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Review: 'Song of Spider-Man' by Glen Berger

Musical TheaterAuthorsBroadway TheaterTheaterMusicSpider (music group)

Glen Berger really loves Julie Taymor, his authorial collaborator on the famously fraught Broadway musical, “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” a show that filled Broadway gossip columns for months (it felt like years) with tales of backstage bickering, technical malfunctions, incomprehensible artistic choices and, most disastrous of all, seriously injured actors.


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Berger declares that love, several times, right at the start of "Song of Spider-Man," subtitled "The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in History." It's really just one inside story from a notoriously scandal-plagued show wherein no one could agree on what story to tell on the stage, let alone understand why the entire project ended up in pain (of the heart, body and pocketbook), scandal and litigation. It's a weird and intense affection, writ large in the Berger mindscape: "She was too young to be my mother, too old to be — what — I didn't know what," he writes of Taymor, suggesting, well, I don't know what.

Alas for Berger, great artists have a habit of demanding unflagging loyalty. As he notes, Berger tried his best to stick with Taymor as the project disappeared into the toilet, but in the end, he did not reach her bar of obeisance, apparently. Now Taymor has turned on him. Big time. She has chewed him up as if he were on the menu at the Shake Shack.

"Julie Taymor," he writes, "despises me with photograph-shredding rage." Well, perhaps that's better than her not feeling anything at all.

So the world now has a book that Berger easily could have called "Looking for Julie Taymor" or "Trying to Be Loved by Julie Taymor" or "Surviving Taymor," or maybe just "Glen, Julie and Bono" — all down at the old Broadway schoolyard, descending into a hell of their own distinctly uncollaborative invention.

Flops being more fun than hits, "Song of Spider-Man" is the generally entertaining (if self-serving) back story of the creation of a musical that did not go well and that, due to its scale, and its habit of depositing actors in the hospital, commanded more than its share of attention in the 2010-11 Broadway season. Those who like books offering insight into creative collaborations will be struck by the debasement of the traditional creation process of Broadway musicals into worries about what the owners of a brand will and will not stomach.

The main problem, of course, was that Taymor and Berger — not to mention Bono and The Edge, who wrote the music — were cashing checks based on exploiting a beloved global brand while wanting to do their own creative thing. Especially Taymor, who fastened on a mythological character named Arachne, a great weaver, as the core of their story. Alas, they did not seem to remember whose name was on the marquee outside the theater. (Hint: it was not Arachne.)

Initially, Berger blames Arachne for the beginning of the end ("Privately, I wondered if maybe narratively it wasn't the best choice."), noting that Arachne was an object of obsession for Taymor, who seemed to see herself in Arachne's misunderstood soul. It's at this point in the book that we who followed the "Spider-Man" debacle closely, and who reviewed it while it was in its never-ending series of previews, come to see that Berger was the source for plenty of the news coverage that marked the show's creation. He was spinning his story from the start. May as well, then, turn it into a book.

There's more blame for the meddling suits at Marvel (though they mostly sound smart to me), a universe that likes to punk the undeserving: the neophyte producer David Garfinkle and his monied friends in his hometown of Chicago, where "Spider-Man" was supposed to try out in 2008. That would have been a highly desirable pre-Broadway run, but with the show overtaken by technology, it never happened, meaning that the show opened — or rather, never really opened — cold on Broadway, where the knives already were sharp.

Most of us who saw Spidey 1.0 and 2.0 would argue 2.0 was a far better version, not least because Arachne was no longer allowed to snag the show in her web. It's tough for Berger to admit that, because another writer, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, did much of that rehab work. But then, a careful reader can detect in the halting, endless, self-reflective Berger prose here some of the same problems that beset the show.

Throughout the book, Berger depicts himself as a stranger who could barely pay his mortgage each month, adrift in a strange land of creative billionaires, epitomized by the multitasking Bono. Bono was another of Berger's idols until the writer realized that musicals do better when they have composers with enough time to write the music and hang around the theater to make the needed changes. Bono apparently, was too busy saving the world to pen a tune you could hum.

Spider-Man continues to run on Broadway. It has yet to show a profit.

Ah well, Berger kept his billing and got paid, which makes some of the numerous complaints about money in this book appear rather churlish. Heck, Berger even has spun the Spidey saga into this very book. In his last chapter, he describes getting the gift of a disc on a chain from his producer, who by then was Michael Cohl. "RISE ABOVE" was the inscription. The disc was made of solid silver, but, apparently, neither big nor solid enough.

Chris Jones is the Tribune's theater critic.

"Song of Spider-Man"

By Glen Berger, Simon and Schuster, 371 pages, $25

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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