Even now, long after their friendship imploded, Berger’s portrait of Taymor is rich and nuanced, and on balance more positive than negative. In fact, her good days are so palpably delightful that it poses another what-if: What if Julie Taymor had the same prodigious artistic talent and the same capacity for anger, but none of the mesmerizing allure, the capacity to be inspiring, seductive, fascinating, deeply affectionate and silly all at once? Would her collaborators, producers and associates be so quick to dismiss what Berger calls the “unknown knowns”—the missing fourth piece of Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous assessment of conditions in Iraq, i.e., the things that we know to be true but choose to ignore, or to pretend not to see?
By November 2010, two days before the first preview and exactly halfway through Berger’s book, the unknown knowns—along with their pesky cousins, the unknown unknowns and the known unknowns—had already wreaked plenty of havoc on Spider–Man, leaving a trail of severed relationships, spooked investors, bad press, snarky Internet gossip and the first of many cast injuries in its wake. That night, watching the first (!) top-to-bottom run through of Act 1 (!), Berger suddenly sees the show in a new, unflattering light: “The threats to Peter Parker, to Mary Jane, to the citizens of New York, seemed pathetic. Laughable. Nothing was felt…in other words, the show was camp.”
For a moment you share Berger’s horror, though you also shared his bemusement when Taymor, in an early meeting, completely dismissed his observation that “in a certain light, Spider-Man the Musical is kind of a ridiculous idea.” And then just a paragraph later, you get to this gobsmacker: “I determined (it didn’t take a genius) that our camp troubles emanated from the Goblin playing a green piano on the Chrysler Building.” Really?
You know Berger can’t possibly really mean that all of the show’s camp emanates from this single image. Then it snaps into focus: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was not a jet airliner: It was a Rube Goldberg mechanism. And unlike Gladwell’s plane crashes, which might have been averted if any one small thing went just a little more right than wrong, the green-piano revelation makes it clear that for Spider-Man to have worked the way its creators genuinely believed it could, virtually everything would have had to go right. If Tony Adams hadn’t died and Julie Taymor hadn’t fixated on Arachne and Berger had felt more confident about pushing back against her ideas and the dimensions and architecture of the Foxwoods had been identical to those of the soundstage where the aerial stunts were developed and there had been a way, using material that exists in this physical universe, for Arachne to open up a “tight-fitting gown” and reveal “eight enormous, startling, black spider legs” that were genuinely scary and not at all like a Saturday Night Live sight gag…maybe, just maybe, the show would have been the acclaimed, groundbreaking, beloved, record-breaking-in-all-the-right-ways “rock-and-roll circus drama” its creators hoped for.
This shattering realization takes some of the momentum out of the second half of the book, which till then pulls off the rare and difficult stunt of creating suspense around a tale whose ending we know. The machinations that follow, including Berger’s 11th-hour bid to restructure the show (which Taymor takes as a craven betrayal), seem less like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than rerouting the ship’s plumbing: much deeper and more difficult work, but equally pointless.
Luckily, Berger, whose prior credits include the widely produced one-man show Underneath the Lintel,can tell a good story even in the worst of circumstances. Self-deprecating, funny, wise in retrospect and more than a little wistful, Song of Spider-Man isn’t an excuse or justification for either version of the Broadway musical—nor should it have to be. Both nearly unbelievable and deeply believable, it’s a story about how even a professional dramatist can miss the anvil-obvious foreshadowing of inevitable dramatic consequences in his own life.
But if you are looking for an explanation, you’ll just have to take Berger’s word for it that when the show looked good, it looked really, really good. Ironically, the two moments when he seems most excited are in a developmental staged reading, and, later, an early stumble-through of all the scenes that didn’t involve heavy tech. Both took place in bare-bones rehearsal studios with little to no props and costumes.
What if Julie Taymor, who cut her teeth doing minimalist puppet theatre in Indonesia, had been able, with Marvel’s blessing, to give Spider-Man the same light touch? Would she even have wanted to? And if she had, how much less would there have been that needed to go right?
Justin Warner is a playwright, lyricist and journalist living in New York City.