A fly on the wall of "Spider-Man"
When word got out last week that Will Eno would be writing something called “Skittles Commercial: The Musical,” I searched my mind for any possible antecedents, and tweeted “Oh for the innocent days when Glen Berger writing the book to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark seemed like the weirdest possible combo of downtown indie playwright & corporate Broadway behemoth, little did we know what 2019 would bring.” Which reminded me that I’d always meant to read Berger’s tell-all book about working on Spider-Man…
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At the start of this decade, Broadway fans were mesmerized by the endlessly troubled production of the megabudget musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. There were cost overruns and horrific injuries and an unheard-of seven months of previews. The director, Julie Taymor, was fired from her own show and a new “creative consultant” brought in. As I read news items about the ongoing fiasco, I kept saying “I hope there’s a tell-all book about this someday. I hope Glen Berger writes it.”
Berger, you see, was the co-librettist of Spider-Man, and therefore the person best equipped to write a book on how it all went wrong. Unlike the musical’s famous songwriters (Bono and Edge of U2), he’s a regular guy who got in over his head. Unlike Taymor, he made it through to opening night. As an award-winning playwright and TV writer, he’s literally a specialist in storytelling, characterization, and dramatic irony.
Well, I’m pleased to say that my wish came true and Song of Spider-Man is even better than I hoped (even if it took me several years to get around to reading it). This is the most page-turning, jaw-dropping, perversely fascinating book I’ve read in a long time.
Put it this way: within the span of a single page, you learn that Berger took to posting anonymously on Broadway message boards in defense of his own show (!) and that the director and choreographer tried to convince the stars of the show, 27-year-old Reeve Carney and 19-year-old Jennifer Damiano, to hook up in the hopes that it would improve their onstage chemistry (!!). And there are still 180 pages and 180 previews to go (!!!).
Most fascinating of all is the dramatic irony of how life mirrored art. Glen Berger is kind of a Peter Parker figure: a quick-witted nerd who was plucked from obscurity and given “great power and great responsibility.” Meanwhile, what attracted Julie Taymor to this project was the idea of combining Spider-Man’s origin story with the Greco-Roman myth of Arachne, a character she obviously identified with. In Taymor’s vision, Arachne is a powerful, vengeful, misunderstood spider-goddess, a master illusionist and storyteller. At first she serves as a mentor to Peter; there’s even a subtext of unconsummated romance between them. But then, when she thinks he has rejected and betrayed her, she becomes his archenemy.
And then that—the storyline that Taymor and Berger intended to write for Peter and Arachne—is what ended up happening to them. The psychosexual subtext is practically text: Berger writes “Like Arachne, Julie herself seemed to possess this frightening capacity to rain down retribution […] a demigod-like talent to unleash chthonic weather systems” and “[Julie] 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. This was Act Two, scene two.” But Berger’s awareness of these parallels didn’t prevent him and Taymor from living out this plotline of collaboration and inspiration, followed by betrayal and vengeance. And you know, maybe they were onto something—it is a compelling, archetypal plot. (In a final ironic twist, one of the reasons Taymor got fired from the show was her fixation on the character of Arachne and unwillingness to cut any of her songs, even when she started to overshadow the other characters. Since Berger was secretly trying to work with the producers to reduce Arachne’s part and restructure the show, Taymor saw it as a massive betrayal.)
No, Berger’s not a dispassionate narrator—how could he be? He wrote this only a few years after he finally got off the crazy roller-coaster that was Spider-Man, and consequently comes across as an emotional mess. (Though often a very funny and self-deprecating mess.) But then, emotion is the engine of dramatic storytelling. If Berger had waited until he’d fully come to terms with his experience before writing this memoir, it might have been more polished, but also way less compelling.
In a sense, that’s what ended up happening to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. After Taymor’s departure, Berger worked with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to retool the script, and the final result sounds much more coherent but also much more prosaic. In the end, was it worth all the time, money, blood, sweat and tears? Did the world really need a singing, swinging Spider-Man? I don’t know. But I’m grateful that Berger’s memoir allowed me to be a fly on the wall.