It’s not unusual for book releases to be coordinated with a related event taking place elsewhere in the media circus: the autobiography that appears just as a star’s major film is coming out, the personal memoir that primes the public for a political campaign. However, no one can accuse Julie Taymor of engaging in such wanton promotion – she certainly can’t be pleased that Glen Berger’s Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History (Simon & Schuster, $25) debuts just as she returns to the stage with A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn. One imagines she’d have been happier if there were no book at all.
Countless people are reading and writing about the book as another chapter in the seemingly never-ending saga of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the headline generating musical that has been the target of brickbats from arts journalists virtually since the show was first announced. Spider-Man: TOTD seemed to throw raw meat to the media at every turn, ranging from fundraising challenges and production delays to several highly publicized cast injuries which seemed to turn the show into a latter-day Roman arena. It kept Patrick Healy of the Times and Michael Riedel of the Post in competition for breaking tidbits in a manner rarely seen before.
I didn’t find Berger’s book particularly revealing, largely because it covers ground that had been extensively reported elsewhere, and I confess to having consumed the events as they happened. In fact, I made a point of seeing the very final performance of the Taymor version and the opening night of the version reworked without her – and, for the most part, Berger’s – consent, after they had been supplanted by Philip William McKinley and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa respectively. Yes, I watched the show’s travails, as most did, as a theatrical car wreck in slow motion, a modern-day tragedy of creative hubris played played out in benday dots and rock chords.
For all that Berger recounts, the book constantly reminds the reader that it is the story of Spider-Man: TOTD as viewed through one person’s biased eyes – rather than the whole story. Berger goes out of his way to paint himself as a innocent caught up in the maelstrom of vastly more famous, and vastly wealthier, artists than himself. His emphasis on being separated from his family, of his personal financial troubles, of how different his world is from that of his acclaimed and wealthy collaborators Bono and Taymor – they grow tiresome, as if Berger deserves some sympathy or absolution for his role in the debacle by virtue of his less lofty perch. But he’s not exactly Nick Carraway observing the actions of Gatsby and the Buchanans – he’s a willing participant until his own calculations backfire on him, severing his ties forever with Taymor, who he has built up as his own artistic Daisy. To compare him to Faust conveys a grandeur I decline to confer.
The fact is, reading Berger’s book is like watching only one viewpoint from Rashomon, and one is all too aware that others undoubtedly have very different versions of the same events. I can’t help but suspect that the musical might at best be a page or two should Bono write his life story; producer Michael Cohl would no doubt recount the saga as a story of how he rescued a damaged show that most believed was dead on arrival; should Taymor tell her version, it will be of an artist (herself) persecuted by greedy philistines. Whether anyone will care to follow the tale repeatedly refracted through varying prisms is anyone’s guess, though that might be the only way to get the real story.
All of this should not suggest that Berger’s book has no value. It is, at the very least, a superb answer to the perennial question about troubled or failed shows: “Didn’t anyone realize how bad it was going to be?” The book is an encyclopedia of ignorance, ego and self-delusion, a look at how a theatrical property, especially one with such a high profile, almost becomes unstoppable, and the many ways in which it can go wrong, of how perspective is lost when you are so close to the work for so long. Aspiring producers should read it as a cautionary tale – not about a one-off disaster, but rather about when it pays to just say no, shut a show down, and move on, since Spider-Man may be the most expensive show to date, but there are plenty of complete flops that followed much the same misguided path.
Inevitably, Berger’s book will find its way onto many a theatrical bookshelf, even if it doesn’t have the elegance or educational value of many other books with which it shares conceptual and theatrical DNA. As I read it, I was reminded of a book about a vastly less well known disaster: playwright Arnold Wesker’s The Birth of Shylock, The Death of Zero Mostel, a chronicle of a quick Broadway flop notable mostly for the death of Mostel, its leading actor, who died while the show was trying out in Philadelphia. Like Berger, Wesker seems almost entirely unaware of his own complicity in the show’s failure, even as he repeatedly tells about his taking aside actors to countermand the edicts of the show’s director, John Dexter. Shylock the show is in the dustbin of Broadway history, whereas the legend of Spider-Man will surely go on; however, the author’s account of the production of Shylock makes for better literature than Song of Spider-Man.
While there are certainly great Broadway books of autobiography (Moss Hart’s Act One is an exemplar of the kind), more often than not the best chroniclers are those on the fringes or outside of a production entirely. Ted Chapin’s Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical ‘Follies’ is an impeccable recent example of the former, derived from Chapin’s own notes as a production assistant on the original Follies; William Goldman’s The Season: A Candid Look At Broadway has long stood as a grand achievement of the latter. Of course, in both cases, the authors were given rare access, which seems almost impossible in the more media savvy world of today; the film industry was reminded about the danger of giving journalism too much access when critic Julie Solomon roamed free on the set of a Brian DePalma film, resulting in The Devil’s Candy: Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco, a detailed chronicle of the famous flop The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Though it covers work which is vastly less infamous and some 50 years in the past, I daresay that Jack O’Brien’s recent Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $35) is the more worthy, entertaining and educational insider theatre book of the year. While O’Brien could have easily produced a standard memoir, given his own considerable achievements as a director, he followed Chapin’s lead and instead opted to write about the access he had as a young man to a remarkable confluence of talents: the members of the APA and later the APA-Phoenix theatre companies, which included Richard Easton, Rosemary Harris and above all the now little-remembered Ellis Rabb. I know firsthand what a wealth of stories Jack can tell about his own exploits, but by deciding to honor the artists who formed his own aesthetic, he has written a work of history and memoir that is ultimately more important and informative than Berger’s attempt to make a few more dollars off the Spider-Man debacle.
Perhaps, one day, a young PA on Spider-Man: TOTD will emerge with his or her own book, to draw the truest picture of what went on as the web collapsed. Until then, we’re left with a lopsided recap of a story that we mostly know, told by what is called, in literary circles, an unreliable narrator.