Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History

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Contents

1
 
It’s Just a Play

2
 
Hello

3
 
A Falling Piano

4
 
The Four Geeks

5
 
Stages

6
 
It’s a Process

7
 
Goodbye “Hello,” Hello “Goodbye”

8
 
Smudge Sticking

9
 
The God Mike

10
 
We’re Not Ready

11
 
Breakdowns

12
 
Plotting

13
 
Plan X

14
 
The Serenity Coin

15
 
Spidenfreude; or, How Do You Want to Fail?

16
 
The Crucible

17
 
Mutate or Die

18
 
A Goblin in a Box and an Eensy-Weensy Spider

19
 
The Russian Hairdresser’s View of History

20
 
Rise Above

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

About Glen Berger

Index

This book is for Karin Almquist

An honest-to-gosh, show-stopping glitch occurred, just as the title character of this new musical was about to vanquish or be vanquished by the evil Green Goblin. Never fully explained “mechanical difficulties” were announced by an amplified voice . . . And for the first time that night something like genuine pleasure spread through the house. . . .

Patrick Page (who plays the Goblin) ad-libbed a warning to Reeve Carney (who stars as Spider-Man), who had been awkwardly marking time by pretending to drink Champagne.

“You gotta be careful,” Mr. Page said. “You’re gonna fly over the heads of the audience, you know. I hear they dropped a few of them.”

“Roar,” went the audience, like a herd of starved, listless lions, roused into animation by the arrival of feeding time. Everyone, it seemed, understood Mr. Page’s reference to the injuries that have been incurred by cast and crew members during the long (and officially still far from over) preview period for this $65 million musical. Permission to laugh had been granted, and a bond had temporarily been forged between a previously baffled audience and the beleaguered souls onstage.

All subsequent performances of “Spider-Man” should include at least one such moment. Actively letting theatergoers in on the national joke that this problem-plagued show has become helps make them believe that they have a reason to be there.

This production should play up regularly and resonantly the promise that things could go wrong. Because only when things go wrong in this production does it feel remotely right . . .

—Ben Brantley,
New York Times,
February 7, 2011

JOAN MARCUS

1

It’s Just a Play

T
he four drinks I knocked back on an empty stomach in the empty VIP room were finally kicking in. The conversations around me in the crowded lobby had become amplified and muffled, like I was floating in a diving bell surrounded by a lot of classy-looking fish. Fine. Just so long as I didn’t have to talk to any of them. Any moment now, the lights were going to blink, and then we’d have to take our seats, and I’d be saved. Except, no, I’d still be screwed. Because there wasn’t a drug in the world that would make sitting through the show tonight anything but unremitting torture.

We were already thirty minutes behind schedule. They were holding the curtain because everyone was having such a fine time gabbing with each other. So I had to come up with a plan because hiding would be pathetic, but people were going to try to talk to me, or worse—
congratulate
me. It was opening night. And I was the cowriter. Giant letters spelled out my name on that building-sized sign out front. So congratulating me would seem like the thing to do. But this show was a special case, and I was a special
case in this special case, and so collecting “congratulations” was like collecting a pile of wet socks.

Of course, I imagined it was a hundred times worse for
her
. And, oh man, how the two of us yattered so eagerly about this night once upon a time. To think there was a time when—
no, I couldn’t think about any of that—I just had to walk purposefully and no one would stop me to talk.
So I sidled past Bill Clinton and Lou Reed, Salman Rushdie, John McEnroe—it was like being trapped in an updated version of the
Sgt. Pepper
album cover. I figured I’d be fine so long as I didn’t run into
her
, because I wouldn’t know what to say. But I ran into someone else, and he immediately walked away which, like a sliding set piece, revealed . . .
her
. And I didn’t know what to say.

Julie Taymor. She was standing near the doors that led out to Forty-third Street. She wasn’t going to come at all tonight, which was boggling. Yet understandable. And, in being understandable, even more boggling. It had been three months since I’d last seen her, and the rush of old, cozy feelings smacked against The New Reality, and the impact made me just sick.

Even now, I carry the dream with me every day—
to make up with her.
So it all can be as sunny as it once was. Publishing a book detailing our six years together might not be the most effective way to achieve that. In fact, I was warned not to write about any of this. But I can’t help it—it’s a story, and that’s what we do with stories. We tell them. In fact, this whole book is a story about storytelling—the story of an epic attempt by earnest human beings to tell a story and to tell that story brilliantly. Only, there’s this:

Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.

—from My List of Lessons Learned

One should probably begin the story of the making and remaking of a Broadway musical about Spider-Man with that hallowed day in 1962 when Stan Lee, along with illustrator Steve Ditko, came up with The Big Idea:
Bullied high schooler acquires spider powers.

It’s a trim little setup. And just different enough to be revolutionary. Not only was this teenaged Peter Parker suddenly burdened with “great responsibilities,” he
still
had to run the every-day gauntlet every teenager has to run—the social troubles, the money troubles, the dermatological troubles . . .

A comic-book panel would depict a publisher sitting behind a cluttered desk in the cramped Madison Avenue offices of Marvel Comics staring at a sketch of a figure wearing a bodysuit covered in webbing. Lee and Ditko would be standing on the other side of the desk, looking on expectantly. The publisher would be looking . . . doubtful.

“Several months later . . .”
would read the caption in our next panel. Lee and Ditko’s new superhero is swinging with a hoodlum under his arm on the cover of Marvel’s
Amazing Fantasy
#15. It’s our webslinger’s debut, and it’s in the final issue of an anthology series already slotted to be canceled. That’s how dubious the publisher was of this new “spider-man” idea.

The next comic-book panel would flash us forward forty years. It would be a split screen depicting the gleaming offices of media giant Marvel Entertainment on one side and the makeshift office of two almost-entirely-untested Broadway producers on the other. The producers are being informed via phone that they’ve just been granted the rights to make a musical out of Marvel’s most treasured property:
Spider-Man
. Exclamation points shine above the producers’ heads.

But if this is a story about storytelling cast through the prism of
Spider-Man the Musical
, then maybe we should be starting fifty-thousand years ago, back in a time when the world was teeming with Paleolithic ceremonies featuring singing, dancing, and human characters endowed with animal powers. In a large, single-paneled splash page, we would see two prehistoric figures arguing over just how their musical performance is supposed to go. On their hairy faces—anger, exasperation. Why? Because collaboration, by definition, requires humans to interact with each other. Which means every moment in a collaboration quivers with the potential for transcendental connection. And also fury, and hair-tearing frustration, and silences as icy as distant planets. Just look at Lee and Ditko. You think they had a falling-out?
Of course
they had a falling-out.

Another scene to ink and color: a twenty-first-century living room, somewhere in the United States, or Sweden, or South America. Children have commandeered couch cushions and bathrobes. One of them is pretending to be Spider-Man. By the looks of it, their pretending includes a large cast of characters and an elaborate plot.

Storytelling. It’s what homo sapiens
do
. We do it as automatically as a pancreas produces insulin. We’re compelled to codify otherwise-random events into cause and effect. Into patterns. Into
narrative
. It’s a drive that in part makes humans so
human
. And it’s a hunger that drove the creators of this confounded musical (as well as its audiences) into spasms of excitement, disappointment, and a few dozen other emotions as the show careened down the long road to its much-delayed opening night.

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