A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine, Becca, acquired a copy of Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, by Glen Berger. She then sent it on to a friend of ours in England, Debi who had seen the show with her in New York. They wrote about their thoughts on the book, and they agreed on several things: that Glen Berger is unnervingly in love with Julie Taymor, that Glen Berger finds it very important to tell everyone that he is a Serious Professional Writer, and that the book invites you to throw it across the room multiple times.
I, stressed out about the upcoming tech week for the spectacular production I was assisting on, commented to Debi that I HAD to read this book. And just before tech week actually started, I got a parcel from the Royal Post containing Glen Berger’s tell-all.
My cackling could, I hope, be heard across the pond.
For those of you not in the theatre community, it’s possible you missed or don’t remember much about Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. The broad strokes: it was a Broadway musical about Marvel’s Spider-Man, directed by Julie Taymor (Broadway’s The Lion King, Across the Universe) with songs by U2’s Bono and the Edge. It went over budget to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, broke records for the number of previews it had, and had several extremely high-profile accidents, including the lead actress getting a concussion, a stuntman breaking both wrists on a set-piece, an aerialist getting dropped into the concrete-floored orchestra pit and falling thirty feet onto his back, and the untimely and tragic death of the original producer, Tony Adams, due to an aneurysm. It was the butt of jokes for months in both the theatre community and the comics community due to its production issues and its apparent lack of anyone who cared even a little about Spider-Man as he appears in the books.
Glen Berger, essentially an unknown playwright/TV writer, was hired to write the book of the musical with Julie Taymor. He gives little indication in Song of Spider-Man that he was or is much of a comic book fan (unlike the actual comic book/musical writer eventually brought in to help rewrite the show, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa). He gives a lot of indication that he is, despite being married with children, madly in love with Julie Taymor. I mean, maybe I’m reading into it, but:
And it’s why my last comic-book panel would depict a scene from opening night. I would draw it in an emo-manga style, with a smudged, cocktail-sipping crowd in the background. In the foreground, a woman with flowing hair framing sad-smiling eyes is regarding the addled-looking man in front of her. The man’s heart is on his sleeve, his tongue is in a knot, and in the banner at the top of the panel, that poor schmuck’s thoughts from over a year later are revealed:
I loved her. I still do.
With heart-scarred, bewilderment,
I love her. . . .
And the thing of it is . . . she despises me.
All ellipses, emphasis, formatting, and INCREDIBLE UNCOMFORTABLENESS in the original. This book has a lot of ellipses and italics. My personal breaking point was page 210:
Lines like this may go a long way towards explaining why the producers felt they had to bring in another writer.
Anyway, I had to stop reading about halfway through the book because, superstitiously, I was afraid I’d jinx our own giant puppets and open orchestra pit if I kept reading about disasters befalling another production. I picked it up again once the show was over. It reminded me of reading The Da Vinci Code: the writing was full of incomprehensible cliches, the plot barely stood up to scrutiny, and yet I couldn’t put it down. I was caught in a riptide of schadenfreude and empathy — laughing in horror at the comedy of errors unfolding, and yet wincing in pain at the very real emotional damage being dealt in every which way.
Oh for Pete’s sake, he’s infected my narrative voice.
My thoughts on the book as a book are fairly limited and come down mostly to pointing and cry-laughing. If you like reading about train-wrecks and have a high tolerance for melodrama, you need this book. If you’ve ever worked on any kind of artistic collaboration — and also have the aforementioned high tolerance for melodrama, which I assume you have, because you’ve worked on an artistic collaboration — you’ll probably enjoy it. And there is much for a student of writing to learn about How Not To Construct A Simile. (Berger disclaims early on that “the following pages contain metaphors more appropriate for an account of an amputation tent in the Crimean War,” justifying them by saying that the high stakes and emotional pain felt by the characters in this drama were very real. I don’t object to that for a second. I do object to how deeply weird and badly constructed many of his metaphors are.)
I will say, though, that I disagree with one critique of the book, which is that Berger is exaggerating how unreasonable and emotionally volatile Taymor was. My friend Debi pointed out, with reason, that this fits into stereotypes we have about women, particularly artistic women, and Berger is an unreliable narrator par excellence. Yet the behaviors Berger describes on the part of Taymor — an unflinching and stubborn commitment to her artistic vision, a refusal to listen to critiques, and a tendency to make snap decisions — are all ones I’ve observed time and time again in creative types of all genders. All three of those traits can be good ones and are often major contributors to an artist’s success: I am an enormous admirer of Taymor’s work, especially her Shakespeare, and her commitment to her vision and her snap decisions no doubt play a huge part in the artistic success of her projects.
However, as Berger says in a moment of clarity:
There’s a little gauge inside every artist, with its needle pointing somewhere between self-doubt and self-confidence. For an artist to produce their best work, that needle can’t be in the red zone on either end.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark seems to have been a project loaded with people whose needles were stuck in the blinding red of self-confidence: people who refused to take critiques until it was far too late, people who felt that if they just stuck to their original artistic vision, unwavering, they would be fine. Taymor included.
It’s funny, because in comics, that unwavering devotion to a vision often creates heroes: Superman’s commitment to truth and justice, Batman’s absolute no-kill rule, Captain America’s patriotism and idealism, Hellboy’s belief that he can be more than his origins or his fate. But that single-minded devotion to a vision just as often creates villains, like Ozymandias’ ends-justify-the-means quest for world peace, and Magneto’s quest for a mutant-ruled world, or J. Jonah Jameson’s obsession with defaming the Spider-Man.
I wonder how someone who actually knew comics would tell the story of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.