Final Bow: Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark's Isabel Keating and Michael Mulheren Relive Three Tumultuous Years on Stage
The pair looks back on the show that launched Broadway into the national and international spotlight — for better or worse.
Every show ends sometime (unless you're Phantom), so before the cast takes their final bow, there are a few things we want to know.
Isabel Keating and Michael Mulheren have been with Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, the expensive, controversial musical by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, Bono, The Edge, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, since its very first reading in 2007. "We were supposed to do it in 2009," says Keating, who plays Aunt May, over tea at the Brooklyn Diner, down the block from the show's home at the Foxwoods Theatre. "In August of '09," says Mulheren, who plays the show's blustery newspaper editor J. Jonah Jamison, "I ran into [prop supervisor] Joe Harris. He goes, ‘[Producer] David Garfinkle didn't have the money in place.' That's like starting the engine and driving to California with half a tank of gas. And then not refilling."
On November 28, 2010, the show finally did get off the ground, soaring around the Foxwoods and causing trouble every second: a few life-threatening injuries, a high-profile firing, a complete overhaul of the show, and a lawsuit. For Keating and Mulheren, who had appeared on Broadway together seven years earlier in The Boy From Oz, it was an eye-opening experience, but not always a bad one. "Julie put together a tremendous group of people backstage," Mulheren notes. "Everybody wants to be there. There's not a soul who doesn't want to be there, it's an amazing thing."
Keating and Mulheren candidly answered our questionnaire to shed light on the goings-on backstage at the most controversial musical in Broadway history.
1. What is your favorite line that you delivered?
Isabel Keating: It's one that I asked be cut in [what we call] version 1.0. I play several roles. It was in the laboratory. My lab technician did not have any lines or words at all, and finally they said, "You have to have some words." OK. "Doctor, the spiders —" [clasps hands] "they are reproducing." I said, "I don't think this furthers the plot."
Michael Mulheren: My favorite line is, "You took the night off?" 'Cause I'm always amazed that people just take the night off. I wish we can say some of the lines that were cut. My favorite line in the show was in a song that was cut. I can't even say it. Yeah, I can, they said it onstage. [sings] "Peter Parker, do you beat your peter?" That was in the first version. [And] some of Arachne's lines. "I was mad before, but now I'm―"
Isabel and Michael in unison: "REALLY MAD." [laughs]
Michael Mulheren: We call it "Spider-Man one-point-ohhhhh" [voice drops an octave]. It was unbelievable some of the lines. Arachne walks in my office and I go, "How did you get in here?" and she says, "I put on human shoes and came down from the astral plane. How do you think I got in here?"
Isabel Keating: That makes sense.
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. So tell us…
a. What's the best one from your show?
Isabel Keating: Speaking of Arachne, I think "GET ME THE SHOES."
Michael Mulheren: That's from the old one. That has to be my favorite, the shoe number. "GET ME THE SHOES." I'm in the wings getting ready come on going, "Really? We're really doing this number?"
b. Since there probably is one, what's the punch line of your cast's most unprintable inside joke?
Isabel Keating: We have a lot of backstage humor. There's one [looks at Mulheren], after you come on, I have an ongoing routine with some of the stagehands backstage, where Mary Jane says something about, "This crazy headline," [regarding] Michael's character, and Peter Parker goes "J.J.'s nuts!" So we go, "J.J.'s hairy balls!"
Michael Mulheren: We were in performance and we had to stop the show — so unusual. And [our stage manager] Randall says, "We're gonna have to hold." It was nothing dramatic. So they're fixing the technical side of it, and Randall gets on the [public address system] backstage and goes, "We're gonna pick it up from J.J.'s nuts."
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
Michael Mulheren: We stopped one time right before the Bugle scene. For me, that was one of the most ridiculous, because it was in the middle of the spectacular flying, and it stopped and went on and on for an hour. An hour!
Isabel Keating: Aside from everything everybody thinks they know about it all, the things that have happened have been terrible and tragic. The ways that the whole backstage crew and onstage crew, the cast, crew, orchestra, house staff have handled it has been remarkable. Our first responders waste no time.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
Isabel Keating: There's nothing really weird that I've received at Spider-Man. People come by and they've done original art. I love the artwork.
Michael Mulheren: The crossing guard at my kid's school, his son is a cartoonist, he gave me a pen-and-ink of J.J. that's just amazing.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can't say family!)
Isabel Keating: I have to say Michelle Obama and the kids. That was awesome.
Michael Mulheren: Poppy Montgomery has seen the show ten or fifteen times with her son. Heidi Klum has come numerous times with her kids.
6. Everything that has been written about the show always pointed to you guys, the elder statespeople of the cast, as the rocks who held things together. What was your breaking point?
Isabel Keating: For me, it was the night that Chris Tierney went over. I was in the spot that I always am in with Marcus, who's one of our spider-men. I would always watch Chris go to the end of the bridge. So I saw the whole thing happen from the side. For me, it is still traumatic. It's not the ghoulish thing that the constant reviews of YouTube make it out to be. It was a crisis, it was traumatic, all of us were viscerally affected by it, and Chris, God love him, was the one who had to experience it.
Michael Mulheren: They told him by December 2011 [he'd] be able to dance again. He was back in rehearsal in April.
Isabel Keating: Three months.
Michael Mulheren: [This] drove me nuts, mostly because I felt so impotent about them. The narrative spun in the press was not entirely their fault, because we did not talk, which I think was the smart thing to do. But I would read things, and occasionally in meetings as a counselor with Equity, I would say, "That never happened. That's not what happened." The first injury in rehearsal was when [ensemble member] Brandon [Rubendall] got hurt. "Brandon broke his ankle," according to one [source]. "He broke his leg." He broke his toe. It was not good, because you can't walk without a toe. He was out for two months. The last accident has not been reported correctly, ever, by anyone. It's not our mission to tell what [happened], but there's not a trap door in the show. Things like that.
We tried to explain to the younger members of the cast in the initial company who constantly got on social media: Don't put something out there you don't want spread. I'm a parent, but I'm not a parent of these kids. [Chris Tierney]'s parents found out he'd been injured through social media. He asked the stage managers, "Do not release my name until I have a chance to talk to them." He was lucid when he left the building. Someone went on Facebook and talked about it and mentioned his name: "Say a prayer for my dear friend Chris Tierney." Oh God.
7. Did you ever fear for your lives?
Isabel Keating: Yeah. But the thing is, nobody says, "Did you ever fear for your life at any other point in any other show you've done?"
Michael Mulheren: Titanic? [whistles]
Isabel Keating: In every other show I've ever done. There are a lot of pitfalls, shall we say.
Michael Mulheren: The pits are the biggest concern for most of us. The flying? No one's ever been hurt. The flying is the safest thing in the building. But onstage? Sections of that deck disappear all the time and if you're not on your toes? To this day, when I walk onstage, my first look is down to make sure everything is hunky-dory. [looks at Keating] When I look at Izzy as the old lady who gets mugged, she has this ridiculous big mask on and a stagehand in the wings standing on the side. Until that pit is up and in place, he's like a mom in front of a kid. If you're backstage at a musical and you're out of place, you're getting hurt.
8. Do you miss anything from Spider-Man 1.0?
Michael Mulheren: That spider number. "Think Again." I loved it.
Isabel Keating: Loved. That. Number.
Michael Mulheren: It scared the sh*t out of me the first time I saw it. It's when he first rejects Spider-Man. He throws the suit in the garbage and it's brought to me. [Arachne] is on the balcony, she walks out there with stagehands and a costume piece that expands to twelve-feet-wide, all eight legs. She leaps off the balcony and flies over the audience in that f*cking thing, and it's the spinning rig, so she's spinning on herself.
Isabel Keating: It gives me the shivers just thinking about it. Driving rock.
Michael Mulheren: I really miss that, 'cause that was cool. I liked the idea of Arachne and the Geeks when we read it, but it needed a writer. Julie [Taymor]'s not really a writer, Glen [Berger] had never written a musical. The first producer put these people together and they'd never done a musical before. A stronger producer would have known to —
Isabel Keating: To just tell them no.
Michael Mulheren: To tell them, "This is how you do a musical. You can't spend this much money on costumes." Give them parameters.
9. What are your thoughts on Glen Berger's tell-all? Have you read it?
Isabel Keating: I will read it. I haven't read it yet.
Michael Mulheren: I was in a Barnes & Noble in Shreveport, Louisiana. I couldn't believe they had it. Not a big area where they cover showbiz. I laughed hysterically. A lot of it was his best writing. Evidentially, all this passed him by and he had no idea. I couldn't believe the number of factual errors. He had the wrong day of rehearsal starting. Stupid things. But his take on it? It's like, "Dude." I'm not gonna say much, but [Taymor] got let go and he's still there, so…That sound you hear is Julie being thrown under a bus. I was hoping for more —
Isabel Keating: More juicy?
Michael Mulheren: Juicy, yeah.
10. If you had a superpower, what would it be?
Michael Mulheren: Time travel. I was a history major.
Isabel Keating: [looks at Mulheren] Clairvoyance. So we'd be a good duo.