I just finished reading Glen Berger’s Song of Spiderman, his account of his role in creating one of the most famously troubled musicals in the history of Broadway. I suppose reading it’s an exercise in schadenfreude, the moral equivalent of rubber-necking at a car accident. I excused myself by calling it an educational exercise. I’ve been doing theatre, as an actor, director and playwright, for well over thirty years now; thought maybe I could learn something from the professionals. In fact, though, it all felt much much too familiar.
Making a musical out of Spiderman isn’t, on the surface, a completely terrible idea. Lots of popular and successful Broadway shows are based on pop culture, and many are based on popular movies. People go to the theater for lots of reasons, at least one of which is to be dazzled. I’m not a huge fan of Phantom of the Opera, but it does have a few great tunes, and it’s always amazing when that chandelier falls. We go to see the helicopter land in Miss Saigon, to see the barricade in Les Mis, to see the blue girl fly in Wicked. I imagine the big aerial battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin could be very exciting in the theater. And you can still see it. The show’s hardly much of a success, but it is still playing in New York. Lots of failed musicals hardly even open.
We go to the theater, in part, to see a story unfold (Spiderman has one), to hear great music (Spiderman has music by Bono and Edge–the creative team of U2), to see good actors perform (this is New York; the acting’s always going to be at least competent), and perhaps to be given something to think about (and Spidey is the most introspective and thoughtful of superheroes). There’s no particular reason for the whole thing to have gone sour.
It also made sense for the initial producers to hire Julie Taymor to direct. She’d already made one artistically satisfying silk purse out of a pop culture sow’s ear (The Lion King), and she wanted to do Spiderman. The problem is why. Early in the process, reading early Spidey comic books, she discovered the very minor character of Arachne, the Greek Goddess of spiders, and that’s what interested her. She wanted Arachne’s story to be front and center in her Spiderman. She wanted a dark, sexually obsessive Spiderman. She didn’t want to do Spiderman much at all. She wanted to do Arachne: The Musical, also featuring. . . .
In other words, she wanted to make a 65 million dollar musical about a comic book franchise she neither understood nor particularly liked, and she wanted to put her disdain for its fan base front and center. She created a Geek chorus of Spiderman fans. That’s not a misspelling: Geek chorus. They commented on the action, yes, and provided vocal backing for the music, but they also were there to be made fun of–they were on-line, comic book culture personified.
(I’ve done that. I wrote a musical once based on a novel I didn’t like or respect. It was a horrible experience. It also was pretty successful commercially. I’m not going to tell you the name or circumstances; suffice it to say that as I read Berger’s account, it was with an unpleasant thrill of recognition).
The problem was, Taymor’s vision for the project was always just the wrong side of technically achievable. Berger describes the production stage manager, a man of infinite patience and humor and competence, who would, daily, ask for a short break, so he could run out and throw up. The flying stunts Taymor and Berger imagined were so elaborate they became unsafe, and the show became plagued with actor and dancer injuries. The rigging for those stunts was so extensive, there was no place for speakers. So one of the main attractions for audiences, the music of Bono and The Edge, was all fuzzed out and ugly in the house, essentially impossible to mix. After the first, all-day technical rehearsal, Berger looked at his script, and realized that over the course of a long and exceptionally frustrating day, they had managed to tech the first 41 seconds of their show. That’s all. And, it turned out, that was a pretty good day.
At times, Berger’s descriptions of the show’s many many difficulties can be pretty funny, in a terrifying sort of way. For example, at one point, Peter Parker is supposed to sing a song mourning the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. He’s supposed to sing this song while kneeling on Ben’s bed. So they designed a mechanical, remote controlled bed, that was supposed to come on-stage so it could be sung/cried upon. Only it never worked. Peter would hit his mark, and the bed would come careening off in various random directions, with Peter emoting like a madman while chasing the darn thing down.
Here’s the other thing, though, and my main take-away from the book. The show took forever to tech, and had nearly a year’s worth of preview performances while they worked out various problems–240 preview performances all told. And the solution to the show’s many problems became increasingly obvious to everyone. It was narratively confusing, too elaborate, in large measure because it was far too dominated by Arachne’s character.
So Berger sees this, comes up with what he calls Plan X. A complete re-write. De-emphasize Arachne. Have it be about Spidey and the Green Goblin. Cut half the stunts; keep the coolest ones, and give the sound people room on the grid for their speakers. Have the show be about Spiderman, aerial acrobatics, and the music of Bono and Edge. Cut the Geek Chorus entirely. Cut back on the Arachne stuff.
He writes up a fifteen page treatment, outlining the changes he thinks are required. The producer reads it: approves. Edge and Bono love it. Everyone’s aboard (except the actress playing Arachne). They meet. And Julie Taymor goes ballistic. And wins. And the endless previews continue, her vision unimpeded.
It’s a rule of theatre–heck, a rule of life–that sometimes decisions get made by the one person most willing to be unpleasant about things. Sometimes the loudest voice in the room, the voice screaming and throwing tantrums, wins, because everyone else wears down. That’s wrong. That’s sad. But it can sometimes be true. My brother had a boss once like that. He was in the corporate arena, and my brother, an entirely decent and exceptionally good-at-his-job kind of guy had a vision for the company. But his boss won every argument, not because he was right, but because he was horrible. Grown-up tantrums work. Would that they didn’t. But that’s reality–some people win through intimidation, even when they’re wrong.
Bono and the Edge have been the heart of one of the world’s greatest rock bands for over thirty years. You don’t succeed in that business by being easy to cow. Spiderman‘s producer, Michael Cohl, produced the last Rolling Stones’ tour–you don’t produce a major tour by the Stones by being easy to intimidate. These are all tough-minded, confident people. But Julie Taymor achieved it. She won, time and time again, because she was the Artist with A Vision, and nobody tells her what to do, and her tantrums were essentially nuclear. She comes across in the book as a bit of a tragic heroine, honestly. But then I’m not sure Medea would be all that much fun to work with either.
Finally, Cohl had no choice but to fire her. A new director was hired, and a new book writer. Plan X was implemented–that’s the show still running at the Foxwoods Theater today. I haven’t seen it, except for Youtube clips. I rather like some of the music, but then I’ve always been a U2 fan.
William Goldman is famous for saying, about show biz, ‘nobody knows anything.’ Nobody knew that Spiderman‘s budget would triple, or that the aerial stunts it required would nearly kill a dancer, or that all the other disasters associated with the show would happen. But great art comes from a single controlling artistic vision, uncompromisingly pursued. And that’s also where the worst flops come from. And you never know in advance which any show is going to be. Why does anyone do this for a living?