THE BOOK SHELF: "Song of Spider-Man," "The Richard Burton Diaries" and More

By Steven Suskin
December 22, 2013

This month's column looks at Glen Berger's "Song of Spider-Man," a fly-on-the-wall chronicle of the creation of Broadway's biggest musical; the paperback reprint of "The Richard Burton Diaries;" and three titles from Theatre Communications Group.

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If there's anything more potentially riveting than the blow-by-blow story of a great, big, once-in-a-decade Broadway smash, it's the blow-by-blow story of a great, big, once-in-a-generation Broadway flop. Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, that $75 million musical miscue, qualifies as the quarry; "Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History" by Glen Berger [Simon & Schuster] qualifies as the tale-telling tome. Pardon the hyperbole, but hey: We're talking about Spider-Man here.

Berger was no mere bystander, mind you; he was the co-librettist. More specifically, he was the new-to-Broadway writer chosen by director Julie Taymor as her book-writing collaborator; and who later, after Taymor was unceremoniously bounced from the opus, remained to fashion a desperate revision with a new director, new co-librettist and new choreographer. The replacement co-librettist and choreographer were Broadway newcomers, as it happens; but so were the songwriters. The show had first-time Broadway producers, too. 

None of that, though, was the problem with Spider-Man. Or, rather, the main problem with Spider-Man. To me, the trouble was basic: They decided to do this gargantuan musical and raised the money, hired the people, rented the theatre, built the sets, ran the ads and sold the tickets without ever getting around to creating a show. As Berger relates, the authors came up with book scenes and songs as they went along, enough to present some kind of performance to the first preview audience Nov. 28, 2010. But while the unprecedented delays were attributed to mechanical difficulties — the scheduled Dec. 21 official opening was pushed off again and again and again, until June 14 — the creators struggled through those six months trying to find scenes and songs that were entertaining, comprehensible and physically capable of being presented onstage performance after performance.

But don't take it from me; take it from Berger. The man was, perhaps, not the strongest initial choice for the job. (He submitted an audition scene as a lark, never thinking he'd actually get the gig.) Someone who knew how to write a stage musical, and who would gently and/or forcibly nudge Taymor along, might have been preferable. As it is, they spent five years getting the show "ready" for the first rehearsal. But Taymor wasn't looking for someone who would lead her. Be that as it may, "Song of Spider-Man" reveals Berger to be an intelligent, humorous, self-deprecating and highly entertaining writer.

How accurate, you might ask, is his reporting? Hard to say. According to the author, he kept on asking the right questions through the five years. "Right," in that more than a couple of the major catastrophes are forecast by him chapters earlier. (Glen: Maybe we should try so-and-so? Julie: No. Repeat a dozen times.) But that's the deal with personal memoirs: The guy who tells the story gets to tell the story. I suppose Taymor could write her own saga of Spider-Man, and wouldn't you like to read it? For that matter, songwriters Bono and The Edge could no doubt come up with a fascinating account, although they'd surely rather take the time to make a hit album or go out on a worldwide tour.

That said, Berger doesn't point his finger in blame. Not much, anyway. His "Song of Spider-Man" will intrigue you, entertain you and give you a pretty good idea of what went wrong. (Short answer: Everything!) So chalk up Spider-Man as an enormous failure, artistically and commercially. Yeah, the investors took an beating; but I always say, people who can afford to invest fistfuls of millions in a big Broadway musical can usually afford to lose 'em.

But... Count up the number of actors, dancers, aerial acrobats and stage managers. Add in the musicians, stage hands and wardrobe/hair/makeup. Don't forget the house staff, cleaning staff, concessionaires and box office, plus the managers and press agents. Take that number and multiply it by 160 work weeks, plus — for many of them — another 10 weeks or so of rehearsal. Multiply that number by everybody's weekly wage, plus pension payments, health coverage and other benefits. Figure out how many people, and how many families, the musical has supported since the rehearsals began in August, 2010. From their viewpoint, Spider-Man has to be considered a big success.

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Yale University Press has released the paperback version of "The Richard Burton Diaries," edited by Chris Williams. Burton (1925-84) kept three diaries: One when he was a Welsh lad of 14, another when he was an emerging star of 35 and a more extensive one he began as a world-wide celebrity of 40 and continued until a year before his death. The later diary is the most informative, as the star discusses his numerous film roles as well as life with (and without) Liz. The first, though, might be the most fascinating. The teenaged lad carefully details every movie he saw in the local cinema, with cast; every football (that is, soccer) match he played, with a description of his efforts; every school exam he took, with grades; and every time he played that newly-released game, Monopoly. (Richard Burton engrossed in Monopoly? And, later, playing Yahtzee with Liz by the pool?)

Growing up in poverty, young Burton also mentions every shilling he either earned or received from one of his numerous older siblings, no doubt feeling guilty about their kid brother's rough living conditions. He also details the pounds and pence he earned by selling newspapers, by collecting used newspaper to recycle at his aunt's fish and chips shop, and by "going up the mountain" to steal buckets of dung to sell as fertilizer. (On occasion, he reports an angry farmer chasing after him.) All of this gives us a new perspective on the most famous, glamorous and highly-paid actor of his time.

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TCG — that is, Theatre Communications Group — has added three recent titles to its releases. Most prominent is a new edition of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County. This was first published by TCG in 2008, but I expect the new one will sell better simply because of a change in cover: This one proclaims "now a major motion picture," with a cast list headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Inside, though, it is not the screenplay but Letts' play script. And a mighty good one. "The Manifestos and Essays" by Richard Foreman contains — well, Foreman's manifestos and essays, centering on the question, "What is art?" These Ontological-Hysteric musings are not within my field of interest, but they will surely be pertinent to Foreman's fans and admirers.

These two are joined by Caryl Churchill's Love and Information, which opened at the Royal Court in October 2012. This is a play — at least, it seems to be a play — in seven sections, although it is explained that the many (50?) scenes within the sections can be played in any order. There is no indication, anywhere, as to which character — or which actor, male or female, within the ensemble — is speaking which lines. But we shall see for ourselves, when New York Theatre Workshop presents Love and Information in New York in February.

(Steven Suskin is author of the updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See," the "Broadway Yearbook" series, and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)