Dec. 15 Book review: Song of Spider-Man

Spider Man 2‘Song of Spider-Man’ a tale of a Colossus of Rhodes-sized mess

Insider Glen Berger recounts the story of the calamitous Broadway spectacle

By Wayne Myers

The producers of the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have left Spider-Man as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. And they should have asked Glen Berger, one of the musical’s writers, to sign a confidentiality agreement.

These are two conclusions one might reach after reading Berger’s Song of Spider-Man, the American playwright’s crackling first-person account of the $75 million Colossus of Rhodes-sized mess that became Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, whose producers recently announced would close Broadway Jan. 4, 2014 and depart for Las Vegas. (A better fit, in all likelihood.)

Berger’s book is a tell-all, although you might get the impression he’s not always telling all — especially when it comes to his own involvement with Julie Taymor, who directed the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of the animated film, The Lion King.

The mythology monomaniac, puppet-and-mask addicted Taymor hired Berger to contribute to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s book on the strength of a scene he submitted to her depicting the Green Goblin (Spider-Man’s nemesis) sending a grand piano off the stainless steel spire of the Chrysler Building to the Manhattan street below. The Goblin, however, fails to notice that he’s been affixed to the piano with Spider-Man’s webbing, and so plummets to his death along with the piano — a scene reminiscent of the 1990 Tim Burton film Batman, in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker plunges to his death from atop the towering Gothic Gotham Cathedral.

Berger without question had access to, and was in the position to observe much of, what was or wasn’t happening concerning the musical. But there was at least one other source at work, an anonymous one, feeding information to New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, who quickly became the bane of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s creative team and producers.

Things started to go wrong as early as 2005, years before the first of several show-related injuries New Yorker Magazine lampooned on the cover of its Jan. 17, 2011 edition, depicting a hospital ward filled with injured Spider-Men.

Technological demands unprecedented for a Broadway show necessitated reconfiguring the Foxwoods Theatre on West 42nd Street for the musical, at an astronomical cost. But glitches would still dog the show, which the cover of Berger’s book memorably evokes with Spider-Man helplessly snared in his own webbing, dangling in mid-air. This would happen at the worst possible time, during the Feb. 7, 2011 preview performance (unilaterally declared “opening night” by exasperated New York critics after repeated opening night delays). The reviews were predictably bad, with The New York Times’s Ben Brantley calling the musical a “national joke.”

How did things get this way? Early in the book there’s a strong sense of the self-congratulatory at work among the creative team, without anything tangible really having been achieved. A certain detachment from reality, especially on the part of Berger, begins to pervade the book.

Berger writes that playwrights Tom Stoppard (Jumpers, The Coast of Utopia) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Caroline or Change) were considered early on as candidates to write the musical’s book, but were dropped. There is no further explanation. When Berger writes that even Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Steve Ditka had a falling out (over-dramatizing his own eventual break with Taymor), Berger — whose most significant professional credits are, along with this book, regional theater-commissioned works — brazenly inserts himself in the class of those icons of the comic book world.

The musical was, at one time, something many would have loved to have their names attached to. Evan Rachel Wood (who starred in Taymor’s 2007 Beatles-inspired film Across the Universe) and Alan Cumming (the Emcee in Sam Mendes’s revival of Cabaret at London’s Donmar Warehouse) were to join the show as Peter Parker’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin, respectively — loading the musical with even more marquee-name talent. But they never did. Yet if the musical’s producers had expectations that seemed unrealistic (if not at times even ridiculous), they did get U2’s Bono and The Edge to compose the musical’s score and write the lyrics. And they got Taymor to direct.

Berger’s detachment is at its height deep into the book, when he gushes over a “positive” review the post-Taymor retooled Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark received from the Kansas City Star titled Spider-Man Vastly Entertaining on May 18, 2011. That’s right: the Kansas City Star. Except that Robert Trussell, the Star’s theater critic, didn’t actually call it a review because, he wrote, “the producers wouldn’t like that.” It was a puff piece of the worst sort that reads as if a Broadway tourist wrote it. Trussell described how appreciative the audience was and how it often “roared its approval.”

Berger creates an image of a project with no discipline and no strong guiding hand, in which gossip is rampant. “Flop” is written all over it. Riedel entered the story with his May 2, 2007 column when he took aim at the profligate Taymor. What came to be known as the “Taymor Effect,” an emphasis on stunning visuals and attention to detail, came with a hefty price tag: The musical’s cost at the time was estimated at $30 million.

Berger meanwhile is caught in the ancient world thrall of Taymor. During a creative meeting with Bono and The Edge in Dublin, Ireland, he writes:

Julie and I killed time the next morning taking a too-long walk down Vico Road in the blustery wind to Dalkey. I lent her my scarf, which she wrapped like a babushka to protect her freezing ears, and we were exchanging grins and gazes, and I didn’t know what to make of any of this. She was too young to be my mother, too old to be — what — I didn’t know what, but this was getting heady. A maternal, powerful, alluring artist recognized a kindred spirit and they met on a dream-plane outside the workaday world.

Berger casts Taymor as happiest when crafting puppets and masks at her upstate New York country house. But he also writes that she is unapproachable and unwilling (until much too late) to alter the “uncompromising vision” that had brought her past success.

Taymor also terrifies Berger, and he desperately tries to avoid what happened to the unfortunate America Olivo, Natalie Mendoza’s understudy for the character of Arachne, Spider-Woman of Greek-Roman mythology who seduces Peter Parker and turns him into Spider-Man in Taymor’s version. During the musical’s first preview on Nov. 28, 2010, something hit Mendoza in the head and she temporarily left the show after the second preview. When she returned for her third preview performance she was in the pit when a body fell from somewhere above, narrowly missing her. (It was dancer Brian Tierney, who was seriously injured in the fall.) The badly shaken Mendoza had had enough, and left the show. Olivo took over the role, and during her third performance dropped several lines and botched the lyrics.

When, after the final curtain, Taymor followed her into her dressing room and shut the door, it was not to give her a shoulder to cry on. Berger described what happened next:

Thunder from a chthonic weather system rumbled through doors,
through walls, through doors.

We aren’t told how Olivo came through it.  

When Taymor finally gets around to Berger, he describes a scene out of a Stephen King book or John Carpenter’s 1982 science fiction-horror film The Thing:

It was finally me—after over five years of watching from a safe
distance as her weather systems 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,

In the book’s first chapter, Berger places the blame for what happened between him and Taymor squarely on Taymor, herself. Taymor, you see, wouldn’t “collaborate” with him. It is fair to ask then, just what did Taymor hire him for? The question is never answered, and only Taymor can answer it. Riedel, who continued his attack on the musical in his Dec. 3, 2010 New York Post column titled Spidey Book Doesn’t Fly, called Berger just “another one of Taymor’s puppets.” Berger rages and rants over the insult, but the devastating description is an accurate one. (In fact, other than underestimating the musical’s longevity, Riedel will get a lot right about what’s really going on behind the scenes of the musical.)

When Berger first interviews with Taymor at her Union Square office in New York City, he writes: “I didn’t want to have to leave this world where spring breezes wafted in through loft windows.” That would prove too true, as he tenaciously fought to stay in it. But it’s a world he hasn’t yet earned the right to live in, even looking like he was photo-shopped into the book’s sole photograph — a hip publicity shot of Bono, Taymor, Berger and The Edge in their halcyon days.

Berger is not the hero of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark: He’s too canny to even try to cast himself as that. There are no heroes in the book. Well, maybe there was one — producer Tony Adams, the project’s Merlin, who secured for his Hello Entertainment the stage rights to Spider-Man from Marvel Entertainment. In 2005 Adams had just signed rocker The Edge onto the project when, at Edge’s SoHo apartment, he suffered a stroke and died two days later. He would be missed some black days years hence.

There are some moments when you do feel sympathy for the attention-starved Berger. When he returns home to upstate New York after receiving a call from his wife that his beloved dog Crumby is dying, I thought of Ulysses returning home after 20 years to find his dog Argus (whom he had last seen as a very young dog) overjoyed to see him, only to die a few seconds later — just as Crumby does.

Taymor is eventually isolated and fired despite how everyone on the creative team “adores” her. But she wasnt quite finished. She returned with a lawsuit, which Riedel described in his Nov. 11, 2011 New York Post column, “Hell hath no fury like a Taymor lawsuit.” In that column he parodied Dante’s Inferno with a Taymor Effect-like ninth and deepest circle of hell:

Here, frozen in her lake—represented by a giant circle of ice-blue colored silk, hand-sewn in Indonesia—are straw puppets doubled over like ‘bows bent tight.’ They are her producers: Michael Cohl, Jeremiah Harris and the hapless David Garfinkle.

At the lake’s center is the face of Scar, looking very much like Jeremy Irons with fangs. Dangling from two of his three mouths are Bono and The Edge, ‘their backs being skinned so as to leave not a patch.’
In the third mouth, being ground head first, is the greatest traitor of all — Taymor’s co-writer, Glen Berger.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally opens on June 14, 2011, but by then you’ve stopped caring: You feel nothing — not relief, not triumph. Which is why Berger was very smart to launch his tale before curtain on opening night in the Foxwoods Theatre’s lobby, crammed with A-list personalities — and the uninvited Julie Taymor.

Berger’s punchy writing style helps the book, but in certain ways he is an immature writer. He uses “theatre” (the art form) throughout the book, when “theater” is the preferred American usage (with the exception of “theatre” as the preferred use among American undergraduate theater majors). He sometimes is sloppy with use of the wrong words — such as writing of Spider-Man’s “swooping through the caverns of lower Manhattan” when he means “canyons.” Still, it is refreshing not to read a PR garbage-loaded book.

As for the musical in its “frozen” state, only too late do Berger, Bono and The Edge learn the true cost of Taymor’s departure. Originally conceived as a darker musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has now become a “family friendly” one — a sad commentary on how much Broadway has changed. Marvel, alarmed over the Taymor version’s sexuality and “extreme adult themes,” was pleased at last.

It’s hard to sympathize with Berger. And he does want sympathy, even as he writes that he does not. (You do wonder how he managed to last so long without being fired.) He frequently agonizes over what he could have done differently during what became a six-year period, but his self-deprecation is really self-flagellation.

The nearly invisible Berger is just one of many avoiders in the story who seem incapable of giving anyone a straight answer. Or any answer at all. He relies mostly on email to communicate with others. (Six-years worth of emails along with hand-written notes were the primary sources for his book, and if it weren’t for these e-mails you might not even realize he existed.) When he sends Taymor a critical email he never bothers to ask her if she’d seen it. Rather, he looks for “signs” that she had. Signs in her face. Signs in her eyes. Signs in her body language.

Yes, he concludes, she has seen it. Only she hasn’t. It’s maddening.

Maybe this book is really about Glen Berger. He wants you to admire him. But you probably won’t.

Yet give the man some credit. He managed to turn his shortcomings into a pretty good (to a point) read, and maybe one day he’ll deserve to live in that world  “where spring breezes wafted in through loft windows.”

Details Box:
Title: Song of Spider-Man, by Glen Berger
Subtitle: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, $25.00
Language: English
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-10: 1451684568
ISBN-13: 978-1451684568
Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches

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