maybe this particular scene isn’t going to ever work because of this, this, and this,” but it’s always, exasperatingly, just a little too below the surface in the brain, below that threshold that would make you act on it. It hasn’t reached that fight-or-flight moment.
AVC: Were there any factors that got in the way of reaching that threshold earlier in the process? The musical was met with mixed reviews, at best, from the beginning. Why did it take so long before big changes were made?
GB: Sometimes, of course, you could recognize that the show was going to be a dog, but it didn’t feel that way for way too long. I think it was because people were still seeing it every night in droves. We felt like we still had time to work things out. There was a sense of, “How could it be bad? We have so many talented people working on it, and we’ve been working on it for so long, and we’ve solved so many things.”
Danny Ezralow, the choreographer, was in disbelief. He said, “Are you telling me that this thing could close? How is that possible, with all these amazing people working on the show? That’s inconceivable.” Julie would bring up the film Titanic. There were all these cost overruns, and scheduling overruns, and everyone was predicting doom for that movie, but James Cameron got it to work. If he could, why couldn’t we?
AVC: Was it all box-office numbers and defiant optimism that led you to believe the show could be turned around?
GB: The original demos that Bono and Edge made for the show, and what we presented in the workshop back in 2007 to a select audience, kept us confident. Everyone was so enormously impressed with Bono and Edge’s music, and they weren’t just blowing smoke. I just don’t think anybody realized that what it takes to translate a demo tape playing in a rehearsal room to a Broadway stage requires a whole other set of talents and considerations.
Then, during previews, you’d see all this very fascinating psychology at work. You’d see confirmation bias set in. It would take hours to give notes after the preview, and when we left the building, there’d still be 70 people by the stage door, just to catch a glimpse of Bono or Julie, or because they loved the show so much.
I remember one night Julie said, “See? Why are people here if the show is bad? Don’t listen to the naysayers. People love the show.” Of course the 70 people who waited two hours outside a stage door loved the show. What we needed was more than 70. We needed 1,700 to love the show every night. You could kind of watch the bubble getting constructed around you.
AVC: It seemed that most people in the press saw problems with the show even in its earliest days. Did you think the problems were common early on?
GB: I’ve had many plays with miserable previews, but then it gets better day by day. By the time it opens, it’s great. The challenge, especially for Spider-Man, was that there was no way of assessing it. The show was supposed to take two and a half hours, but was coming in at close to four hours because of all the stops and starts. You couldn’t really gauge. When Spider-Man is dangling above you and you have to wait 20 minutes to get him untangled, it makes it hard to tell if the show would work with all the pieces in order.
AVC: The multiple injuries that occurred during previews, like Natalie Mendoza getting concussed and Chris Tierney falling 30 feet, created a flood of negative press that was impossible for the show to shake. How was it for you when these things were happening in real time?
GB: Inside the bunker, the immediate response was to search for justification. We would scan the internet for instances in other shows where people were getting injured and it never blew up into this big thing. This was never to minimize any of the actions that happened, but there was the sense early on that we were getting a raw deal.
That was, until Chris’ accident, which, as opposed to a fracture or something, was horrendous. At the moment it happened, several of us thought there was no way that he was going to survive the fall.
AVC: Did you feel differently about working on Spider-Man after that night?
GB: When you’re making art, there’s a lot of self-importance attached to that, but at the end of the day, you can always fall back on the fact that it’s just a play. It’s not like the Iraq War or something. We’re not causing anybody any harm, other than a couple hours of a wasted evening.
But when people start really getting injured, you can’t fall back on that anymore. Suddenly, you begin to question, “Why the hell am I doing this? Really, just so you can present a story on a stage, really? Is it worth any of this?” Obviously, it didn’t do great things for morale, but it was more—you really did begin to question what the hell we were doing with our lives.
Then, when we went to visit Chris in the hospital the next day, he told us how, since he was 3 years old, he wanted to be Spider-Man. The opportunity to do this for kids in the audience was so life-replenishing for him that he had no regrets. Then, you shift to the other side of the equation and think, “Without art, where would any of us be?”
AVC: Had that accident not happened, do you think that there might have been another path to change the narrative in the public eye?
GB: I think we could have changed the narrative if we had just fixed the show. All things eventually get forgiven and forgotten, but that only would have happened if the show got fixed. It was actually the night of Chris’ accident that I had this epiphany that we had much, much deeper problems than I had been willing to entertain, up until that point.
AVC: Such as?
GB: We kept kind of nibbling at the edges to try and fix the show, and I realized about an hour before Chris’ accident that it was systemic, that something really big about the show needed to change if we were going to survive more than a couple more months. I was wandering in the downstairs lobby and I saw this boy come out of the men’s room with his mother. He just had such a miserable look on his face. For whatever reason, all my subconscious doubts got projected onto that boy’s face.
I realized we were letting a lot of people down. We were delivering a dark, not family-friendly night, and I understood how badly we had to make some big changes. It was right before the Christmas break, so a lot of people were about to take off for their vacation. The expectation by the cast and everybody else was that we would all come back, and there’d be major changes on the table. But because collaboration at that point had broken down, and there weren’t major changes, that’s when the slow, inevitable decline really set in.
AVC: Was there a point where you felt like Julie Taymor was more of a detriment to Spider-Man than an asset?
GB: Almost inevitably during previews for a Broadway musical, several songs are cut and several new songs are written. Sometimes, the new songs are the best songs. There’s the famous story of “Comedy Tonight” for A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum being written out of town. There are hundreds of other examples of songs being changed and scenes rearranged.
From our first preview to the day Julie left the show seven months later, not a single song was cut, which is kind of indicative of the rigidity that was setting in for one camp of the creators who felt like, “No, we came up with the perfect show. We just need to find a way to render it competently.”
AVC: When’s the last time you spoke to her?
GB: Right before my book came out, she called me wanting to know if I wrote anything she had to worry about. I hadn’t talked to her for a couple years at that point.
AVC: Do you have any indication as to her thoughts on the book?
GB: I don’t know if she’s read it. It’s hard to read something after you’ve thrown it across the room. [Laughs.] She sued the producers after she left the show, and I was included in her suit for wrongful termination.
I think she still believes that there was sort of a conspiracy to oust her very early on in the preview process, but that’s just not the case. On the contrary, nobody wanted her to go. Bono was still calling me even after the show opened to say, “Do you think there’s some way we can kind of get Julie back, to make these last changes that we want to make?” The answer to that was no.
AVC: After Julie Taymor left the musical, there were substantive rewrites, and a new director, choreographer, and co-writer were brought on board. What were your feelings when the show finally opened in its retooled iteration?
GB: If I ever need a personal definition of the word “ambivalence,” opening night of Spider-Man would be it. There was such a mix of relief and hope that this thing was finally going to last a little while, and a deep dubiousness that it wasn’t going to last as long as I wanted it to. Throw a little numbness in there, and a lot of adrenaline, because it was a huge event.
AVC: Coming off the success of the film franchise, the Broadway musical was seen by some as an attempted cash grab. What were those initial meetings like on Spider-Man? How much did it seem like creativity was going to drive the product?
GB: Having met Bono and Edge at the very beginning of the process, and having spent some time with Julie and Tony Adams, one of the original producers, it felt like everybody on board had a really endearingly idealistic notion of what this show could be. Early on, it didn’t feel like people were in it for the money. There was a whole lot of sincerely delivered words about us having an opportunity and a responsibility to really dig deep and bring something beautiful for the world. We had the money and the resources to actually do it right, so I was totally jazzed.
AVC: Were Marvel’s ambitions for the musical in line with the creative team’s?
GB: For the most part. Tony Adams and David Garfinkle, Tony’s producing partner, were protective as could be, giving us space without Marvel breathing down our necks. From what I could glean from Tony and David, Marvel was keeping an eye on us, but they were tentatively as excited as we were. They wanted us to deliver the brand as people expected it, and it needed to be spectacular and amazing. We were all for those things.
When it came to writing the story, Julie found a lot of inspiration in the comics. There seemed to be a little more latitude than what was in the movies. Some of the philosophical questions could get explored, and there could be some different plot twists.
With that said, we leaned very heavily on the first two films for plot, at least for mostly Act 1, which Marvel was encouraging. But there were some concerns from Avi Arad over at Marvel when we turned in our treatment. He had some doubts, mostly about the concept of Arachne being the supervillain. He couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t just pick some other villain that had already been established in the Marvel history.
AVC: Why did Julie Taymor hinge so much of the plot on this character when the Green Goblin had recently been successful on screen?
GB: Julie was very aware that there are things that theater can deliver that film can’t and vice versa. There are small things, like the Green Goblin wouldn’t be able to fly around on a glider because we just couldn’t figure out how to do that onstage, and larger things, like if it’s going to be a musical, then we did need a strong female antagonist. There wasn’t really one that Julie could find that already existed in the Spider-Man history. That’s where Arachne came to be. Not just because we needed a strong female antagonist, but also because musically, an audience would want to hear a soprano singing.
AVC: Do you feel there was a point where Julie’s enthusiasm for the character superseded a desire to make the show commercially viable and accessible to young audiences?
GB: She did The Lion King, which was definitely for all ages, but really aimed at smaller kids, and she didn’t want to just do that again. She was hoping to go for a slightly older audience. Not as old as Spring Awakening, but there is cred that comes with a slightly older youth market. She had just done the movie Across The Universe when she had started working on Spider-Man, so she was hanging out with a lot of 20-year-olds and she liked that energy.
In hindsight, I don’t think there were enough meetings between us creatives and the Marvel people to reach a consensus about exactly what age demographic we were supposed to be hitting.
But it’s also very hard to assess exactly how dark something’s going to be until it’s up onstage and you hear all the music. Even the lighting was literally kind of dark. I don’t think it was until previews that it really sunk in that the musical was targeting an older demographic than Marvel would have thought ideal. Maybe we would have made adjustments if we had out-of-town tryouts, but we didn’t, and by the time we were in previews, it was too late.
AVC: There aren’t many Broadway tell-all memoirs written by those still working in the business. What led you to write your book?
GB: I had no intention of writing a book when we started. As far as I knew, the show was just going to open and we were going to be in great shape. It’s not like I took copious notes, and certainly, Bono and Edge wouldn’t have been comfortable if they had thought during those five years that I was thinking about writing a book.
My agent had been hearing about this whole saga throughout the process, and after opening, he said, “This is a book.” For years, when I was working on Spider-Man, I thought, “This was what the universe meant for me to do. All my life was coming to this point of working on Spider-Man, and it all makes so much sense.”
But once everything went sour I thought, “Wow, really? That’s what the universe had in store for me? That seems a little cruel.” Then I realized, “Oh no, what if what the universe actually had in store for me was not work on Spider-Man, but to write a book about working on Spider-Man?” I was the only one really who could have written this book, because I was on the inside from beginning to end, and it was about all the things that I find so interesting about collaboration and these noble ideals that people strive toward and don’t quite reach.
AVC: It almost seems like the show was destined for failure from inception. There were all of these opportunities, or perceived opportunities, for things to be corrected, and sometimes those changes moved the needle a little bit, but never enough to get the show above water.
GB: We grow up attending lectures listening to people lay out these amazing, noble stories of how the chips were down, and failure seemed inevitable, but at the last moment, they achieved success. The moral is that if you never give up and believe in yourself, you will ultimately find success.
No one ever comes to a classroom and says, “I never gave up, and I’m still a huge failure.” You don’t get those less-inspirational tales, because no one’s going to invite that guy to come speak at a high school graduation, which is a shame, because it’s maybe a better lesson to learn.
It makes you begin to revise one’s whole attitude towards how to measure a life. Maybe you can’t measure it by what you achieve, but rather what you attempt. [Pause.] It’s easy to get pretty philosophical about a Broadway flop.
AVC: When the Broadway run ended, lead producer Michael Cohl said the show would move to Las Vegas and that they’d “work on improving everything. [The show] could be anything. It’s a blank piece of paper.” If asked, would you work on rewrites for a third iteration of Spider-Man?
GB: God, no, I wouldn’t. At the end of the day, nothing is achievable if you don’t have the right collaborators. I couldn’t imagine a situation where the right collaborators were to come on board for it. We had the right collaborators for the first version, and a number of variables got in the way. There are plenty of other seemingly less-promising things I’d be happy to work on.