“Song of Spider-Man” Sings a Melancholy Tune

When Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark closed on Broadway in 2014, it lost an estimated $60 million of its reputed $75 million capitalization.

song of spidermanThe travails that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark endured on the way to its long-postponed opening night (183 previews preceded it!), its checkered run and now its just-announced Jan. 4, 2014, closing are the major Broadway story of the decade. It’s an unbearably sad one-certainly as detailed in Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger. He’s the fellow who co-authored the besieged epic, first with director Julie Taymor and then with book doctor Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Picking up the 360-page tome (Simon & Schuster, $27, no illustrations), intrigued readers might think they’re about to dive into something akin to an account of Gethsemane as reported by Judas. To some extent, that may be so, since Berger was tapped by Taymor as her collaborator and then watched her forced aside when, unbeknownst to her, he planned, along with songwriters Bono and Edge, to revise her libretto once she’d been removed from the long-aborning project.

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(I won’t say he and others “plotted” this devious course, because any mention of “plot” linked with the hyper-extravaganza is oxymoronic.)

Readers may retain that lower-than-a-snake’s-belly opinion of Berger throughout the book. But they may also lessen their disdain somewhat when it increasingly strikes them that the story he tells-one he insists is crying to be told-is probably as graphic a depiction of the musical’s progress (or lack thereof) that’s ever likely to appear.

Furthermore-and to my way of thinking-it’s a distillation of everything that can be woefully off-kilter about throwing a vast amount of money (the $75 million figure keeps being tossed around) after a dubious prospect in hopes of achieving a huge commercial and artistic success, at least in Taymor’s apparently turbulent, truculent mind.

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For, as Berger presents it-and as seems valid by virtue of various other published revelations during the extended preparation-Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is strictly Taymor’s idea. Not that she instigated it: She was brought on board when others-producers Tony Adams, David Garfinkle, Martin McCallum, Bono, Edge-had considered the beloved Marvel character right for musicalization, and Julie The Lion King Taymor the only one to do the honors.

But when they’d secured Taymor’s services, it became her baby, at least as she saw it. More than once in these pages, Berger, whose previous theater outing was his admired one-man Underneath the Lintel, has Taymor declaring that any true work of art is a result of one person’s “uncompromising vision.” The vision she envisioned came to her when, after initially demurring, she fixed on Arachne, the spider of myth, as the motivating figure behind likable-innocent Peter Parker’s emergence.

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spider-manThat’s the problem right there, isn’t it? For Taymor, Spider-Man was to be a dark tale with Arachne as the center of the theatrical web she was about to weave. And if you’re thinking “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to create,” you’ve got your finger on Arachne-like Taymor’s undoing-and the undoing of just about everyone associated with her. All this, despite the often diligent, often desperate commitments of the entire team to get it right.

Featuring Arachne at the dramatic center of Spider-Man led to the development of a tale for which Taymor and Berger could never shape a viable dramatic arc-certainly not one that young Bat-Man loving spectators would thrill to. There’s no telling, of course, whether Taymor and Berger might have been able over time to solve the challenge she set up. Maybe they eventually would have, but, as reported over the several years Spider-Man was underway (Berger joined the team in 2004), millions of dollars had been spent.

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While money was no object to Taymor, it was to others. The tally Berger mentions at one point before the delayed opening is $60 million — $30 million of which, he claims, was on technical notions that didn’t pan out. (FYI: No figures have been released on the production’s cost to opening. According to the press office, no costs of any kind are ever released and aren’t being issued now.)

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But as Taymor is quoted in the book saying, “Who wants to see a $10 million musical?” On the other hand, she actively disliked referring to her vision as a musical. For her, musicals connote the moribund. She preferred to call Spider-Man “a circus-rock-and-roll-drama,” which to date makes this particular circus-rock-and-roll-drama totally sui generis.

Taymor isn’t the only one who eventually looks less than stellar in Berger’s view. Bono and Edge, who habitually put their U2 duties before their Great White Way debut demands, impress as cavalier while at the same time caustic and conniving-the laconic Edge (usually called the Edge but not by Berger) less than his old friend, the globe-trotting Bono. Producer Michael Cohl, brought in by Bono to alleviate a financial setback, talks nicely until he decides something must be done about his foremost visionary. Then there are reminders of the several publicized injuries inflicted on cast members through who-knows-what assortment of negligent behaviors.

Photo by Jacob Cohl

Berger also cites the many columns the New York Post‘s Michael Riedel devoted to the benighted cause. Riedel would likely maintain that a good reporter goes after a good story, which this one absolutely was. On the other hand, by spotlighting the troubles with such unabashed glee, he may have contributed to making them worse. At any rate, Berger eventually sums Riedel up in a phrase that’s a strong candidate for The World’s Greatest Put-Downs Book: “a parasite-carrying blood-sucking mosquito depositing the larvae of an elephantiasis-causing filarial worm.”

(Would that Berger had gotten this kind of flourish into his Spider-Man script.)

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Many who’ve sat through Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark-and many have enjoyed it, its most famous yay-sayer being Glenn Beck-would likely agree the best song in the so-so score is the anthem “Rise Above.” Keeping that in mind, however, gets an objective Berger reader wondering if anyone associated with the enterprise actually did rise above.

On the printed page, Edge-but not Bono-does regularly rise above whatever fray is in motion. Chris Tierney, who suffered the most ballyhooed of the pre-opening falls, certainly rose above by virtue of unruffled good humor. On opening night when Taymor, cadging a ticket from a friend, arrived and was asked to join the curtain call, the producing and creative group already gathered there, along with the actors, looked momentarily to be rising above. Completely unmentioned in the volume, publicity spokesperson Rick Miramontez was regularly required to rise above and-of course, paid-did so.

By writing this book, has Berger risen above? Taking into consideration he worked as an unremunerated-until-the-official-run-began scribe-he may not entirely rise above, but he’s certainly risen to this painful occasion. Well, maybe Taymor, with whom he records having a telephone rapprochement, won’t think so.

Still, on finishing Song of Spider-Man, it’s impossible not to despair. The wrongheadedness, the ultimate shake-up in order to salvage a mediocre product from Taymor’s failed (okay, unfinished) vision, the cost-inefficiency, Taymor’s inflexibility in defense of her “uncompromising vision”-all of the ultimately compromising elements that Berger includes speak of an all-too-frequent Broadway condition perhaps only amplified in this unfortunate instance. And that’s especially if, as persistent rumor has it, the circus-rock-and-roll-drama loses its entire investment.

Song of Spider-Man? The Broadway song is ending, but the malady lingers on. Read it and weep.