"It was ten years ago at a songwriting awards ceremony," begins U2 frontman Bono. "And he posed the question, 'Why have you all left me to myself? Why aren't you 'round here? Because it's so fantastic!' It was a throwdown to rock and pop bands [to join the Broadway experience]. And we made mental note."
So when the Dublin rockers were first approached about a musical based on the famous Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comic book hero Spider-Man, they had, in fact, "been talking in a very casual way about maybe doing something at some point in musical theatre," recalls guitarist The Edge. "It's a fascinating form but it didn't seem like, to us, that there'd been anything that had captured the possibilities of contemporary music and the best of musical theatre for a while. So we were kind of excited about getting into that particular playpen."
"Did you say the word playpen?" interjects Bono, smiling. "I think that was a good choice of a word. Because we've really had a lot of fun." Sitting in the newly christened Foxwoods Theatre, on the precipice of previews after an eight-plus-year gestation period, you'd expect Bono and The Edge to be a bit more bedraggled. You'd never guess they are caught in the web of the most expensive — and most scrutinized — musical in Broadway history. And they certainly don't act like rock stars who have won 22 Grammys and sold more than 170 million albums. They simply look like two songwriters genuinely excited (even a bit giddy!) to be making their Broadway debut.
"We tried not to be big shots and arrive with a cigar in our mouth," says Bono. "Because we're not. We're small shots around here. No matter how much we might have done in our other lives, it kind of doesn't count as soon as you walk into a theatre."
According to Spider-Man director and co-librettist Julie Taymor — who helped Elton John leap from the Billboard charts to Broadway with The Lion King, running away with six Tony Awards in the process, including two for herself — "composers are composers. They either have a sense of character and story or they don't." The U2 guys, she says, have it. "I knew that their anthemic style had the epic scale you'd need for this story. They could take a state of mind and a state of being and write about it in a more poetic, abstract way."
Spider-Man songs like "Turn Off the Dark" and "Rise Above" are a little different than such U2 smash hits as "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "Pride (In the Name of Love)," "Elevation," or "Beautiful Day," of course. "There's girls singing some of the songs, just for starters," Bono cracks. The Edge interrupts his bandmate (whom he had earlier described as the more "boisterous" one): "Because you're writing for characters and you're writing songs that push the story along, we've had to write in styles and moods that we normally wouldn't ever think of writing in. We weren't sure if we could do it. Most of the time we're writing in first person. But this was in some ways easier."
"There's freedom in escaping yourself," says Bono. "And we would find, not just melodies and words that fit into the mouths of these characters, but in some cases idioms, different musical scales. Our character Arachne, who becomes a villain but isn't really at heart a villain...has almost this kind of Indo-European scale. There's a bit of North Africa as well. That was really fun. We could be as experimental as we wanted as long as it made sense, as long as it pushed the story forward and it made sense for the characters."
The story, according to Taymor — she and Glen Berger wrote the book — is a "contemporary myth.... What is the essence of Spider-Man? What does it mean to be this boy given this gift?" Asked to describe the collaborative process with Taymor, Bono says: "We sort of sit at her feet and grovel. I would carry her luggage. I think I might have."
Taymor laughs off the groveling image: "Oh stop it! The four of us worked together. I would outline where potential songs might be and then there would be a lot of back and forth. Bono and I are very demonstrative, Edge is like a scientist, and Glen is analyzing and brings the New York humor. We're all the geeks. There are four geeks in the play itself — one girl and three boys. Ultimately they're not us, but that's what we were — arguing about what needs to be included, what can happen in song, how poetic can the lyrics be.... I was always amazed that Bono and Edge had the fortitude and time. They were invested.... And they were really eager to spread their wings."
Meanwhile, back at the theatre, Edge rounds up his co-composer: "Okay, Bono. Tap lessons in 15 minutes!" Okay, he's joking. But that would be one heck of a way to spread their wings.
(This feature appears in the January 2011 Playbill magazine.)