Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
Due to the terms of a recent legal settlement, we may never know the whole truth of what happened behind the scenes at the Foxwoods Theatre during that harrowing winter of endless previews for the massive undertaking that is the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. But Glen Berger’s Song of Spider-Man gives us a pretty good idea. This juicy memoir offers up the requisite dirt to make a satisfying read for Broadway carrions and disaster junkies alike.
For those who have just emerged from a coma, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is the most expensive musical in the history of Broadway, with a capitalization of $65 million ($85 million by some reports). An all-star creative team, including Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and composers Bono and The Edge of U2, promised to make it one of the most successful, too. That is, of course, until a string of onstage accidents, including Christopher Tierney’s 30-foot rib-breaking plunge, nearly derailed the show and unleashed an international media firestorm.
Berger gives us the skinny on what led up to those disasters. His attention to detail is meticulous as he analyzes what exactly went wrong. The perspective here is very much that of an outsider who is experiencing the Broadway machine for the first time, making the complicated web of contractual obligations and intellectual property stakes that govern the modern commercial theater quite accessible for an average reader. It’s kind of like reading Ted Chapin’s excellent account of the musical Follies, Everything Was Possible, except instead of being a low-level production assistant, Berger is the show’s playwright.
Berger was undoubtedly the least famous of the four-person creative core. Before Spider-Man, Berger was best known for his play Underneath the Lintel. He really jumped into the deep end on this show. Beads of sweat practically drip off the page as Berger recounts several dinner meetings at expensive restaurants, the natural habitat for his millionaire collaborators: “When the bill came, Edge and Bono graciously offered to cover it. Which was great, because I was broke. Julie protested: We should all split the bill evenly.” Meanwhile, Berger was struggling to pay his mortgage. Could Taymor, the infinitely perceptive and possibly tetrachromatic director, really have been that blind to the economic plight of her coauthor?
Taymor tapped Berger in spring 2005 to cowrite this megamusical with her. Their early meetings come off as fruitful and brimming with creative life. Berger was (and it seems still is) awed by Taymor’s genius, and one gets the sense that this is why she kept him around: He was supposed to be a yes-man. As Taymor’s attorney, Seth Gelblum, forebodingly told Berger in 2005, “Whatever you do, whatever happens, stick with Julie.”
He didn’t, obviously, but who can blame him? Spider-Man suffered from overcommitted and chronically absent composers (U2 had two different world tours over the course of the process), creative differences between Taymor and the corporate suits at Marvel (she wanted it dark and mythic, they wanted it family-friendly and Spidey-centric), and a total breakdown in communication, as exemplified by the increasing hostility and defensiveness of the director. This book should be required reading for all theater students: a case study on how not to behave in an artistic collaboration.
Berger tracks Hurricane Julie with the precision of a television meteorologist. That is to say, not very well, but with plenty of colorful language: “After over five years of watching from a safe distance as her weather system turned folks into debris — it was my turn. I looked at her face. There was no sign that we were chums. No sign that she even recognized me. And I didn’t see the woman I knew, either, as I peered through the bolts of crackling flame coming straight at me; as I dodged her black cloud of sharp-taloned crows, her fang-bearing hounds made of hellfire, her…” It goes on like that, elevating Taymor to legendary proportions: She’s the dark queen of the stage, capable of magic both beautiful and terrible.
Taymor is the tragic hero of Song of Spider-Man. Like a character from Greek mythology, her greatest gift (an uncompromising vision) turns out to be the source of her downfall: Epic production meetings between Taymor, Berger, Bono, and Edge ended in bitter silence, with Taymor unwilling to consider major script revisions that the show desperately needed. She was too protective of her favorite character (and the reason for her taking on the project in the first place): Arachne, the weaver with unparalleled skill who is turned into an immortal spider by the goddess Athena after Arachne bests her in a weaving contest. For Taymor, this was a story about a woman who is punished for being too brilliant an artist. “In other words,” writes Berger, “Julie had unwittingly reinterpreted one of the most iconic myths about hubris as not being about hubris at all. Was that a symptom of hubris?” Arguably, this was the hubris that got her fired.
It is tempting to reduce this to a story of “real” artists versus money-obsessed philistines. After all, the charge that Phil McKinley’s revamped but workable version of the show (presently playing and in stable condition at the Foxwoods) wouldn’t feel out of place in an amusement park is not an unfair one. By contrast, Taymor, channeling Henry V, urged her cast to fight on: It doesn’t matter what the public thinks, as long as we stay true to our artistic vision. (According to the book, she really said something to this effect at a January cast party.) Are you Team Julie or Team Phil?!?! You have to choose!
Berger disavows the reader of such simple paradigms. His Song of Spider-Man is a tonally complex one, filled with nuance and shades of gray. Rather than the millionaire auteur, world-famous rock stars, or even the nebbish playwright, the most compelling story to emerge from this book is that of the hundreds of theater professionals who make their livelihoods off this “$65 million circus tragedy.” They’re the ones calling cues, mending costumes, and swinging through the air at 50 miles per hour every night. When you operate at the nexus of commerce and art, you have to take them into consideration, too. For the vast majority of working professionals, theater is not simply a matter of “art” versus “dreck.” It’s a way to pay the bills.
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