Yesterday at New York Comic Con, I saw a very eye opening panel about what really happened behind the scenes at Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The panel consisted of original Julie Taymor collaborator Glen Berger, Julie Taymor replacement writer Roberto Aguire-Sacasa, and an associate set designer named Rob who is not credited on the Spider-Man or Comic Con sites. Other recognizable members of the production team were in attendance but did not take part in the panel. The Marvel and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark PR people in attendance seemed tense before the panel. There were many hushed discussions about what to do in case of this and even a brief with the panelists before the event began. I assume they were being instructed to be candid but not slanderous about anyone who may or may not be involved in the production anymore. Judging by the fact that Julie Taymor's name was mentioned only once (but her contributions were referenced and joked about repeatedly), I'm guessing my assumptions are pretty accurate.
If you want to know why so many stunts were put in that caused so much chaos during the development of the show, blame Marvel itself. Glen Berger explained that anyone working on the show in charge of a huge creative aspect--book, score, set design, costumes, etc.--was contractually obligated to use the latest "groundbreaking technology." Hence, a flying apparatus called "The Catapult" that broke legs and arms before finally being show-ready. Hence, Swiss Miss with her at one point deadly spinning blade weapon. Hence, sets made of super-expensive carbon fiber rather than plywood and Masonite that fold up in odd approximations of pop-up books. Hence, gigantic distracting screens with flashing images because the holograms didn't work.
Wait. Holograms? Yes, holograms. If you hated version 1.0 because of Arachne, you can blame Marvel for pushing the technology aspect. How Glen Berger described the intended use of the astral plain dwelling spider demi-god was breathtaking. Arachne was the master of illusion. Instead of just calling upon nightmarish visions of the seven members of the Sinister Six, she was going to be able to project them into the aisles of the audience. They wanted to use the full-body hologram technology during the show that was used on CNN and the MTV VMAs. This would project the villains for only an instant into various spots in the audience, confusing Spider-Man and showing the full reach of Arachne's power. The associate set designer promised us that if it worked, it would have been in the show. I question why they didn't just project the characters on various stage locations at the same time, like two Green Goblins or three Rages. Same effect, less money. Or why not use trap doors and panels and have multiples of a villain appear and disappear in an instant through old stage magic? Even less money than projections and guaranteed to be safe.
As a corollary, if you loved Arachne (as the first five participants in the Q&A session did), you can place the blame firmly on Roberto Aguire-Sacasa's head. He talked about how Arachne was pulling too much focus, so he suggested keeping Green Goblin as a villain and eliminating as much Arachne as possible. Glen Berger fought to keep the Arachne descending in Peter Parker's bedroom image in the show and that's about it. Roberto came in as a brutal editor and tore apart anything that pulled focus from Spider-Man. This actually resulted in a $4 million dollar loss when one of Arachne's elaborate spider costumes was eliminated entirely.
Don't think that Bono and The Edge can escape blame in this scenario, either. After Julie Taymor was fired, Bono began talking about how he had no influence on the book and wasn't really working with her, anyway. Glen Berger killed that story as he described Bono pitching a southern Green Goblin. For about two months of previews, The Green Goblin had an exaggerated southern accent for no reason other than Bono's whim. Bono instructed Glen and Julie to write The Green Goblin as a Tedd Turner-esque character, completely with exaggerated accent. At that point, I wish I could have hopped onto the Q&A line and asked a follow up about how much of the eliminated story Bono created. It seems like a lot.
As for Julie Taymor's role, it has to come down to inference except for one tangible element. Do you want to know why Arachne exists at all? Julie Taymor insisted on a female leading lady to balance the male-driven story of Spider-Man. She did not want Mary Jane to be Peter Parker's love interest until well into the second act of the show, minimizing her role even in 2.0. Instead, she wanted a composite character wholly of the theater. Arachne became an amalgamation of Black Cat, Madame Web, Chakra, and Mysterio. Julie and Glen tried to make the first two work as stand alone characters but they weren't balancing the story. Arachne was supposed to be a cosmic convention in the style of Athena judging the trial in The Oresteia. She would swoop in and move the action of the show in ways the other characters didn't understand. Eventually, she would have to step in as a character as all good gods or demigods are wont to do in Greek tragedy.
The biggest issue with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that can be blamed on the entire creative team is communication. Glen and Roberto both talked about how hard it is to do collaboration where some or all of the parties refuse to compromise. I believe--judging by body language and tone--that since Roberto was relaxed while answering that question and Glen was very tense, jittery, and even began to stutter, Glen would--if allowed--state that he felt Julie Taymor would not collaborate.
I don't buy that version of events when other collaborators were so quick to push all the focus on Taymor. Are they still trying to justify the tabloid stories that Taymor was a dictator who refused to back down even when threatened with the loss of her job? We know she compromised and edited the story significantly when the stunts that Marvel insisted on being in the story (under threat of losing the rights to produce the show) were finally tested as safe. The Geek Chorus was cut while she was working on the show. A brand new action sequence to end the show was added on while she worked on the show (cut, hence the $4 million loss on the costume and rigging). New songs were introduced. New scenes were introduced. Character arcs were changed and the story was streamlined, even if so much was psychological drama in the style of Greek Tragedy. By the time of Julie Taymor's removal from the show and the two week shut-down to tech 2.0, the show was actually quite good at balancing Arachne and Spider-Man as Yin and Yang, Villain and Hero, for an exciting and thoughtful night of theater. This was not the version ravaged by the critics during the preview period; this was the version that probably would have been in place for opening night had the stunts been properly secured before previews began.
But I digress. If you're the one going out on a limb and claiming other people refuse to compromise or communicate, you might need to look back at your own contributions. Not once did Glen accept responsibility for any problems with the musical. At most, he would say, "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but..." Don't just state something general unless you can even give one instance of a communication and collaboration failure. It's deflecting blame even if this interpretation is based in some truth. Did you offer alternatives that other people liked? Did you bring those up in the nightly meetings after the preview performance was over? Or did you sit back and let someone else steamroll you in a direction that you claimed worked three years before.
Three years? That's the strangest part of all. The book of the show really wasn't altered that much between the last staged reading three years before the show began previews and the first preview performance. Everyone signed off on Arachne as the supervillain and the Geek Chorus and even that awful shoe song.* Glen kept saying it didn't work onstage, but I don't see how that's possible. If the story was clear in the workshop, put aside for three years, and then made no sense, that means that it wasn't clear in the workshop. The people involved were so close to the material that they let their deeper understanding of the material dictate clarity that the audience would never have.
It's the same thing that happened with Baby, It's You. Beth Leavel and the cast repeatedly said during press that the book was fantastic and made so much sense. The problem was that the book was largely stage directions that the audience didn't get to see. If the audience doesn't understand the story without an illustrated guide to what's happening, the book doesn't work.
What I'm getting at is this. A whole lot of things were set in motion from the very first mention of Spider-Man: The Musical that put the entire creative team in a sticky situation. Maybe if they weren't told technology trumped everything else, they would have found a better story or better songs. Maybe without the technology requirements, Spider-Man would have swung over the audience a few times like Mary Poppins on her umbrella and the rest of the fights would have been staged on elaborate sets that didn't pose a falling or whiplash risk. Maybe without the technological failures, the creative team could have rallied and fixed the book and the score before the first opening night.
We'll never know. What we have now is the best of a bad situation. The story of 2.0 is simpler and more expected. Arachne is merely a guardian angel who forces Peter Parker to rise above and Mary Jane is the only woman in his life. The Green Goblin poses a greater threat as the show goes on and good cleanly triumphs over evil like in the films. It's popcorn entertainment that will have to run for many years before it even comes close to turning a profit. At one point, the project was so close to greatness. Due to a wave after wave of odd and bad decisions, the show is left as a serviceable husk of something truly innovative.
*Discussion of removing "Deeply Furious" was met with a raucous round of applause.