Saturday, November 2, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — This summer, out of the blue, playwright Glen Berger got a call from director Julie Taymor.
He assumed he was being butt-dialed.
"I thought, 'Oh, wow. She sat on her phone. How weird,'" he recalls.
After all, the two hadn't spoken for more than two years following a bitter falling out during the rocky launch of Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." Taymor had been fired and a flurry of lawsuits began.
So Berger let the call go to voicemail and was surprised when Taymor left a message asking him to call her back. He was tempted — she was a special person, after all — but he knew he had to be careful.
This is how bad it had gotten: Berger called his agent first, who then insisted Berger's lawyer be consulted. The lawyer called back 10 minutes later — don't call the Tony Award winner back, he was warned.
"He said, 'For Glen, Julie's a siren. He'll do anything she wants.'"
It turned out the advice was pointless. Taymor later called Berger back from a blocked number and he picked up. "The first thing out of her mouth was, 'All right, so, am I going to have to worry about this book?'"
The book in question is Berger's "Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History" (Simon & Schuster), the playwright's attempt to make sense of a $75 million spectacle with music by Bono and The Edge that took six years of his life and turned his work into a punch line.
It's a fun read, a sort of modern day "Heart of Darkness" in which Berger — a mild-mannered writer for children's TV and a playwright whose biggest hit was "Underneath the Lintel" — describes getting caught in the web of dysfunctionality, back-stabbing and out-of-control egos.
"Lord knows, I didn't write this book to distress any one. It's such a capital-S Story that I would have had to turn in my badge as a writer if I had passed it up," he explained in an interview.
In the book, Berger recounts the endless delays, frustrations, accidents, secret emails and endless hubris. At one point he was working on multiple secret scripts and plotting in the men's room.
"It got so weird. I was just going around everybody. It felt like 'The Talented Mr. Ripley,'" he admits. "The script needed to be fixed."
The most blame is reserved for the absentee songwriters — U2 were on tour all the time — unproven technology and, above all, Taymor, a director and co-writer who would not alter her vision and responded to any suggestion that she do so with, he writes, "the fury of a hurricane making landfall."
There are no bombshells in the book that haven't already become public knowledge. "I'm not here to blab details," he says. "This is a story about storytelling and a story about collaborating."
After Taymor was fired, a new team including writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and director Philip William McKinley was hired to fix the show, lighten Taymor's darkness and streamline the plot.
Berger, who had struggled to tame some of Taymor's vision, now found himself fighting to keep many of her ideas and stop the show from becoming milquetoast. It finally opened to critical boos, but became a big hit, only recently sagging at the box office.
"Of course, I'm rooting for the show," says Berger, who continues to get checks from the musical and daily show reports. He says he's not privy to plans — if any — for "Spider-Man" after Broadway.
Rick Miramontez, a spokesman for the show, has dismissed the new book as a mix of fact and fiction: "If Mr. Berger had put this much imagination into his script, the producers wouldn't have had to hire Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa." Taymor's spokesman says she hasn't read the book and so had no comment.
Berger has moved on, much wiser. The two-time Emmy Award winner has commissions from the Alley Theatre in Houston and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He and composer Mark Mancina are adapting the film "August Rush" into a stage musical. His collaborations now are healthier.
"The only way that you can speak your mind is if you let go of the need for job security, which I wasn't prepared to do for 'Spider-Man.' I didn't want to lose that job," he says.
Berger, who is married with three children and lives near Woodstock, N.Y., doesn't look back with anger. The "Spider-Man" days were intoxicating and instructive and he loved rubbing shoulders with Bono and The Edge and Taymor.
"Maybe it was an artistic blip but it wasn't a life blip. I thank the gods for giving it to me," he says. He even thinks it helped his writing: "Every now and then, you've got to put manure on the fields. This was high-grade manure."
But he will be haunted by what could have been. While writing the book, he combed over six years of notes and emails and came to a startling conclusion: The "Spider-Man" musical wasn't necessarily doomed.
"I saw ways — glittering, gleaming ways — that it all could have been fixed so perfectly and beautifully. And I could have done it. If I had just been given a couple of weeks and some coffee," he says. "It really could have been great. It kills me. Every day."
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits