Song of Spider-man by Glen Berger (a book review)

In the book Which Lie Did I Tell, famed screenwriter William Goldman explains a concept with applications beyond the movie business. To paraphrase, Goldman stated in reference to two films released in 1997: Of course everyone in America wanted to see a four-hour love story about the sinking of the Titanic, and no one wanted to see Kevin Costner play a singing post-apocalyptic mailman… in hindsight. The truth is, until they open, no one knows which movies people will want to see.

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Applying Goldman’s idea to the musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, most Broadway fans probably accept as fact that a musical about Spiderman with complex stunts and dangerous sets was doomed to failure… in hindsight. Glen Berger’s book Song of the Spider-man: the Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History walks readers through this musical from inception to closure, and while the outcome was never in doubt, I was surprised by the number of times I thought to myself, “This might have actually worked.”

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Bono, Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and The Edge

Glen Berger spent six years co-writing the book for Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark along with famed director Julie Taymor. Various artists and producers would enter and exit the fray, but Taymor, Berger, Bono, and The Edge formed the creative nucleus—a distinction that each may or may not appreciate six years after Spiderman’s closing. One of the pleasures of the book is Berger’s point of view as the artist struggling to support a family of five while glimpsing into the lives of his more eccentric co-creatives.  Here is one of my favorite lines:

“Jim Morrison of the Doors stayed in this apartment,” said Bono as he stood on the balcony in his bathrobe. The lads were eager to assess the songs from workshop—“Let’s listen to them, and then beat them up,” said Bono, who apparently was going to stay in his bathrobe for the meeting” (64).

The book is filled with many insights.  Here are a few of the take-aways that particularly stood out to me:

Spiderman‘s conflicts were rooted in The Lion King’s success

Following her success with The Lion King, Taymor was given carte blanche over Spiderman, but Spiderman proved to be a very different challenge. Most significantly, the directive regarding audience for The Lion King was much clearer—family-friendly show with more adult appeal than Beauty and the Beast.  With Spiderman, Taymor became excited by the project when she thought of using elements of Greek tragedy. She envisioned Arachne, mother of spiders, as her main antagonist and created a Greek chorus of four teens called the Geeks. Her story sounds interesting to someone like me (who knows more about theater history than comics), but audiences were confused by Arachne, hated the Geeks, and wanted more of the Green Goblin. Taymor’s record of success led to creative battles pitting her vision against audience feedback.

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Natalie Mendoza was originally cast as Arachne, but she left during previews due to an injury. By opening night T.V. Carpio was playing the role. The Geeks were cut during the revision.

Bigger is not necessarily better on Broadway

Before I criticize some of Spiderman’s funding decisions, let’s explore the counter-argument by noting the current inhabitant of the same theater: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Both shows raked up significant budgets by redesigning the theater and adding impressive effects. With Spiderman, the initial budget (which ranges from $65 to $82 million depending on the source) became the story, and no one blinked when Harry Potter started with an investment of at least $65 million. That being said, financial considerations are a consistent topic in Berger’s book, and it helped me to understand why Broadway is plagued by so many jukebox musicals and movie adaptations. Producers will gamble on a show knowing an audience exists for either its songs or for its story. The death-defying effects in Spiderman are fantastic (check out a video clip), but they also led to crippling on-going costs. Smaller-scale original shows like Come From Away, Hadestown and Six do not need to recoup these types of costs every week and therefore are a safer bet for producers.

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Actors flew over the audience at upwards of 50 miles per hour as Spiderman and the Green Goblin fought. However, the most significant injuries involved the on-stage platform that would deliver actors and scenery to the stage. When the moving platform was above or below stage level, the 15-foot hole mid-stage became an unanticipated danger.

Spiderman’s great mistake was it was not reproducible

From Spiderman’s first preview on November 28, 2013, to its closure on January 4, 2014, almost two million people saw it. It grossed about $203 million over its total run although the investors still lost an estimated $60 million. Many Broadway shows like the original Guys and Dolls have opened and closed in less time and been considered hits, but those shows continued in regional productions. Take Suessical, for example. It lost about $10 million on Broadway in 2001 but reinvented itself and become a children’s theater staple. Spiderman is unique, however, because it has almost certainly experienced a finalizing death blow due to its legacy of being too expensive and too dangerous to produce.

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Spiderman played for a total of 1,268 performances.

A closed show need not be forgotten

Song of Spider-man is an engrossing exploration of the good intentions behind a doomed show. As I read the book, I recalled a documentary along the same lines, which I also strongly recommend. In Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened, the original actors from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along look back at how a sure-fire hit closed just 16 performances after the opening. Combining rediscovered footage from 1981 with interviews from 2016, director Lonny Price explores both how the optimism of young actors can be disparaged and how those same actors progressed to remember their ill-fated Broadway debuts with nostalgia. Best Worst Thing that Ever Could Have Happened is available on Netflix and itunes.

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Song of Spider-man by Glen Berger (a book review)

An American in Paris—Drury Lane (3/12/20)

Before Thursday, March 12, I had not comprehended the extent to which COVID-19 is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes.  The reality, not surprisingly, hit me while I sat in a theater—specifically the Drury Lane Oakbrook. Prior to the show, two Drury Lane executives addressed the audience and tearfully announced that we were witnessing the last production of An American in Paris. This large-scale musical would be closing early in accordance with Governor Prizker’s executive order.

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Will Skrip (as Henri) at the end of “(I’ll Build a) Stairway to Paradise”

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An American in Paris—Drury Lane (3/12/20)

A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience

The way I remember it, I am eight years old and playing Nintendo one Saturday morning when my father walks down the basement stairs to tell me about the play he and my mother saw the previous evening. He refers to the title as Say Yes, Pablo and notes that the play was supposed to be about Pablo Picasso but it was not really about anything, and in the place of normal dialogue there was a lot of chanting. He also said that 25 minutes into the show the first audience members exited out the back door, and the steady flow of unhappy patrons kept that back door open until the end.

Say Yes, Pablo holds a special meaing in our family. When we see a play that we really dislike, we say, “Well, at least it was better than Say Yes, Pablo.”

Continue reading “A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience”

A Tribute to the Less-than-Enjoyable Theater Experience

Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

#1. All Quiet on the Western Front (Red Tape)

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The gender-blind cast of All Quiet on the Western Front

The script by Matt Foss is a tribute to Erich Maria Remargue’s novel—a no-holds-barred criticism of war as seen through the eyes of WW1 soldiers, who have accepted that their survival means nothing to the unseen figures calling the shots. Elena Victoria Feliz as Paul moves through the most inventive staging of the year—war is played out on top of old pianos, and colored powders communicate the impact of bombs and bullets.

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Year in Review—2019’s Best Non-musicals

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

#1. Six (Chicago Shakespeare)

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Abby Mueller, Samantha Pauly, Adrianna Hicks, Andrea Macasaet, Brittney Mack & Anna Uzele (each will be reprising her role on Broadway starting February 13)

I was skeptical about a rock musical starring the wives of Henry VIII until I learned that my friend’s teenage daughters were already devoted fans. Six (like Hamilton before it) is a testament to the power of using reimagined history to tell a story that reflects our contemporary world. Every song is a winner—particularly “Don’t Lose Ur Head” and “All You Wanna Do”—in this fun, inventive musical with a powerful feminist conclusion.

Continue reading “Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals”

Year in Review—2019’s Best Musicals

NEW YORK SHOWS — 12/21/19 & 12/22/19

Greater Clements

Haley Sakamoto (Kel) and Edmund Donovan (Joe)

Samuel Hunter sits among my favorite playwrights based on the strength of The Whale and Pocatello. One can make a sure bet that a Hunter play will build to a mesmerizing, semi-tragic climax as characters push themselves beyond their own limitations.

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NEW YORK SHOWS — 12/21/19 & 12/22/19

The Niceties—Writer’s Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)

The Niceties is a dramatic tennis match of ideas with two characters scoring points in their increasingly intense back-and-forth exchanges.

Janine (Mary Beth Fisher)—a respected history professor teaching an upper-level course on revolutions—begins by offering criticisms to Zoe (Ayanna Bria Bakari) regarding her 20-page thesis essay.  The ensuing discussion is fraught with conflicts framed by both race and the generation gap between Baby Boomers and Millennials.  Before the play’s start, a Writer’s Theater Associate encouraged the audience to consider both points of view—particularly when we felt a strong allegiance to one character’s perspective.  In that spirit, I am going to present my reactions to The Niceties by referencing the more convincing points scores by both Janine and Zoe.

Ayanna Bria Bakari & Mary Beth Fisher

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The Niceties—Writer’s Theater (11/27/19 & 12/1/19)