I really wanted to title this post “Well, that explains alot,” but it doesn’t. This post explains alot. The book I’m talking about explains something much less important than that. It explains why a terrible broadway musical was terrible.
I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Okay, context: Three years ago, Becca, Feather and I went to see Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark while it was in previews. To say that this was a terrible Broadway musical is not in fact accurate; when we saw it, it was two terrible musicals: Spider-Man, a terrible musical retelling of Sam Raimi’s 2002 movie; and Turn Off the Dark: a terrible musical retelling of Phantom of the Opera, but gender-flipped, and with spider-powers instead of music. Incidentally, I can’t stand ‘Phantom of the Opera, I think it is a bad musical telling a bad story, but Turn Off the Dark was worse, as I have gleefully told anyone who would stay still long enough for the last three years.
So when Becca, tasked with the job of being my Secret Santa, sent me a copy of Song of Spider-Man, a memoir by book writer Glen Berger, my squeal of delight was probably audible back in New York. A chance to relive the train wreck from inside!
I have to admit, my gleeful (and entirely unserious) anticipatory declarations of “someone might die!” before we saw the musical three years ago are rather soiled in retrospect by the discovery that someone did in fact die, and that someone was the only person involved in the production who actually gave a damn about Spider-Man – Tony Adams used charm and enthusiasm to recruit the creative team, and then died of an aneurysm, leaving behind a production team that certainly had talent, and a desire to create ART, but not a lot of interest in creating a Broadway musical about Spider-Man.
The cast of characters in this book include:
GLEN BERGER, book-writer and author of Song of Spider-Man, who wants us to know the following things about himself: a) he nearly bankrupted himself and his family (whom he didn’t see a lot of) trying to make this musical, b) he’s a GREAT writer. He’s got a LOT of writing credits. He’s a PROFESSIONAL. This is important, because Berger never for once, throughout the entire book, acknowledges the possibility that the show he wrote just isn’t a very well written show. (When I saw it, it wasn’t.)
Glen had a Plan to Save Spider-Man months before everyone saw it and announced it was terrible, but he didn’t show it to Julie Taymor because Julie Taymor is just so unapproachable, and he didn’t mean for everyone to know about his Plan to Save Spider-Man before Julie, and he really really loves Julie and wishes she would call him.
JULIE TAYMOR, legendary and TRAGICALLY MISUNDERSTOOD director of legendary movies and shows, including The Lion King, which proves she is a genius at Broadway things, and Across the Universe, which everyone said would be terrible but is awesome, actually, so what do PEOPLE know? Julie only accepted the job after flipping through Spider-Man issues until she found one page that recounts the myth of Arachne, and decided that she was going to produce a play she probably secretly titled: ARACHNE (Oh, and Spider-Man can come too).
The thing the Glen wants us to know about Julie – apart from the fact that he still loves her and if she’s reading this, will she call him, please? – is that she’s an ARTIST with an ARTISTIC TEMPERAMENT, and if you dare to disagree with her about anything, you RISK HER WRATH. This is important, because the reason he kept his Plan to Save Spider-Man a secret from her for so long was because he was scared of facing her feels. And the thing Glen wants us to know about Arachne, is that really she’s Julie in disguise and he suspects Julie relates a little too strongly to her original character.
This fits neatly into two well worn stereotypes of female creators, doesn’t it?
1. The hysterical diva that no one dares cross and forces everyone into talking behind her back, until she discovers that and overreacts, digging her own hole and making herself the victim.
2. The Mary-Sue creator. I’m not saying Arachne was an interesting character who had any place taking up all the story in a Spider-Man musical, but crying “Self-Insert!” is a boring way of denouncing a character, Berger, and a particularly boring way of denigrating a female character created by a female creator.
N.B.: It’s entirely possible Taymor IS unapproachable, and that she DID intend Arachne to be her own self-insert. But it’s still a rather convenient narrative Berger created about a woman he claims to
BONO AND EDGE, the composers and lyricists. NB: Even though I have always called U2’s guitarist “The Edge,” and even though everything I’ve ever encountered, including U2’s website, calls him “The Edge,” Berger either allergic to the word ‘The’ in people’s names, or he wants to prove that he’s first name terms with the man, because throughout the book he calls him just Edge. Alternate explanations include Berger just not paying any attention to people’s actual names, or an overzealous editor who had never heard of The Edge and assumed his name was Edge.
Anyway, the important thing about Bono and Edgey, says Glen, is that they are REALLY IMPORTANT and have REAL THINGS to do, like HANGING OUT WITH OBAMA and SAVING THE WORLD, and everyone should just be grateful they had any time at all to come down to earth to write mere Broadway music, and who cares if they never made any deadlines, they were busy solving the hunger crisis!
The other thing, an unimportant thing so irrelevant Berger only drops it into a couple of paragraphs: Bono and Edge-man hate Broadway. Charismatic and Dead producer Tony gave them a handcrafted four-disc mix tape of The Best of Broadway, and they hated every part of it. This is probably why the music for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark sounds nothing like a Broadway soundtrack, and everything like that third-rate U2 album Everything U2 has Written Ever. And yet Glen finds himself unable to shut up about what GENIUSES Bono and Edge-Meister-General are, even though at the beginning of the book he’d only ever heard Where the Streets Have No Name (which, by the way, the overture to SM:TOtD sounds freakishly similar to). Because in all of his eagerness to chronicle the fall of the most ambitious musical project ever, he bullishly refuses to consider the possibility that it just wasn’t any good.
THE MARVEL EXECS who turn up frequently to say things like: “Wait, who is this Arachne person, we thought you were writing a Spider-Man musical?” and “yes, of course you can have money to make the thing spectacular. Spectacular Spider-Man, remember?” and “no, seriously, can we PLEASE have more Spider-Man and less Arachne in this thing?”
Sadly, all Berger and Taymor hear from this is “yes, money” and therefore that entirely justifies the unnecessary treadmill, the random and pointless working subway train, the one-use flip book set that goes from a row of houses to an identical row of identical houses. And then when they run out of money, it’s NOT THEIR FAULT.
MICHAEL RIEDELL at The New York Post, who covers Broadway news and gossip, and had the unfettered NERVE to report on the accidents in rehearsals in which stuntmen broke their feet and their wrists, and the previews in which audience members were unsatisfied, and the financial troubles and GOSH, MICHAEL DON’T YOU UNDERSTAND THIS IS ART?
In one of the many many passages that nearly had me throwing this book against the wall, Berger explicitly compares Riedell to J. Jonah Jameson. Which cracked me the hell up because this meant poor old put-upon Glen was casting himself (or maybe Julie. Probably himself and Julie because Glen/Julie OH TEE PEE please call him, Julie) in the role of Peter Parker.
Debi’s First Rule of Marvel: There is no problem so big, so world-changing, so happening in someone else’s book that Peter Parker cannot make it All About Him.
Glen Berger clearly thinks that reporting on unsatisfied audiences, stretched budgets and injured performers is actually one extended plot to hurt him, personally. So actually, I guess that comparison is legit.
Related: Glen Berger really hates comic book fans. Really really hates them. And wishes they’d just GET OVER THEMSELVES and accept that what he and his lady-love were doing with their favourite stories was ART, dammit. This is why the Geek Chorus in the musical were the worst of all Comic Book Dude stereotypes.
NATALIE MENDOZA, the actress who originally played Arachne, who really deserves her own book, and I will pay good money to read her side. Mendoza left the production before I saw it, and I cannot tell you that I’ve seen any of her other work, but I can tell you this; she did not deserve what she went through in this production (no one does, really.)
It started in tech rehearsals, when the producers decided that rather than open with a fully teched show minus one complex, difficult fight scene at the end, to rush through teching that one scene in two hours. During that frantic rush, someone carelessly lobbed a carabiner down into the pit, where Mendoza was waiting to be hoisted, and had hit her in the back of the head, giving her a concussion.
Before the concussion was even diagnosed, she then spent eight minutes suspended in mid air over the stage at the end of the first act on the first night of previews. She went to the doctor shortly after with her headaches and took medical leave, during which time she apparently did some thinking about her role in the musical as The Opera Ghost who has sex with Peter on the Astral Plane, and was so confused about it all that Glen Berger had to cycle down to Forbidden Planet, Manhattan’s second-biggest comic book store, to do that thing I hate at comic book stores: read the trades without buying them, and PROVE that once Spider-Man was targeted by a Spider-Wasp Lady from the astral plane, so look, Arachne’s story makes no less sense than COMICS (and all the Spider-Man fans on the internet are WRONG.)
Fun fact, True Believers: The action of the book mostly takes place in the Foxwoods Theater on 42nd and 7th. To cycle to Manhattan’s second biggest comic store, you would have to pass this:
Yes, that is a giant Spider-Man sign outside the biggest comic book store in Manhattan, on 40th and 7th, just two blocks away from the theatre in question. Apparently Glen had to go much further than that to find a Spider-Man story ridiculous enough to compare to what he had written.
Look, it bothered me, okay?
But five days later, Mendoza was in the pit waiting to be hoisted up for another cable scene, when one of the Spider-Man stuntmen, attached to a cable that wasn’t attached to anything, plummeted thirty feet into the pit and landed on his back, right in front of her.
I’d quit too, if I’d been her.
Is it a good book? Well, it’s an entertaining tale of a complete trainwreck of a musical, even it’s told by someone who seems completely incapable of thinking of himself or his collaborators as anything other than misunderstood geniuses, all victims of a vindictive press and intolerant, stupid famboys who wanted a Spider-Man musical and weren’t satisfied with HIGH ART.
But if I were you? I’d buy the paperback version, so when you throw the book across the room when he wonders if the audiences will understand just how DEEP it is that the red and blue of Spider-Man’s costume represent the blood of the innocent and how sad he feels about it.
And I’m still annoyed that Uncle Ben never got to say The Line.