Even though it took place earlier on the Sunday morning of the 2011 New York Comic Con, the official panel for Broadway’s “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” musical drew a room of fans, including “Amazing Spider-Man” comic writer Dan Slott.
Marvel.com’s Editorial Director Ryan “Agent M” Penagos let the charge on the panel by introducing writer Glen Berger, writer Roberto Aguire-Sacasa and Associate scenic designer Rob Bissinger to the crowd before showing off a highlight reel of the show directed by Philp William McKinley, featuring music by Bono and The Edge of U2 and playing at Foxwoods Theater on Manhattan’s Great White Way.
Aquire-Sacasa spoke to his comics background as he started writing for Marvel in 2003 after a career as a successful playwright. “I wrote one play that was all about the Archie comic book characters,” he recalled. “And Marvel had a person who’s job it was to…recruit people from [different areas of entertainment] to come in and write for Marvel. I think they reached out to Glen too back then…it’s been amazing to work on the Spider-Man comic book and now come back to work on the musical as well.” The writer said his favorite Spider-Man cast members included Flash Thompson and the newspaper staff of the Daily Bugle.
Berger noted that he didn’t reject Marvel for a writing job all those years ago. “For a year I felt bad about this because I lost the phone number,” he said, noting that he had planned to reach out to Marvel about a potential “Fantastic Four” project after he finished another gig and then could never call them back. In the end, the job went to Aguire-Sacasa instead.
Bringing Spider-Man to life on stage involved going big, according to Berger. “You don’t want to give it short shrift,” he said. “In the original contract Marvel laid out to us, one of the clauses said that it had to have state of the art technology. From the beginning, we were thinking of holograms, and that got pushed aside, but we wanted to push the technical limits of what could be done.”
Aguire-Sacasa noted that for him, the goal was to focus on the humanity of the characters amidst the big, wild sets and stunts the show has been known for. “In theater, the truth is that the more technology on stage, the harder it is to connect with the characters on the stage,” he said.
Bissinger said that when it came to the set design, he went to his boyhood source of drawing inspiration: Stan Lee and John Buscema’s “How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way.” That early influence paid off. “The big challenge for us is that because comics are so graphic, how do you do what these guys are talking about and draw out the humanity of the story,” he explained, noting that the theory behind the set design was to make the stage feel like a giant pop-up book. Showing still photos from the show, the designer explained how many of the props and furniture of the home scenes were meant to look like paper cut outs.
When Berger and Aguire-Sacasa took over the creative direction of the script from original director Julie Taymore, a big part of their changes were about beefing up the roll for the Green Goblin. “He had a comic and violent streak that was reading very well on the stage,” Berger said, noting that as they played those elements up, the character took a bigger and bigger role. “Rather than have the Green Goblin get vanquished at the end of act one, he’s now the main villain through the whole story,” said Aguire-Sacasa who noted how the change let them develop Norman Osborn as a character in act 1 and allowed the Goblin to be more “nefarious and hilarious.”
In developing the character, Berger said he spoke to the show’s lyricist about some other outsized personalities he’d met. “Bono was describing meeting Ted Turner for the first time, and they’re walking through the fields outside Atlanta, and he’s point to these snakes going ‘Don’t worry. They’re all harmless and not poisonous’ and then his assistant said ‘Actually, that’s a copperhead, and they’re very poisonous.'”
The relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson was also really big part of the changes they made. Originally, the show focused on a love triangle between Peter, MJ and the entity called Arachne, but the writers felt they needed to get more focus on the core love story and develop it earlier. After debating whether MJ should be dating Flash Thompson at the stories start, they decided to drop him so the leads could share a kiss in the first act. They weren’t sure when the pair went from romantically interested to dating, but then as Aguire-Sacasa noted “Then we had a scene where they’re kissing on a balcony, and well…they have to be dating if they’re kissing on a balcony.”
A fan asked why the burglar story of the death of Uncle Ben was changed up, and Aguire-Sacasa said, “When we revamped the show, we all had a list of things we wanted to do” however the story didn’t fit either for time or budget to rework the early story. Instead, having Uncle Ben die in a car-jacking helped make the story clear and move quickly, but they still very much wanted to get the idea across that Peter did nothing to stop the crime until it was too late.
When it came to cutting elements that cost a lot of money for the show -Â like a lot of the Arachne scenes -Â Berger said, “It just takes a real clear eye and a keen ear to look at the audience and say ‘They’re with it…now they’re not with it.” He added, “When you go back to the original spark of the thing and spirit of the piece, you remember that Arachne was supposed to bring this sense of wonder…so going back to one’s original inspirations meant you could take a sharp knife to [the show] and clear out the under brush.”
Aguire-Sacasa said certain elements -Â a song about buying shoes, the “geek chorus” – were quick to be cut while others took a long time to realize that they were distracting from the focus of the show. “It wasn’t like we immediately came in and cut everything,” he explained.
Berger explained that while Arachne was put in the show by Taymore to have another strong female voice in the proceedings, the writers tried to make the character more an amalgam of comic book counterparts like Madam Web. “The truth is, when you do an adaptation you want to do things that make it stand on its own, and you do want to do what works only in the theater,” Aguire-Sacasa added. The team didn’t want to just “Do the first movie on stage.”
They also said the idea of sending Arachne back to Marvel to show up in the comics had come up, but they were unsure of where or how the publisher would work that out. Dan Slott noted that the Queen of the Spiders in the current “Spider-Island” story had some similarities.
The potential of the show touring or becoming available to high schools to put on. “This idea of a Spider-Tent that travels all around…where you can set it up in no time and hold 2,000 people with everything you need [is possible.] High schools? That’s tricky,” Berger said.
A chicken-egg question of whether the show was meant to be a musical first and a Spidey story second or a Spidey story that happened to be a musical came up, and Berger noted that the idea of animal totems and performance around them is a very primal piece of human culture that tied the Spider-Man concept to live performance in an easy way. “We look at Spider-Man, and it’s crazy popular everywhere. There are numerous reasons for that, but there may be something deeper that we don’t often acknowledge…let’s tap into that. Let’s honor the power of that story and the power of theater at its essence. It seemed like a perfect marriage.”
Berger said that the problem with the first version was one of lucidity. He was involved at the earliest script stage, and he said it read very clear, but once those numbers got to the stage something did not read through.
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