In Their Own Words: How New Collaborators Taught Spider-Man to Fly Again

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29 Jun 2011

Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in <i>Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.</i>
Patrick Page and Reeve Carney in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.
Jacob Cohl

Philip Wm. McKinley, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Chase Brock weren't show doctors on just any old patient — they were operating on Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. The three artists talk candidly about the rescue mission.

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In an annals of Broadway history, never have show doctors been confronted with such a conundrum as were director Philip Wm. McKinley, playwright Robert Aguirre-Sacasa and choreographer Chase Brock when they were brought in to fix Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.

Under the penetrating gaze of the entire theatre community and press, the producers hung a $65 million albatross around the neck of the new collaborators and said, "Make it fly." Even legendary show doctors like George S. Kaufman and Neil "Doc" Simon might have blanched at the assignment. But the trio took on the labor, and shut down the show (now said to have a production cost of $75 million) for a month. They reopened at Foxwoods Theatre on June 14 with a production that the critics had to admit was vastly different than the one put together by original (and, still, official) director Julie Taymor. Playbill.com asked the three men how they did it. Here are their answers.

Philip Wm. McKinley
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

PHILIP WM. MCKINLEY

When you began work on Spider-Man, how did you view your job? What were you there to do?
PM: I was on a rescue mission. I was there to save a show that had a great deal of potential, but it didn't work for the audience. The company consisting of 140 Broadway artists, designers and technicians had been raked through the public fires of criticism from the journalists, the critics, the bloggers, the chat rooms, etc. Everybody in New York had an opinion about Spider-Man whether they'd seen the show or not. This constant barrage of public attention had in some way demoralized the company.

The first time I met the company I could feel the skeptical energy that dominated the room. The cast and crew had dedicated themselves to months of work (in some cases over a year) and yet the show was still not working for the audience. Why should they trust me, a stranger to most of them? A stranger who was telling them they would preview May 12 and open June 14. They'd heard that one before.

My objective became two-fold: 1.) fix the show (mainly the story) so it would appeal to the audience (which consisted of young children to senior citizens); and 2.) restore the confidence of the cast, staff and crew who I knew were some of the most talented and dedicated people to ever step foot on a Broadway stage. If they'd lived through the process so far, I knew they had the dedication and the fortitude to get it home. I said, "I'm going to ask you to do something that is the hardest thing a director can ask; open your hearts once more and trust me." They did.

Reeve Carney and Jennifer Damiano in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark.
photo by Jacob Cohl

In your opinion, what is the biggest change that you made to the show? Why was it important?
PM: Certainly the story was the most affected by the 2.0 remount. I don't think a page of the script has been untouched or hasn't been rewritten in some form. The most difficult aspect of the rewrite was having to do it all within the parameters and the logistics of the physical production. We couldn't cut all the scenery and start from scratch. We had to use what was on the stage and make it work for the new script, which of course is the opposite of how you would normally construct a show.

But the real change to the show was making it appeal to an audience of all ages. "Family entertainment" is a very misunderstood and undervalued form of theatre.  And it's a very difficult theatre form because it has to appeal to a six-year-old child and an 86-year-old adult.  The story has to be clear and concise or you lose the younger members of your audience. And the story has to have enough action to keep their attention and yet it cannot be too simplistic or the adults lose interest. In some cases you build parts of the show to appeal to children whose reactions are being watched by the supervising adult. What better experience than to take your child to a Broadway show and watch their face light up as theatre magic unfolds before them?

An example would be the "Bonesaw" wrestling match. It has been talked about in many cases as "ridiculous" or "childish." Of course it is. It's meant to be. It's fun...it's a comic book moment. I've watched repeated performances and see how adults love that section because it's an adult actor playing with an adult-size child's blowup toy. The adults enjoy watching their children laugh at that scene and the children love watching their parents laugh as well. If it were two actors beating up each other it would not have the same results. I dare say it would be extremely violent and to what purpose?

The death of Uncle Ben and the funeral on the other hand are very serious and somber adult scenes.  Both the adult audience and the younger audience observe both scenes but in different ways and with different sensibilities.

On the other hand, the teenage audience relishes the scenes between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.  One journalist noted that the show is: "'Twilight' (the movie) in superhero tights." Exactly! It's a teenage crush that becomes a love affair. The show is ideal for the Wicked audience but it's not just for girls — we're finding the boys are into the action-hero aspects of the show and the "getting the girl" in the final moment.

The decision to balance the adult/child moments is always at hand when you are creating entertainment to appeal to a demographic expanding 80 years of age as well as finding the balance to appeal to the male and female audience. The new Spider Man 2.0 appeals to our audience who span those demographics.

Describe what a typical early day of rehearsal was like, during the period the show was closed.
PM: Once the show closed, we had a week of rehearsal in the studio and then we had two-and-a-half weeks in the theatre to tech the show before previews. A typical day was 15 to 18 hours. It started around 6:30 AM answering emails from the night before. Questions from the stage mangers, design team or production staff. I was at rehearsal from 9 AM until 7 PM. I'd have meetings with the design team or the crew at lunch. In the evenings after rehearsals I would meet with the writers to discuss the script. These sessions sometimes lasted until 1 AM. As we entered tech on the second week, meetings were held from around 9 AM and then tech would start at noon and go until 11:30 PM. And then meetings with the writers, as we continued to make adjustments to the script. I had two wonderful assistants who kept track of everything for me so I could keep this kind of a schedule.
McKinley and Julie Taymor on opening night
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

At what point, did you know you were headed in the right direction?
PM: We met with the producers Michael Cohl and Jeremiah Harris, and with producers from Disney and Marvel, who were very involved as well. They gave us several pages of notes based on the rewrite of the script.  When we started the meeting they said two things to us. First of all they wanted us to know their notes were not demands but suggestions and observations; and secondly and most important they told us: "You've given us the show we've always wanted." That endorsement gave us great confidence in our approach to 2.0.

When the audience returned, did their reaction to your work surprise you at all? If so, how?
PM: The audience told us a great deal. There were several times when audible reactions from the audience surprised us. We didn't expect the audience to be so outwardly audible and extroverted with their reactions. But it was a welcome surprise.

But the most rewarding moment for me was the curtain call of the first preview. The audience leapt to their feet immediately when the bows began. But it wasn't the audience reaction but the cast's reaction to this enthusiastic applause that gave me the most joy. As the curtain was coming down on the performance, the cast turned to each other in full view of the audience — completely lost their stage composure — and started  hugging and giving each other high fives. It was like the end of a sports match. Their work over the past year had given them the result they wanted: enthusiastic applause.



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