SONG OF SPIDER-MAN: The Tumultuous Journey of Turn Off the Dark
By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 12/17/2013 1:00 pm EST
Publish date: November 5, 2013 Publisher: Simon and Schuster | Buy Book
Many critics, bloggers, and patrons (and, yes, people who have never even seen the show) have described Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark as one of the biggest disasters in Broadway history. Glen Berger, co-writer of the musical’s book, doesn’t necessarily steer away from this portrayal in his new memoir of the troubled production, Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History. He does, however, elaborate on exactly why, from a creative standpoint, the show was the ill-fated Titanic of a production it was.
Although this book is ostensibly a play-by-play detailing the rise and fall of the Spider-Man Broadway show, the real meat of the book is the relationship between Berger and Julie Taymor. Song of Spider-Man is at once a love note and apology letter to the famed Broadway director. He frequently characterizes Taymor as a force of nature, but keeps finding new lights, both reverent and intimidated, to cast on her. When Berger gazes at Taymor in her element, he is in awe, unable to move and even think rationally. When he is on the receiving end of her wrath, we feel the knots in his stomach. Their relationship is like a time bomb, ticking down to its inevitable explosion over the course of the first three hundred pages.
Inevitability factors in heavily in the book. Berger and many of his co-conspirators seem to be well-aware, more often than not, of just how potentially catastrophic their plan is. In fact, it’s usually Taymor, who had a hit with the similarly extravagant but slightly more practical The Lion King, who provides the encouragement and brash “we can do anything” attitude. Despite the apologetic nature of the book, Taymor’s portrayal sways back and forth between “minsunderstood visionary” and “belligerent and childish.” She is so committed to her way of doing things, so ready to argue in the face of logic over it, that we are seldom inclined to sympathize with her.
We do, understandably, sympathize with Berger quite a bit. Berger’s is the voice of a clever, but weary, dramatist. Throughout the book, the author paints himself as the scapegoat, the man who was destined, even in the early planning stages, to take the fall. Lacking the name recognition of Julie Taymor or the fame of Bono and The Edge, Berger is always nervous as the production descends further and further into despair. After all, he has no recognizable reputation to tarnish, which keeps a target perpetually trained on his back.
As this is a book about theater, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare references abound. Taymor’s film version of The Tempest was produced during the time period, which seems almost like an omen considering the production’s troubles and Taymor’s own Prospero-like tendencies. But some of these comparisons are less overt. Bono and The Edge are, by far, the most entertaining characters (and that’s the only way to describe them) in the book, and are effectively the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the production. They wander in and out of the narrative, no one quite sure just how far along they are with their part of the project (and, when you’re dealing with arguably the biggest rock stars in the world, who could even ask?). They are the subjects of numerous anecdotes, which could have filled a book all by themselves. From Bono’s Mr. Burns impression to The Edge’s characterization of Bono’s gibberish singing as “Bonglese,” there are no shortage of laughs in here.
For all of its tales of Broadway woes, Song of Spider-Man is not simply a book about a musical. It’s a treatise on the creative process—how it overtakes us, how we work with others, how we take ownership, and how we are blinded by it. How far are we willing to go to achieve our visions? And, perhaps more importantly (although Julie Taymor might disagree), what if it doesn’t work? Who’s a better judge of the success of an artistic endeavor: the creator or the audience? Music and, by association, musicals are about communal emotional manipulation. What Song of Spider-Man teaches us is that, while both the producers and the audience are affected by a musical, sometimes their feelings are drastically different depending upon what side of the experience they find themselves on.
In unfortunate, but perhaps appropriate, timing, just days after this book was released, the end of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark‘s Broadway run was announced. This bit of unfolding drama robs Song of Spider-Man of just a little of the optimism felt towards its conclusion. Somehow, though, I doubt Berger would be surprised. In the end, Broadway rebelled against Turn Off the Dark. It wasn’t a musical, after all, but a “circus rock and roll drama.” Maybe it belongs in Vegas after all.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.