By Adam Esquenazi Douglas
It’s very rare I find my two greatest loves chocolate and peanut buttering themselves together, those loves being geek culture and theatre. It seems as if the world of the stage is typically reserved for flashy musicals and mopey Danish princes.
But years ago two ships met in the night and the bright lights of Broadway turned the spot to a new show: Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark. With music from rock icons Bono and The Edge of U2, and under the direction of theatre dynamo Julie Taymor, this promised to be a revolutionary new theatrical adventure starring everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood webslinger.
Well, it revolutionized things alright. It made it all but a certainty that comics would never be seen behind curtains again.
When it initially came out, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark was met with scathing, nearly unbelievably bad reviews. The story was incomprehensible, the songs plodding, and the direction…quite amiss. What’s worse, though, is while the bad reviews piled…so did the injuries. The production was soon plagued with sprained ankles, broken bones, and a near fatality. The special effects and stunt laden supershow was proving to be ten times the adversary Norman Osborn ever was, and one wondered if Spidey would ever save the day.
After a painful and awkward birth and childhood, the show was sent away to theatre boarding school to get its (pun alert) act together. The show was put on hiatus, received a massive rewrite from playwright-turned-comic-scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and reopened completely reimagined, much more streamlined, and, in many people’s opinions….much less interesting. It’s still on Broadway, New Yorkers. See it now before the webs are cut for good.
But before we got this neutered version of the wall-crawler, there existed an esoteric, bold, and totally nutty version of the show. The play’s first playwright, Glen Berger, decided to document this experience from inception to opening night in his new book “Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.”
Being a fellow theatre artist (and one of the lucky few to see the original version of the show) as well as being a massive comics geek, my interest was piqued. I wanted this dishy, naughty, pervasive tell-all adventure so I could ridicule at the ridiculousness and gasp at the gratuity.
What I got…was so much better.
So, first of all, if you’re a fan of Spidey or theatre, you owe it to yourself to read this book. The insight it gives you into how the regular world views this sensational superhero is extremely illuminating for us hardened Marvel Zombies. For you theatre folk, it really takes off the rose-colored glasses and shows you the ins and outs, warts and all of putting up a play. You ask me? This book should be REQUIRED READING for theatre students from here on out. No punches are pulled.
Yes, yes, there’s some gossipy stuff, and, dude, like don’t ever ask rock stars to score your silly little piece of musical theatre. They’re busy…you know…rocking. Especially don’t ask a guy whose main focus in life is healing a continent, not coming up with a zingy mid-show number for Mary Jane to softshoe to. There’s dirt here, and you’ll have fun smearing it around.
The story begins years before the show ever hit the Big Apple. Taymor asked a collection of playwrights to submit ideas for scenes, with the playwright with the most interesting pitch winning the job.
For a goof, seriously, Berger came up with an idea for a scene where the Green Goblin drags a piano to the top of the Chrysler Building, sings a little ditty, then fights our hero, eventually being killed as the piano is knocked off with a rope of webbing attached to it and Gobby.
Like I said, the dude wrote it as a goof.
And then he got the job.
The story continues into the development process, and the level of preparation will stun you. It took days to conceptualize. It took years to develop. You want an actor swinging around on webs above a live audience in a building pushing one hundred years old? It takes time.
We see the bright moments, the hopeful wishes and dreams of so many minds, and, really, you start to root for them. But like any story the skies darken and it rains shit, and everyone gets drenched.
I won’t spoil anything, but just know this: as bad it seemed to us on the outside, it was exponentially worse for everyone involved. No one doesn’t want their dreams to come true. When they do with a sickening crunch and some broken ribs, you’re having a bad day.
However what I really came to appreciate wasn’t the hen-pecking of it all. What I came to admire about the book and every artist involved, and, yes, I include Taymor despite her sometimes (oftentimes) delusions of granduer and overall lack of concern for the character of Peter Parker (she’s wayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy more into exploring the spider that bit him…seriously), is their strength of conviction and true commitment to their art.
Harsh realities flock like birds to this show, but this troop remains defiant. Foolish? Sure. Brave? You bet. What I strive for in my art? Without question, and I hope the artists I admire do, too.
But, and if you even barely followed the story of the play as it was happening then this isn’t a spoiler, the story does not end happily. You do not completely rewrite a play if its working. Bill Shakespeare eat your heart out, this is a tragedy through and through.
The funny thing of it all, the grand irony of every page of this book, is that the moral of the story really becomes this: with great power there must also come great responsibility.
No joke, True Believer. Spider-Man is a powerful property. Broadway is a powerful entity. And money…oh, money. The greatest superpower of all. When one plays with such delicate and dangerous elements, one must sling carefully lest they get burned.
These folks got burnt to a crisp. And no amount of webbing was able to put the ashes of what once was back together.
There was no Uncle Ben for this story. Hell, the death of the one in the play wasn’t even Peter’s fault. This is a What If reality where Ben Parker died long before Peter came around, and all that wisdom wastes away. This is what happens when idealism trumps realism. When stallions are not broken. When heroes become menaces.
I recommend this one, Unrealtors. It’s a quick read. It’s funny, heart-breaking, and, at times, inspiring.
It’s kinda like…well…this guy:
Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent.
He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameover.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com.
He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee.