Glen Berger Explains It All to You
“Well, Spider-Man’s initials are S & M …”
That’s how I began my sit-down with Glen Berger at the Drama Book Shop last week. Berger co-authored SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK -- first with Julie Taymor and then with Robert Aguirre-Sacasa.
Now he’s the sole author of SONG OF SPIDER-MAN – his side of the story of the troubled, tortured musical. We sat in the shop’s chummy Arthur Seelen Theatre to talk all about it.
Given that Berger put so many of the recollections between quotation marks, I asked him if he’d been keeping a diary all along. “Actually,” he said, “I put a lot of it together through old e-mails.” That would suggest that the quotations are accurate.
“I was warned not to write about any of this,” Berger stated in the book. When I asked him who most recommended his remaining circumspect, he answered that one of Taymor’s assistants most suggested that he keep his mouth and computer shut and “just move on.” But Berger could not “just say no” to telling the story that makes the train wreck in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH seem like two people bumping into each other while trying to get through the same doorway.
Taymor probably wouldn’t be unnerved by one remark that Berger quoted: “It doesn’t matter what the public thinks of our musical; what matters is that we stay true to our vision.”
Still, I questioned that. Theater is made for an audience and not just to support the whims of its creators. From Berger’s not-quite-here, not-quite-there response, one inferred that he still hadn’t made up his mind on this point.
Considering the type of artiste that Taymor has been said to be since early in her career, I wasn’t surprised by that revelation. But Berger soon had me in eye-popping astonishment when he mentioned once running into Taymor on a subway platform. Now I ask you: if you had productions of THE LION KING on Broadway and all over the world, would you be taking the subway? Wouldn’t you go everywhere by taxi if not limo? Hell, if I had Taymor’s royalties, I’d hire four people to carry me around 24/7 on a sedan chair. Berger implied that “Julie is very careful with her money” which sounded very much as a euphemism for “cheap.”
And then there were battles with Marvel Comics, the company that’s been publishing SPIDER-MAN since Day One in 1962. Marvel didn’t think the show was too marvelous for words. They took great umbrage that the word “shit” appeared in one of the songs. All right, one can appreciate that, for SPIDER-MAN was supposed to be a family show and some parents might object. But what a surprise to see that Marvel also insisted that the “technology had to be cutting edge.”
“Or,” I asked Berger, “did they mean that they wanted technology to cut down the musician named Edge?” He answered me by giving a wan yeah-I-guess-that-was-funny smile.
As for the score: Bono said they’d get it done “in a couple of weeks.” I felt that was hubris at its most hubristic, but Berger didn’t think it was much of a red flag. I pointed out that Sondheim and all other musical theater composers and lyricists who care about craft work substantially longer on their shows. Berger, however, was willing to give his songwriters a pass because of the money they could pull down from touring and performing.
And yet, Bono wanted his songs to be “something that people will sing in football finals in 10 years and make everyone cry .. as good as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’” If you’re surprised that he cited that Rodgers and Hammerstein standard, be apprised that it’s a big soccer anthem in Ireland, from where Bono hails. His knowing it has nothing to do with his affection for CAROUSEL.
In fact, David Garfinkle, one of the show’s 21 above-the-title producers, early on gave Bono and The Edge a four-CD compilation of 60 songs from the last 60 years of musicals:, “Exposition songs, eleven o’clock numbers, Act One closers, charm songs, anti-charm songs, show-stoppers, character-driven songs, torch songs – a fantastic mix,” wrote Berger.
“Bono and The Edge,” he later reported, “would eventually dismiss nearly all the songs as mawkish, dopey, or just ‘pants.’”
“Pants,” in case you don’t know, is British slang for “not good; total crap; nonsense; rubbish; bad.” Well, I’ll admit that “Puka Puka Pants” from 13 DAUGHTERS is pants, but I have a feeling that Garfinkle didn’t include it in his 60-song collection. Considering what I’ve heard of SPIDER-MAN during my three trips to it, I’d say that Bono and The Edge’s score is pants and one reason why the producers will lose their shirts.
Whatever’s on stage at the Foxwoods, there is far greater worth between the covers of SONG OF SPIDER-MAN (whose cover art is noticeably Marvel-free). Its 355 pages make for fast and compelling reading right from Berger’s arresting first sentence: “The four drinks I knocked back on an empty stomach in the empty VIP lounge were finally kicking in.”
The title TURN OFF THE DARK, wrote Berger, “would endure a fusillade of Internet mockery.” Also to be reckoned with were the long-time fanboys, whom he describes as “Spider-Man’s self-appointed guardians who feared the show would be an embarrassment.”
And at that point, these aficionados didn’t know that when time came to tech, Taymor got through “37 minutes in 15 days.” Reveals Berger, “it didn’t feel like we were making theater as much as stop-action animation.” Oh, and don’t miss Berger’s analogy between making a musical and rolling a joint.
I forgot to ask him a salient question that I’d had in my notes. But when we were alone, I posed it: “You mention early on in the process, Julie Taymor gushingly told you ‘I’ve been looking for someone like you for a long time.’ Now you say ‘Julie Taymor despises me with photograph-shredding rage.’ And yet, you also say ‘I carry the dream with me every day to make up with her.’ On a scale from zero to 100, how likely is that?”
“One,” he said, holding up a single finger. (It was not “that” finger.)
Privately I also asked him how he felt about the statement about SONG OF SPIDER-MAN from the musical’s publicist Rick Miramontez’s statement: “If Mr. Berger had put this much imagination into his script, the producers wouldn’t have had to hire Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.” He shrugged and muttered something along the lines of “It’s all show biz” much the way Billy Flynn does before introducing “Razzle-Dazzle.”
Berger seems to have distanced himself from the show. When I asked him if the cast album had been selling well, he said he didn’t know. He also said “I don’t have any inside information on when it’s going to close,” he admitted, “but I hear the same outside information that you do that January might be the end of it.” (We all learned on Monday night that that that prediction turned out to be accurate.)
He also said he hasn’t heard any more about plans to stage the show in arenas around the country, either, but then again, he isn’t consulted on day-to-day operations. In the last year, the only good experience he’s had in any way came from taking his son and the lad’s fourth grade class to see the show. THEY liked it, and Berger was a hero of Spider-Man proportions.
As for money, Berger was of course reluctant to say how much he’s made from the show, but he did pooh-pooh any implication that it’s made him rich. If it hasn’t after – yes – 1,000-plus performances (and 182 previews), he’d better find a new agent.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Berger, he also wrote the play UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL, about a man who finds that a book taken out a library wasn’t returned for 113 years. When I suggested that SONG OF SPIDER-MAN should enjoy the same fate – because the borrower wouldn’t be able to part with it – Berger said he’d much prefer a scenario in which a person bought the book instead. Maybe he DOES need money.
— Peter Filichia