It’s Just a Play
The 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.
And it’s why my last comic-book panel would depict a scene from opening night. I would draw it in an emo-manga style, with a smudged, cocktail-sipping crowd in the background. In the foreground, a woman with flowing hair framing sad-smiling eyes is regarding the addled-looking man in front of her. The man’s heart is on his sleeve, his tongue is in a knot, and in the banner at the top of the panel, that poor schmuck’s thoughts from over a year later are revealed:
I loved her. I still do.
With heart-scarred bewilderment,
I love her. . . .
And the thing of it is . . . she despises me.
Julie Taymor despises me with photograph-shredding rage. Or so I hear. Though maybe by now she’s past caring. After all, it’s been thirty months since that last phone call; that last lit match on a kerosene-doused relationship, six years of collaboration KAFWOOOSH! . . .
Sure, yes, maybe she’s moved on. But I doubt it. While I was writing this book, teams of lawyers were busy submitting suits and countersuits. Among other demands, Julie wanted half of my money. And I wasn’t about to give it to her.
Here’s what happened. . . .
Or—wait—let me say one more thing first.
I am aware—I really am—that the following pages contain metaphors more appropriate for an account of an amputation tent in the Crimean War; adjectives best saved for the Apollo space program or the Bataan Death March. Next to events of actual weight, I know this whole thing sounds self-important as hell.
That said, for those who lived through this odyssey, very high stakes were involved, and very real costs were exacted, and I wouldn’t want to minimize that fact. And so it is with simultaneous irony, bitterness, and innocent awe that I state this (because I know it, but I’m going to forget it):
This book? It’s about a play.
Just a play.
Just a fucking play.
Okay. Here’s what happened. . . .
Revue de presse
“Mr. Berger knows how to write, and he can tell a good story.” (New York Times)
“Juicy and entertaining…” (Entertainment Weekly)
"Hilarious and engrossing. . .” (Miami Herald-Tribune)
“Self-deprecating, funny, wise… and more than a little wistful…” (American Theatre Magazine)
“Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark turned out to be a dud, but Berger’s book is one of the best recent accounts of the making and unmaking of a big Broadway show.” (Connecticut Post)
“This book should be required reading for all theater students.” (TheaterMania.com)
“This juicy memoir offers up the requisite dirt to make a satisfying read for Broadway carrions and disaster junkies alike….” (TheaterMania.com)
“An entertaining tell-all about this infamous musical that, in the fall of 2010, made headlines almost every day…. an accurate and candid account.” (New York Post)
“[A] captivating new tell-all….a fascinating conflict between art and commerce, ideology and reality, and friends-turned-enemies….If you only know Turn Off the Dark for the countless jokes it spawned, illuminate yourself to the true story of what happened. It's more funny and strange than you could have possibly imagined.” (Topless Robot)
“[Berger] packs six years’ worth of unbearable turmoil into 384 vastly readable pages. The result should be required reading for not only theater majors, but business majors in colleges nationwide….SONG OF SPIDER-MAN is an eye-opener, even for those who followed the press closely.” (Bookgasm.com)
“An additive tell-all… [Berger’s] a damn fine story-teller." (Word and Film)
"A truly remarkable book." (Reviews Gate)