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

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22 Dec 2013

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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.



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