Few have a better perspective on the making of the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark than playwright Glen Berger. He spent six years co-writing the script and has now penned a tell-all memoir about the tumultuous experience, Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.
As noted on the book’s back cover, one scene — in which “Green Goblin pushes a Steinway off a skyscraper only to be sent to his own death because he didn’t realize he was attached to the piano by Spider-Man’s webbing” — earned him the job, but it also would ultimately lead to the dismissal of director and co-writer Julie Taymor.
We cover a great deal of ground in this interview, including a brief discussion of (as he mentions in the book) his reaction to sharing a co-writer credit for the play with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who worked on the project for just two months. It was interesting to get Berger’s perspective, particularly when comparing what it’s like to develop for theater as opposed to television. I’m also curious to see what musical he’s developing for Warner Bros.
Tim O’Shea: How cathartic was it for you to write this book? What was the hardest aspect to revisit?
Glen Berger: Writing the book was like watching a highlight reel of the game that knocked your team out of the playoffs. Like spending a whole year reliving again the most amazing catches and the most absolutely stupid, heartbreaking fumbles. I kept shouting at my computer screen, as if shouting would change the course of events. There was one meeting in particular — in early January 2011 — when all of the original team were in a room together to discuss the state of the show. And nothing was resolved. Nothing! We all began to file out of the room, and oh MAN how I wish I had just leapt up and locked the door and said, “No, dammit, nobody’s leaving here til we solve this! Because otherwise, you, Julie, are going to wind up getting fired and replaced with a circus director — yeah!; and you, [producer] Michael Cohl, are going to lose your investors $60 million and get slapped with a lawsuit!” Down the list I’d go, putting the fear into all of them as I spun out a harrowing, accurate vision of the future, because I was clearly some sort of omniscient god. But that didn’t happen, because I’m not a god, and they all left the room, and everything went to hell.
Anyway, I was looking forward to a real ancient-Greek-style catharsis by the time I finished the book — lots of tears and then the feeling of detoxification, like I had just had a sauna, or maybe an enema. And I am feeling more serene now, but it wasn’t the getting-the-whole-drama-down-on-paper that brought on the serenity so much as the simple act of writing a work with almost-complete autonomy. For the first time since working on Spider-Man, I was given the space to write what and how I wanted to write. Every now and then you’ve got to be able to say “to hell with threading other people’s needles,” or else you’re going to go mad. So now, for good or ill, readers at least have a clean shot at assessing my skills as a writer.
I love book dedications. Can you explain why the book is dedicated to Karin Almquist?
My wife and I used to live in New York City. We moved upstate and then wound up with a sampler pack of kids. When I had to relocate back to the city for Spider-Man rehearsals, we thought it would be, at most, a three-month absence from home. With Opening Night postponed five times, the three months turned into nearly a year. Karin was left alone with three small children, a house with lousy plumbing, and a dying, incontinent dog. My recent interview with Associated Press began with the interviewer saying “You know who the hero of your book is? Your wife.” Yup. Totally right.
You worked with many creative people throughout the process of developing this musical. Who did you learn the most from, would you say? What was the greatest lesson you took away from the process?
You really never know when an endeavor — any endeavor — will turn into a Coen brothers movie, and what can begin so promisingly ends with you trying to escape through a window in your underpants. During the last several months of previews, I began reading and re-reading Walden to stay sane. And I wrote down a bunch of quotes that suddenly seemed more pertinent than ever. Here’s a few: “Say what you have to say, not what you ought. Any truth is better than make-believe.” AND “We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do.” AND this one too: “I delight to come to my bearings. Not to live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by.” Good old Thoreau. “Rescue the drowning and tie your shoe-strings” pretty much says it all.
How profound an impact was the death of producer Tony Adams on you?
I had only been on the project for six months when Tony Adams died, but his death hit me hard. The last time I was with him was in a cab heading uptown one night. We spent the whole ride talking about his days working with Peter Sellers. It wasn’t just that his death was so sudden. The man was also such a kind and charming fellow, and he had believed in me enough to hire me in the first place. I felt a real debt, and a real fondness. I wound up leaving messages on his phone for a month after his death, just to feel like he was still, somehow, connected to this world. What none of us knew then was just how much his show would go off the rails without his guiding hand.
Do you have any idea what Julie Taymor thinks of the book, particularly since you clearly tried to write an account that was as accurate and fair as possible to all parties?
I’m pretty sure she hasn’t read it yet. I did try to write an honest, empathetic account, but will she read it that way? We see what we want to see. What we need to see. She has a rather Shakespearean view of the world, and I’m afraid she probably still sees me as Iago, when in fact I’m closer to Bottom in this tale.
Do you think you’ll ever get over the fact that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa got equal billing credits after working two months on a project that you had invested six years?
Yeah, I think so. Give me a couple more days. I mean, there’s a reason why “that’s showbiz” still gets used so often.
Which is harder, developing work for theater or television?
Theater is harder. For a bunch of reasons. Here’s one: For a television show, many episodes are being generated, whereas a theater piece is a single show. And I think having all those eggs in one basket — having a single show bear the burden of all the hopes and dreams of the artists, producers, and investors–jacks up the pressure considerably. By it’s nature, theater is more unpredictable; it’s more difficult to anticipate certain variables. But, of course, that also makes it more exciting to work on.
What is on the creative horizon for you?
No more tell-all books, that’s for sure. I’m completing a few commissions (from Berkeley Rep and the Alley Theatre, among others) that are wildly overdue. One of them is about a folk trio on the outs in 1962 — they need to finish one more album for Capitol Records, but they have only moments of harmony amidst a great sea of acrimony and dysfunction. In other words, I’ll be writing about Spider-Man the rest of my life. I’m also developing a new musical for Warner Bros. Yeah — bound-for-Broadway. Look for it in 2015.