Friday, June 06, 2014

Song of Spider-Man

Song of Spider-Man--or, as it is more fully know in these post-colon-crazy days: Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History--is a must-read for anyone who is interested in musical theatre. Not because it's brilliant (it isn't) or incredibly insightful (ditto), but because it's engrossing and it exists. (For a long and thoughtful review by Liz Wollman, click here.)

I wish there were "making of" books or documentaries for dozens, if not hundreds, of shows, and I'm always grateful when one appears. In addition, Song of Spider-Man has the great advantage of being straight from one of the horse's mouths. Author Glen Berger cowrote Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with director-creator Julie Taymor.

On the other hand, the glaring limit of any book like this--any memoir, really--is not knowing whether the writer is a reliable narrator of her or his own life. As recent research on memory has shown, even the most honest writer will still be wrong part of the time. Add to the weakness of human memory the strength of human ego, and all memoirs-autobiographies must be taken with Gibralter-sized grains of salt. My guess, and obviously it's a just a guess, is that Berger works extremely hard to be as honest as possible, and that his stories are nevertheless just as prey to the whims of memory as anybody else's.

Berger does an excellent job of showing how the tremendous day-to-day challenges of doing a huge project can swamp important details and make it almost impossible to remember why certain decisions were made. His portrait of Taymor, whom he admires greatly and loves, seems even-handed and not colored by sexism. He presents her as a three-dimensional genius with erratic social skills--sort of a nicer Jerome Robbins. His depictions of Bono and The Edge are fascinating, if starstruck.

Berger admits his faults and mistakes, but mostly in the way of a job interviewee who answers, "Tell me about your weaknesses," with "I'm a perfectionist who works too hard." In his case, it is his naive nice-guy-ness that is his "weakness."

Berger's depiction of the damage that Michael Riedel did to the Spider-Man doesn't add anything new, but seeing the extent of Riedel's nastiness in once place is yet another reminder that he is a parasite on New York theatre.

Berger way overuses italics and one-line paragraphs--and, worst of all, italic one-line paragraphs--for emphasis. As a result, the book often has the emotional temperature of a middle-schooler's diary. His writing in general leans toward the precious.

For me, the take-home message of Song of Spider-Man is the familiar but always-frightening fact that producing a bad piece of theatre takes every bit as much work, emotion, risk, and money as producing a masterpiece. 

(library book)

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