In his 2011 review of the infamously troubled Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, then in previews, theater critic Scott Brown wrote that instead of ever opening officially, the show “should be built and rebuilt and overbuilt forever, a living monument to itself.” This assessment was hardly hyperbolic — the show had already endured numerous embarrassing delays, and footage of one of the actors taking a harrowing fall off of a set piece had gone viral. The project seemed cursed.
In his hilarious and engrossing new memoir, Glen Berger, who co-wrote the musical with Broadway legend-in-her-time and MacArthur-award winner Julie Taymor, recounts his entire dysfunctional relationship with the show, from its enthusiastic conception alongside U2’s Bono and The Edge, to its over-publicized birthing pains and through the structural overhaul that was required to save its life. At the helm of the sinking ship is Taymor, who pursues her singular artistic vision with Ahab-like intensity and who is described here with the mix of love, awe, vexation and frustration reserved for those creators that we describe as “uncompromising” (an adjective that Berger hastens to emphasize).
Berger’s involvement with the project mirrors the origin story of any decent superhero: an ordinary man plucked by fate (in this case wielded by the hand of Taymor) and invested with extraordinary power (the highest-budgeted Broadway production of all time). But as a young man once said before swinging down Fifth Avenue on a web of silk, with great power comes great responsibility, and soon Berger is beset on all sides by impossible odds and pitfalls (in this case, someone literally falling into a pit). The show, which he writes was not a show but rather a “machine built to teach humility,” chews through staff, makes a mockery of anything resembling a deadline and mulches budget at a farcical rate. And the story of this musical is a farce indeed. Or perhaps it’s a tragedy, played here as comedy after the addition of that crucial element of time.
The metaphors are almost too easy, which Berger knows, even if he was blind to the obvious ironies when he was suffering them: If he was Spider-Man, then Taymor was Arachne, the mythological weaver revived as the show’s original plane-shifting villain, whose artistic skill was greater even then Athena’s, for which she was transmogrified into a spider by the jealous god. The show, then, was a punishment for their hubris, the great transgression of supervillains and mythological victims alike.
Despite the fact that the project he is most associated with never received better than mixed reviews, one imagines that Berger surely considers himself first and foremost a dramatist. How inconvenient for his self-conception that he’s written one of the best literary works of this year.
Nicholas Mancus is a writer in New York.