REVIEW: “Song of Spider-Man” by Glen Berger

It has been a decade since Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark first began previews, accompanied by endless reports about injured actors and workplace safety hazards. With a budget exceeding sixty million dollars, an endless barrage of reported injuries, and suggestions that the plot was nigh incoherent, the musical had all the makings of a colossal train wreck. And, for a while, it delivered on that promise, with continued reports of technical mistakes and feuding creatives. But, eventually, it just fizzled out. After months and months of previews, the ousting of its director, and endless lousy press, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark opened on June 14, 2011. But what happened? Glen Berger, co-writer of the musical’s script, seeks to answer this in his account of the musical’s creation, Song of Spider-Man. While reading as more of a gossipy, biased memoir than an objective, neutral account, Song of Spider-Man is an entertaining and revealing look at how Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark went from being an anticipated Broadway spectacle to a “sixty-five million dollar circus tragedy.” (4 out of 5 wands.)

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History (by Glen Berger)
As you might imagine, writing a Broadway musical has its challenges. But it turns out there are challenges one can’t begin to imagine when collaborating with two rock legends and a superstar director to stage the biggest, most expensive production in theater history. Renowned director Julie Taymor picked playwright Glen Berger to cowrite the book for a $25 million Spider-Man musical. Together—along with U2’s Bono and Edge—they would shape a work that was technically daring and emotionally profound, with a story fueled by the hero’s quest for love…and the villains’ quest for revenge. Or at least, that’s what they’d hoped for.

But when charismatic producer Tony Adams died suddenly, the show began to lose its footing. Soon the budget was ballooning, financing was evaporating, and producers were jumping ship or getting demoted. And then came the injuries. And then came word-of-mouth about the show itself. What followed was a pageant of foul-ups, falling-outs, ever-more harrowing mishaps, and a whole lot of malfunctioning spider legs. This “circus-rock-and-roll-drama,” with its $65 million price tag, had become more of a spectacle than its creators ever wished for. During the show’s unprecedented seven months of previews, the company’s struggles to reach opening night inspired breathless tabloid coverage and garnered international notoriety. Through it all, Berger observed the chaos with his signature mix of big ambition and self-deprecating humor.

Song of Spider-Man is part recounting of the events that led to the creation and demise of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and part memoir from the show’s co-writer, Glen Berger. As a result, the book reads as a sort of Frankenstein combination of historical record and gossip column. There is nothing more valuable when examining the creation of something than having the account of someone fundamental in creating that thing to refer to. So, having Berger detail his experience working on this show is, obviously, the book’s biggest asset. Any journalist could cobble together a strictly historical look at the creation of the musical, or some kind of oral history, but only those who were involved can tell us exactly how it felt to be involved in the making of the musical. And that’s exactly what Berger does with this book. Throughout, he walks readers through his experience over the six+ years he spent on the show. He chronicles its early days, its tech woes, and—most salaciously—the dismissal of its original director.

Song of Spider-Man does not paint Julie Taymor in a positive light. I wouldn’t say it’s a total hit piece against her either, but Berger’s bias is clear—even if it’s understandable. Here, Taymor is depicted as a director with an unwavering vision who is unwilling, or unable, to make any compromises that might result in the bettering of their show. This does not create a particularly enjoyable workplace environment, but it is something that women directors get criticized for far more than male directors guilty of doing the exact same things do. To be fair to Taymor, this was an approach that had netted her (and plenty of other directors) countless acclaim and success, but it was a recipe for disaster on this show. Honestly, everyone involved in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark on a creative level bears some responsibility for what went wrong. As shown in Berger’s book, there was a fundamental breakdown in communication between all of them, with most of the creative team never being fully honest with Taymor until they executed their—frankly sneaky—plan to completely overhaul the show’s second act, triggering a deeply understandable negative reaction from Taymor. Song of Spider-Man is an account of a friendship and partnership falling apart. It is an account of how dysfunctional workplace environments loaded with miscommunications can destroy a project. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for everyone involved at different times.

On the flip side, Song of Spider-Man doesn’t really paint Berger as a victim, or the hero, either. His prose is frequently littered with self-deprecation and moments of seemingly-introspective looks into the ways he contributed to all that went wrong here. Obviously, he’s not going to fully rake himself over the coals, but he also doesn’t completely whitewash his flaws—which gives the whole book a bit more credibility than it might have otherwise had. He shows how lousy a husband and father he was during the development of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark; he shows how his lack of communication contributed to all of the structural problems prevalent in the show’s script; he seems to take responsibility for the role he played in Taymor’s eventual ouster. It’s a surprisingly reflective look at the role he played in this story. Naturally, there’s no way he can be totally objective here, and the book never reads like an account with any real objectivity. While this direct insight from someone deeply involved with the show is the book’s best aspect, it’s also its greatest weakness. There are numerous instances where it’s blatant how one-sided the book is. Readers only hear from other players through the lens of Berger. This is not his fault—he can only share what he knows and what he heard. But it does leave a pretty big hole where other viewpoints might be. I’d kill for Taymor, or Bono and the Edge, or even the producers to write their own books that detail their experiences making this musical. I think is such a fascinating example of good ideas and good intentions ruined by dysfunction and miscommunication.

For what it is, Song of Spider-Man is an absolutely fascinating look at the creation, downfall, and rebirth of one of Broadway’s most infamous musicals—told directly from the point of view of someone intimately involved in its creation. As a result, it often reads more biased than one purely interested in the creation of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark might want, but once you get past that, you’re left with an entertaining and insightful look behind the scenes of the musical. I wish Berger focused more on some of the creative elements that went into making the show and less on the already-heavily-reported drama that went down, but this is a book that’s hard to complain about. It’s a page-turner that will have you hooked from its first page to its last. It’s the perfect drama: filled with intrigue, betrayal, humor, and hope. If you love the theatre, this is a book you should read. If you have any interest in the Spider-Man musical, this is a book you must read. And if you simply like well-written books about real things that have happened, this is a book you must read.

4 out of 5 wands.

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