A Tangled Web: Spider-Man's Glen Berger on Broadway, Critics and Backstage Drama
By Steven Suskin
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's co-librettist Glen Berger chats with Playbill.com about the creation of the musical, its lengthy preview period and its long-delayed Broadway opening and upcoming closing.
Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark has announced that it will close Jan. 4, 2014, after a run of 1,268 performances. Co-librettist Glen Berger has just published his memoir of the creation of the show, "Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History" [Simon & Schuster]. (To read our review, click here.) Playbill's Steven Suskin spoke with Berger as the show entered its final performances.
SS: What do you find the most rewarding moment in the show?
GB: I remember being in meetings at set designer George Tsypin's studio, just spending entire days — hours and hours and hours — watching these engineers and designers and Julie Taymor just trying to wrap their heads around certain challenges that nobody ever had to face before in a Broadway show. There's a moment when the full-size Chrysler Building is coming in from the flies upside down, and just before it hits the floor it begins to fold out with its point coming straight at the audience. When that was first proposed, it seemed like something we wouldn't be able to accomplish. I remember the first time that we actually saw it happen during tech rehearsals, and every time since then, I get a little shiver.
SS: What was the scariest moment?
GB: The moment after Chris Tierney fell. [Tierney, one of the flying Spider-Men, fell 30 feet to the concrete floor during the preview Dec. 20, 2010, his harness having been improperly attached.] I was in the stage manager's office at the time, you could see what had just happened on the little monitor that's there. It took a split second for the brain to comprehend what just happened, and the next second you're thinking, is that even survivable? We all ran back towards where it happened. Hearing that Chris was even alive was one of the most emotional moments in my life, and pretty much probably everyone else in the theatre.
SS: What was the most depressing moment?
GB: I guess in early March of 2011 [after many critics reviewed the show despite the postponement of the official opening]. I didn't know what the future of the show was going to be from that point forward, all I knew was that Julie wasn't coming back. It was depressing in the sense that despite best efforts, something of the original dream for the show had died. It wasn't even a question of making the show more viable. The original vision that we had been working towards for over six years, we couldn't get to work. It was now well and truly dead. The producers — and our own guts — were making it clear that we might not even make it to April. I made a personal vow to myself, whatever happened, if the show could make it to the following September, I'd be content; and if it made it to January of 2012, I would never be unhappy about anything ever again. (I've broken my vow.) Going to January 2014 goes well beyond what anyone could have hoped for back in February 2011.
SS: Spider-Man was roughly handled by the press. What was your reaction when many of the critics insisted on reviewing the show at the time of the originally announced February opening date?
GB: Certainly on one level everybody was thinking, that's not fair. On another level, there was a sense that — well, they're going to do what they're going to. If we're not ready yet, that was the risk we took when we didn't do an out-of-town tryout. We felt they should cut us some slack. But this is show business. Who cuts people slack? That's the nature of the beast.
SS: Is there any of the cut material that you especially miss?
GB: I miss the song "Think Again," which Arachne sang. It was a real powerful barnburner of a song. This Spider-woman was flying over your head, leaping off the balcony, and the song contained vengeful energy that would have added a whole 'nother color to the show. For reasons that were not necessarily incorrect, we had to drop it.
SS: What about the infamous "shoe" number, "Deeply Furious," which was cut midway through previews?
GB: The original idea of the shoe number was that it was going to be a kind of fun tap dance, but instead of two legs you had eight-legged tap dancers. It was a little moment in the show where we take a breather before we go into the finale — kind of a dark, fun, flip side to "Shipoopi" [from The Music Man]. It wasn't supposed to be this totally weird and confusing phantasmagoric problematic moment. One of the problems was that the original puppets — the extra legs — were too cumbersome; it limited the choreography. Another problem was that the original demo had this great tune, but it was one person — Bono — singing it. As soon as you added a number of voices to it, and instead of a male voice it was female voices, it didn't sound as good. On every level, it wasn't what we originally intended. But it seems that everybody who had the privilege of seeing it will go to their graves with it seared on their brains.
SS: When the show officially opened on June 14, 2011, did you feel that the problems had been fixed?
GB: I felt that the show in this form was going to have more of a life, whereas it wouldn't if it had remained in its original form. I think there were certain realities that showed up once we hit previews, certain technology that just wasn't going to be available to us, certain narrative necessities that we weren't going to be able to put across to the audience. Consequently, it became evident that the show had to change to meet with those realities.
SS: At what point did you realize that the show was not going to be another hit like The Lion King or Wicked?
GB: I think probably in tech, I realized it wasn't The Lion King. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I had suspicions. After a few weeks of previews, I truly began to worry about its long-term viability.
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