Steve Lillywhite on the Music of 'Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark' (Exclusive)
U2's longtime producer and the man tasked with recording Broadway's most expensive musical tells THR about how it all came together. Says Lillywhite: "Anything to do with 'Spider-Man' is not by the book."
While the production of Broadway’s most expensive musical ever was plagued with problems from the start, capturing the music of Spider-Man: Turn of the Dark, written by U2's Bono and the Edge, seems to have been a far smoother affair, even with its own last-minute changes and the inherent deadline crunch.
Much of the credit is due to music producer Steve Lillywhite, who helped define the U2 sound in the early 1980s by producing their first three albums and has worked with the band consistently over three decades, along with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band and 30 Seconds to Mars. He got the call from Bono last Winter and has barely taken a non-Spidey breath since.
But with June 14 upon us, Lillywhite, along with the rest of the cast and crew, will reach the end of that long, dark tunnel when the lights go up on Tuesday night, $70 million and nearly a decade after Bono and the Edge first signed on for the project.
One thing the rockers can take comfort in? The music, which is top-notch, even with the dramatic swells and occasional overextended vibrato. Strip away the Broadway-isms and you’re left with a pretty good U2 record, which is only appropriate considering Lillywhite has gotten Bono & Co. out of more than one sticky situation over the last 30 years. He spoke to THR exclusively on the eve of the album’s release.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you first get involved with the music for Spider-Man?
Steve Lillywhite: I got a call from Bono asking me to come down and check out the show. When [Bono and Edge] went to see it, they were a little bit perturbed as to what these songs sounded like. After all, they spent so long writing and working on the music. So it wasn't much to do with the album, it was the sound in the theatre.
Of course, it’s a Broadway performance so there are no real rules to what it should sound like. Unlike rock and roll, a Broadway show needs to appeal to people between the ages of eight and 80, so they were aware that there was a measure of compromise needed. My first involvement was to try and make some sense of why the sound was not so great.
THR: What was the problem?
Lillywhite: One of the problems is that there’s no orchestra pit. Underneath the stage are the mechanics. The band and orchestra are two floors down, so basically, there are no natural acoustics coming into the theatre. Of course, millions upon millions were spent on visuals.
THR: As the sound was coming together, did you have the album in mind?
Lillywhite: I sort of did. After I did what I could with the sound in the theater, Bono said in front of everyone, "You're doing the album, aren't you?" and threw it on me as well. Both he and Edge didn't want it to be a cast album, and to be honest, it couldn't have been a cast recording because it was all changing on a daily basis. So it was more like, here are the songs, go make a great album, which is what I've been doing with them for 30 years.
THR: "Rise Above 1," sung by Reeve Carney and Bono, is the first single and a great song. Take it out of Spider-Man context, and it could stand alongside some of U2’s most memorable tunes…
Lillywhite: Originally, we based it on the version in the show, in which the second chorus is sung by one of the girls in the show, and it just didn't sound like a single. But we knew we had a great chorus, so we decided to give it to the very clever Alex Da Kid to do a remix. He basically decided that we can't have the girl's verse, so Bono decided to rewrite both verses. Then Bono said, “We should try letting me sing it for the album,” so we put him on against Reeve and the vocal was so good, we had to use it. We look at it a little bit like “Empire State of Mind,” where there's a Jay-Z verse and an Alicia Keys verse but the chorus is always the same.
THR: At times Reeve sounds a little like Bono...
Lillywhite: Yes and no. He's got elements of Jeff Buckley and he looks a bit like Jeff as well. He's a talented kid. His band Carney is signed to Interscope and I would love to do stuff with them in the future. They are a proper band of brothers. And you always need the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Bono and Edge, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry… That’s what I look for in a band and they have the two brothers, Reeve and Zane Carney -- they are spectacular. The whole band -- they’re a four-piece -- is the basis of the Spider-Man musical. They’re playing [with the orchestra] as well, two stories below.
THR: The show incorporates several U2 songs as well, correct?
Lillywhite: Yes, there is one scene involving Flash where you can hear “New Year’s Day” on the radio, another where “Beautiful Day” is in the background. There's one big dance scene with “Vertigo” and they mention “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
THR: Your involvement in the music was first announced in January. All told, did the album come together fairly quickly?
Lillywhite: The album didn't take that long considering how long a U2 record takes. It still has an element of U2, like lyrics being written at the last minute and such madness… We worked mostly out of MSR (Manhattan Sound Recording) studios in New York, which is located six blocks from the theater, so there was a lot of going back and forth for the actors and musicians. We had a 25-piece orchestra and an eight-piece band playing at the same time. Great people, good fun.
What’s amazing is the turnaround on the album. The single was completed 24 hours before the American Idol finale and it was on sale that night. The album was finished 24 hours later and three weeks later, there’s a physical CD. Incredible.
THR: What were some of the challenges recording-wise?
Lillywhite: Getting Bono to commit to the lyrics, but that’s a challenge I've had for 30 years because he cares so much. And it wasn't his fault because the storyline completely changed between what was known as Spider-Man 1.0 and 2.0. In the first Spider-Man, Arachne is the villain, and in 2.0, she’s the muse. It seems to work now. The new director, Phil McKinley, has done a great job of turning it around. After the three-and-a-half weeks the show was dark, the script was 95% different, completely changed. All the dialogue is different. These poor actors, they had to learn new dialogue while they were still performing the old version of the show. Anything to do with Spider-Man is not by the book.
THR: How do you think the negative press has affected the show?
Lillywhite: The unofficial rule of Broadway is that you don't review previews and that’s based on a show with 20, maybe 30 previews. Spider-Man has had more than 150 previews. I think the press had a point. Are they going to like this new version as much as Book of Mormon? Maybe not, but it’s a whole different thing. It’s very heartfelt and deep. People say this new one is more family-friendly, but it’s still got an incredible message: that great power brings great responsibility. That’s so Bono.
THR: Wasn’t one of the complaints by Spider-Man faithfuls that the Julie Taymor version didn't include that seminal line?
Lillywhite: The story [in the original] was not about “with great power comes great responsibility.” This one is. It’s about Peter Parker battling with himself, with what he should do -- to do the right thing.
THR: What have you learned about Broadway from your Spider-Man experience?
Lillywhite: That unions rule. There are so many bloody breaks! It’s probably a good thing. The actors are incredible. And I don't know if all Broadway productions are like this, but there is a real sense of family on Spider-Man. Perhaps it’s because of all the adversity they've gone through -- it kept everyone together.