"A performance must be larger than life, but to be worthwhile you must have an element of humanity."
Book Review: The Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
November 17, 2013
"If you're looking for a night out on the town you just found me. I'm a 65 million dollar circus tragedy." -- The Green Goblin singing "Freak Like Me" in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark
Girl meets boy. Boy meets spider. Spider meets Broadway. It's not the most conventional of stories, but is it a story worth telling? Glen Berger, who co-wrote the book for Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark certainly thinks so, and now he has written The Song Of Spider-Man: The Inside Story Of The Most Controversial Musical In Broadway History, detailing the tumultuous six years he spent working on the musical. The Highs! The Lows! Every meeting (secret or not), email and conversation is recounted in a breezy, humorous style that takes the sting out of the nastier moments, and there are plenty of those.
Our story begins in 2002, when Marvel (the company which owns the Spider-Man trademark), looking to capitalize on the success of the Spider-Man movies, contacted charismatic Irish producer Tony Adams to guide its superhero to the Broadway stage. Adams contacted his old friend Paul McGuinness to see if Bono and The Edge would be interested in writing the music. They were, and they walked down the street to filmmaker Neil Jordan's place to see if he'd be interested in writing the script. He suggested Julie Taymor (the artistic and domestic partner of his friend, composer Elliot Goldenthal, who scored several of Jordan's films) to direct. Julie was an obvious choice, as her production of The Lion King was a multibillion-dollar grossing, Tony-award winning extravaganza. With all these big names attached, there was no way this show could fail, right?
But even from the show's early planning stages, things were already falling apart.
Our hero (Glen Berger) enters the story in 2005, after Neil Jordan's write-up the musical's script and story was deemed too dark and "cinematic" for a Broadway production and he was given his walking papers by Taymor and Adams. Berger was friends with Taymor's assistant, but won the job as co-book writer (Taymor wanted to be more involved in the writing) after several playwrights' scene submissions were dismissed, and based on one scene that he wrote involving the Green Goblin and a grand piano. As it would turn out, this same scene would be the unraveling of Taymor's involvement with the show. Less than a year later, Tony Adams would collapse in Edge's apartment just as they were signing the contracts for the show. He died two days later, at the age of 52.
This scene repeats itself several times throughout the story. Producers are let go for not securing enough backing. Actors are cast, retained, and then drop out as opening night gets pushed further into the future. People come and go like dancers leaping in from stage-left, full of ideas and hope, only to be dragged off through the curtains beaten down and defeated. Friendships are ruined, long-standing working relationships are severed, and an absurd amount of money is spent all in the name of "art."
There were many forces pulling the production in several directions at once. Ms. Taymor's vision was that of an aesthete: She focused on the myth of Arachne, who appeared in one volume of the Spider-Man comic books. Arachne would be the villain of the story, rather than Spider-Man's expected nemesis, the Green Goblin. Taymor wanted more than just "cotton-candy entertainment," and much like Arachne, she believed that her vision -- her art -- was beyond recrimination. It would lead to her downfall.
The investors, on the other hand, thought that the Arachne myth was much too dark for what was supposed to be a fun, family-friendly show. Marvel was very protective of its character and vetoed anything it thought went against its superhero's image, so no mention of sex, no cursing, and most importantly, no Arachne. Marvel felt this new character over-shadowed Peter Parker and Mary Jane, the main characters of its beloved comic books.
And then there are the composers. Berger's first meeting with Bono and Edge was backstage at the Meadowlands before a show on U2's Vertigo tour in 2005. He confesses that for a band with a 25-year back catalogue, he only knew three songs. He hadn't expressed his fears out loud, but he had his doubts that these two rock stars were the right fit for Spider-Man, until the show began: "But tonight I heard both a mischievousness in their music, as well as a dead-earnest, aching yearning for justice, grace, humility, and transcendence. In other words, I heard the soul of our superhero." Another hardcore U2 fan was born. At this meeting, Bono had one simple directive for his scriptwriter: "It has to be brilliant."
Bono and Edge flit through the story like the busy bees they are; Bono excusing himself from writing sessions to take calls from heads of state; apologizing for showing up late to the auditions for the Mary Jane character because he "got held up with stuff." Berger was floored when he later realized what that "stuff" was.
In 2007, "the lads" had started working on their next album (No Line On The Horizon) in Fez, Morocco, which would lead to their 360 Tour, keeping them on the road from 2009 to 2011. There are moments of recognition for U2 fans, like the author's description of "bongolese," or Bono's way of sounding out a song's melody with nonsense words until proper lyrics can be written. Bono's wit is well-documented, as off-the-cuff remarks he makes in rehearsals end up as part of the dialogue for the Green Goblin.
As in any good story, this one is full of heroes and villains. Some of the heroes are the cast of performers and the tech crew, who at one point were performing one version of the show at night while rehearsing a newer version during the day, for weeks at a stretch. Some of the villains include an executive at Marvel, who refused to give the production $30 million just days before they would sell their company to Disney for $4 billion. He would personally pocket something in the neighborhood of $800 million in cash and $590 million in Disney stock. Another villain is a particularly nasty theater critic who wrote scathing reviews of the show before he had ever seen or read a word of it, and continued his attacks as the show floundered through an unprecedented number of previews.
You get a real sense of how scads of money could be spent on something as frivolous as a Broadway show while the U.S. was suffering through one of its worst economic downfalls in history. The author acknowledges this with the title of the first chapter: "It's Just a Play."
So much time and money had been invested and so many people were counting on this show to feed their families that the principals of the show felt there was no turning back. A good part of the money was spent on renovating the Foxwoods Theater to accommodate the high-flying hero by installing all the technical equipment that needed to be in place so that the stunts could be repeated safely and consistently through hundreds or thousands of performances.
Every element of the production -- the movement of the scenery, props and actors; the dialogue, the music and the lights -- had to be perfectly synched for the show to work, and every change in the script, even the smallest detail, could set the show back several days because each new section would have to go back into "tech" to sync it all up again.
Like any dysfunctional family, opportunities to iron out differences were missed, there were several misunderstandings, and there was a fair amount of denial on everyone's part that many of Ms. Taymor's ideas could never be implemented because they were technically impossible; but no one ever came out and said so. Early on in his involvement with the show, Berger was given the advice to "stick with Julie," and he is so hell-bent on doing so that common sense is thrown out the window, much to his own detriment.
Reading this book is like reading a book about the Titanic: if you're a U2 fan and were following the news of this production, you already know what happens. The bad reviews, the cringe-worthy reports of injuries, the firing of Julie Taymor and her return on opening night -- all the stories are here, told in rich detail from the inside out. Throughout, the author proclaims his love for Ms. Taymor, but she clearly bears the brunt of the blame for Spider-Man's woes, although he never says it directly. It's a harrowing story but well worth the time if you're a fan of Broadway (although it might scare you away from a life in the theater if you were thinking of making a career of it).
I found myself rooting for everyone to win at the end, and by some measure, they do. The show continues its run on Broadway, despite the evil theater critic's prediction that it would close by the end of 2011. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark broke a record for the highest single-week gross and it reached the one-millionth-audience-member mark faster than any show in Broadway history, but the cost of running the show keeps the profit-margin low and plans to turn it into a touring production are a long way off. Regardless of the show's success, I'm not sure the human cost was worth it.
The Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History is available now from Simon & Schuster Inc.
© @U2/Maione, 2013.