The Inside Story
of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
By Glen Berger
Simon & Schuster. 370 pp. $25
While there are obvious pleasures to be derived from a truly great work of art — a luminous song, a movie with impeccable acting and storytelling — there’s nothing quite like watching a disaster unfold. Greatness can be lauded, respected and dissected. But a misfire, particularly a high-profile one that seemingly contained all the elements of success, can be its own special kind of entertainment.
For a good long while, the Spider-Man musical fit this bill. “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” was a rolling calamity. Repeated delays, injured cast members, savage reviews and heated creative disputes got ample media coverage, including an endless stream of headlines, jokes on “Saturday Night Live,” the cover of the New Yorker and more. And everything was amplified by the production’s eye-popping budget, which reportedly hit the $75 million mark. The musical closed this year without breaking even.
Glen Berger’s absorbing “Song of Spider-Man” offers a chance to wander through the production’s entire tortured, gnarly history. Berger isn’t an impartial observer. He co-wrote the musical’s book with Julie Taymor, the Tony Award-winning stage and film director who brought “The Lion King” to Broadway, and Berger remained with the show after Taymor was booted and the story overhauled. So it must be noted that his recollections of encounters with Taymor, the show’s producers, and Bono and the Edge (the U2 rockers created the show’s music) are all presented through his viewpoint.
Even so, he doesn’t always present himself as the most sympathetic character. Berger calls himself “a total sneak” for going behind Taymor’s back to come up with a plan to revamp the show. At other times, he takes a backseat and simply walks us through the processes of casting the show and interacting with Marvel, the keepers of Spider-Man’s brand and legacy. But the most fascinating character in his story is Taymor, who is alternately presented as a visionary force of nature and an anger-prone vengeance-seeker.
By the time Berger is finished, it’s clearer than ever why staging a show that pulled together one of the most famous characters in pop culture, tens of millions of dollars, and personalities as varied as Taymor and Bono would produce so much turmoil.