Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History

Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History

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by Glen Berger

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“One of the best literary works of this year” (Miami Herald-Tribune): The true story of a theatrical dream—or nightmare—come true…the making of the Spider-Man musical.

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…  See more details below


“One of the best literary works of this year” (Miami Herald-Tribune): The true story of a theatrical dream—or nightmare—come true…the making of the Spider-Man musical.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Playwright (Underneath the Lintel; O Lovely Glowworm) and Emmy Award winner Berger invites the reader behind the scenes for a Glen's-eye view of how a blockbuster Broadway musical might (or might not) get made. From the sample scene that a somewhat starstruck Berger sent to director Julie Taymor in 2005 to the bittersweet, oft-postponed opening night more than six years later, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark dodged (not always successfully) land mines of egos, the death of a key producer, technical glitches, actor injuries, and more egos. The money involved in the production (technical props cost millions), ticket prices (currently some upwards of $200 each), and weekly box office (approaching $3 million) are staggering. Berger supports his memoir with quotes from emails and tweets, as musicians Bono and Edge, Taymor, and others wrestle to meld their vision of a stage-worthy Spidey story with one another and with Marvel Comics executives. VERDICT An entertaining if one-sided tale that reveals the sometimes treacherous underpinnings that make the magic happen.—Maggie Knapp, Trinity Valley Sch., Fort Worth, TX
The New York Times - Mark Harris
…Glen Berger's dishy, entertaining-up-to-a-point account of the continuing Broadway disaster Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark…[is] less akin to a standard anatomy of a disaster than to a post-Watergate memoir like John Dean's Blind Ambition, in which the teller of the tale shares culpability but at least had an awfully good seat from which to view the crime. Part sigh, part shrug, part snicker, Mr. Berger's book is a coroner's report signed, sealed and delivered by one of the parties responsible for the victim's demise…Mr. Berger knows how to write, and he can tell a good story.
Publishers Weekly
When the renowned director Julie Taymor picked Berger to co-write the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, he joined a dream team of Taymor and U2's Bono and Edge. Berger's book offers a behind-the scenes- look into that collaboration—the making of a musical that went on to become both hugely successful and the ultimate source for backstage gossip and tales of theatrical hubris. The theatre world was riveted by the show's unending problems, especially when two performers injured themselves during flying stunts in previews. All of this was chronicled by the New York Post's Michael Riedel who Berger makes no effort to conceal his strong dislike of. However, Riedel is just about the only person Berger openly disdainful toward—much of the book functions as a long apology to Taymor, who was finally fired as director of the show when she refused to implement widely agreed-upon changes. The book loses steam three-quarters of the way through, once Taymor departs the show. As the subtitle promises, Berger provides his insider's perspective, but readers may well agree with his self-assessment as an insecure people-pleaser. Despite this, the book is still highly readable, particularly when Bono and the Edge grace its pages. Agent: Joseph Veltre, the Gersh Agency. (Nov.)
Miami Herald-Tribune
"Hilarious and engrossing. . .”
American Theatre Magazine
“Self-deprecating, funny, wise… and more than a little wistful…”
New York Times
“Mr. Berger knows how to write, and he can tell a good story.”
New York Post
“An entertaining tell-all about this infamous musical that, in the fall of 2010, made headlines almost every day…. an accurate and candid account.”
Topless Robot
“[A] captivating new tell-all….a fascinating conflict between art and commerce, ideology and reality, and friends-turned-enemies….If you only know Turn Off the Dark for the countless jokes it spawned, illuminate yourself to the true story of what happened. It's more funny and strange than you could have possibly imagined.”
“[Berger] packs six years’ worth of unbearable turmoil into 384 vastly readable pages. The result should be required reading for not only theater majors, but business majors in colleges nationwide….SONG OF SPIDER-MAN is an eye-opener, even for those who followed the press closely.”
Word and Film
“An addictive tell-all… [Berger’s] a damn fine story-teller."
Reviews Gate
"A truly remarkable book."
New York Times - Mark Harris
"You close Song of Spider-Man knowing two things you didn’t after seeing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Mr. Berger knows how to write, and he can tell a good story."
Entertainment Weekly
“Juicy and entertaining…”
USA Today
“An absorbing… account of one of show biz's more bizarre real-life adventures.”
Miami Herald-Tribune - Nicholas Mancusi
"Hilarious and engrossing. . . Despite the fact that the project he is most associated with never received better than mixed reviews, one imagines that Berger surely considers himself first and foremost a dramatist. How inconvenient for his self-conception that he’s written one of the best literary works of this year."
New York Post - Michael Riedel
“An entertaining tell-all about this infamous musical that, in the fall of 2010, made headlines almost every day….an accurate and candid account.”
Connecticut Post
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turned out to be a dud, but Berger’s book is one of the best recent accounts of the making and unmaking of a big Broadway show.”
“This juicy memoir offers up the requisite dirt to make a satisfying read for Broadway carrions and disaster junkies alike….”
Kirkus Reviews
A dishy take on the successful yet calamity-prone Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. As a script collaborator on the unprecedented project, Emmy Award–winning TV writer Berger looks back on the six tumultuous years he spent on the increasingly tangled and mismanaged Spider-Man theatrical "undertaking," a production plagued with technical snafus, poor critical reception and countless script overhauls. Though meticulously documented, from the show's origins in 2005 to its nerve-wracking press previews and strained opening-night curtain call, some details seem glossed over in favor of anecdotal notes on the author's regrettably disintegrated relationship with Julie Taymor, the show's headstrong director. "Even now, I still carry the dream with me every day--to make up with her," writes Berger. This sentiment hovers over the narrative, even as the author launches into an avalanche of mishaps along Spider-Man's serpentine path to the stage. At the core of the dysfunction, he writes, was a general lack of confluence among the production team, which included Irish producer Tony Adams, "puckish" lead producer Michael Cohl, and U2's Bono and the Edge, musical collaborators who seemed mismatched for the project. Berger's version of events spotlights Marvel Entertainment's continual disapproval of the material's treatment and the undermining and swift firing of Taymor, an event Berger himself contributed to with the formulation of "Plan X," an alternate, lighter script version written without Taymor's knowledge. A threatened lawsuit simmered and came to pass when book-writing royalties were withheld from Taymor. The author found little consolation in the eventual resolution of Taymor's litigation, and his tone at the onset and conclusion of the book still seems to yearn for reconciliation as the show continues to cash in. Berger delivers the inside scoop with ample melodrama and star-crossed folly.

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Song of Spider Man

  • The four drinks I knocked back on an empty stomach in the empty VIP room were finally kicking in. The conversations around me in the crowded lobby had become amplified and muffled, like I was floating in a diving bell surrounded by a lot of classy-looking fish. Fine. Just so long as I didn’t have to talk to any of them. Any moment now, the lights were going to blink, and then we’d have to take our seats, and I’d be saved. Except, no, I’d still be screwed. Because there wasn’t a drug in the world that would make sitting through the show tonight anything but unremitting torture.

    We were already thirty minutes behind schedule. They were holding the curtain because everyone was having such a fine time gabbing with each other. So I had to come up with a plan because hiding would be pathetic, but people were going to try to talk to me, or worse—congratulate me. It was opening night. And I was the cowriter. Giant letters spelled out my name on that building-sized sign out front. So congratulating me would seem like the thing to do. But this show was a special case, and I was a special case in this special case, and so collecting “congratulations” was like collecting a pile of wet socks.

    Of course, I imagined it was a hundred times worse for her. And, oh man, how the two of us yattered so eagerly about this night once upon a time. To think there was a time when—no, I couldn’t think about any of that—I just had to walk purposefully and no one would stop me to talk. So I sidled past Bill Clinton and Lou Reed, Salman Rushdie, John McEnroe—it was like being trapped in an updated version of the Sgt. Pepper album cover. I figured I’d be fine so long as I didn’t run into her, because I wouldn’t know what to say. But I ran into someone else, and he immediately walked away which, like a sliding set piece, revealed . . . her. And I didn’t know what to say.

    Julie Taymor. She was standing near the doors that led out to Forty-third Street. She wasn’t going to come at all tonight, which was boggling. Yet understandable. And, in being understandable, even more boggling. It had been three months since I’d last seen her, and the rush of old, cozy feelings smacked against The New Reality, and the impact made me just sick.

    Even now, I carry the dream with me every day—to make up with her. So it all can be as sunny as it once was. Publishing a book detailing our six years together might not be the most effective way to achieve that. In fact, I was warned not to write about any of this. But I can’t help it—it’s a story, and that’s what we do with stories. We tell them. In fact, this whole book is a story about storytelling—the story of an epic attempt by earnest human beings to tell a story and to tell that story brilliantly. Only, there’s this:

    Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.

    —from My List of Lessons Learned

    One should probably begin the story of the making and remaking of a Broadway musical about Spider-Man with that hallowed day in 1962 when Stan Lee, along with illustrator Steve Ditko, came up with The Big Idea: Bullied high schooler acquires spider powers.

    It’s a trim little setup. And just different enough to be revolutionary. Not only was this teenaged Peter Parker suddenly burdened with “great responsibilities,” he still had to run the every-day gauntlet every teenager has to run—the social troubles, the money troubles, the dermatological troubles . . .

    A comic-book panel would depict a publisher sitting behind a cluttered desk in the cramped Madison Avenue offices of Marvel Comics staring at a sketch of a figure wearing a bodysuit covered in webbing. Lee and Ditko would be standing on the other side of the desk, looking on expectantly. The publisher would be looking . . . doubtful.

    “Several months later . . .” would read the caption in our next panel. Lee and Ditko’s new superhero is swinging with a hoodlum under his arm on the cover of Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15. It’s our webslinger’s debut, and it’s in the final issue of an anthology series already slotted to be canceled. That’s how dubious the publisher was of this new “spider-man” idea.

    The next comic-book panel would flash us forward forty years. It would be a split screen depicting the gleaming offices of media giant Marvel Entertainment on one side and the makeshift office of two almost-entirely-untested Broadway producers on the other. The producers are being informed via phone that they’ve just been granted the rights to make a musical out of Marvel’s most treasured property: Spider-Man. Exclamation points shine above the producers’ heads.

    But if this is a story about storytelling cast through the prism of Spider-Man the Musical, then maybe we should be starting fifty-thousand years ago, back in a time when the world was teeming with Paleolithic ceremonies featuring singing, dancing, and human characters endowed with animal powers. In a large, single-paneled splash page, we would see two prehistoric figures arguing over just how their musical performance is supposed to go. On their hairy faces—anger, exasperation. Why? Because collaboration, by definition, requires humans to interact with each other. Which means every moment in a collaboration quivers with the potential for transcendental connection. And also fury, and hair-tearing frustration, and silences as icy as distant planets. Just look at Lee and Ditko. You think they had a falling-out? Of course they had a falling-out.

    Another scene to ink and color: a twenty-first-century living room, somewhere in the United States, or Sweden, or South America. Children have commandeered couch cushions and bathrobes. One of them is pretending to be Spider-Man. By the looks of it, their pretending includes a large cast of characters and an elaborate plot.

    Storytelling. It’s what homo sapiens do. We do it as automatically as a pancreas produces insulin. We’re compelled to codify otherwise-random events into cause and effect. Into patterns. Into narrative. It’s a drive that in part makes humans so human. And it’s a hunger that drove the creators of this confounded musical (as well as its audiences) into spasms of excitement, disappointment, and a few dozen other emotions as the show careened down the long road to its much-delayed opening night.

    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.

    Julie Taymor despises me with photograph-shredding rage. Or so I hear. Though maybe by now she’s past caring. After all, it’s been thirty months since that last phone call; that last lit match on a kerosene-doused relationship, six years of collaboration KAFWOOOSH! . . .

    Sure, yes, maybe she’s moved on. But I doubt it. While I was writing this book, teams of lawyers were busy submitting suits and countersuits. Among other demands, Julie wanted half of my money. And I wasn’t about to give it to her.

    Here’s what happened. . . .

    Or—wait—let me say one more thing first.

    I am aware—I really am—that the following pages contain metaphors more appropriate for an account of an amputation tent in the Crimean War; adjectives best saved for the Apollo space program or the Bataan Death March. Next to events of actual weight, I know this whole thing sounds self-important as hell.

    That said, for those who lived through this odyssey, very high stakes were involved, and very real costs were exacted, and I wouldn’t want to minimize that fact. And so it is with simultaneous irony, bitterness, and innocent awe that I state this (because I know it, but I’m going to forget it):

    This book? It’s about a play.

    Just a play.

    Just a fucking play.

    Okay. Here’s what happened. . . .

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  • Meet the Author

    Glen Berger cut his teeth at Seattle’s Annex Theatre back in the ’90s. His plays since then include Underneath the Lintel, which has been staged more than two hundred times worldwide, been translated into eight languages, and won several Best Play awards; and O Lovely Glowworm, a 2005 Portland Drammy Award Winner for Best Script. He is a New Dramatists alumnus. In television, Glen has won two Emmys (out of twelve nominations), and has written more than 150 episodes for children’s television series including Arthur (PBS), Peep (Discovery/The Learning Channel), Big and Small (BBC), and Fetch (PBS), for which he was the head writer for all five years of its run. Glen spent six years cowriting the script of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

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    The Song of Spider Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
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