In February 2011, after the show’s sixth delayed opening, the Times’ Patrick Healy wrote the piece with the headline about Spider-Man being the punch line of Broadway. It began: “Joan Rivers gave a suggestion to the director Julie Taymor the other night: ‘Hire a stunt person to fall on someone every three or four weeks—that’ll keep audiences showing up.’” Some critics doubted the show would open at all.
By this time, everyone involved in the production knew that they had to do something, but they couldn’t agree on how to move forward. As Berger says, the collaboration just got “wonky.”
He proposed implementing a more traditional Spider-Man story plot as well as an exciting ending that would work within the parameters of the technology they had already tried and tested. “I was really lobbying for changes because at that point, I was the one who really saw the show wasn’t able to close, and the onus was on the writer of the script,” he says. “So I did whatever I could to convince anyone who needed convincing that this needed to happen.”
Taymor, on the other hand, was fighting to keep her storyline, arguing that with a little more work they could sort out the kinks in the plot and the technology. Berger says he completely understands why she felt this way. “As much as it meant to me, and as much as I pour my heart and my life into it. I don’t think it was my soul quite as much as it was Julie’s,” he explains.
“The producers were in a very, very tough situation,” says the Post’s Vincentelli. “Because they had a huge budget, and they clearly felt they were at some sort of stalemate; they had dissension within the creative team. They couldn’t agree on which direction to take and someone had to go. And Julie was on the losing end of that power play.”
Taymor was fired in March 2011 and replaced by McKinley. Berger was kept on—because, says McKinley, “He was willing to make changes … he didn’t have the bitterness of somebody who didn’t know it wasn’t working.” Along with the new director and another writer who was brought in (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa), Berger was given three weeks to write a new “simpler” script that audiences would like and that the technology would support. The show finally opened —before a packed house—on June 14, 2011. The crowds have kept coming ever since.
But Taymor’s firing set off a legal battle that didn’t end until this past spring. In November 2011 she sued the producers and Berger; the producers countersued. Taymor charged that the production was using her original material without permission; as for Berger, her suit emphasized his junior position in their collaboration and accused him of going behind her back in making changes to the script.
A New York Post story reporting on the suit portrayed Taymor as having created an art-piece in which puppets representing the show’s producers, composers Bono and The Edge, and Berger were trapped in the Ninth Circle of Hell from Dante’s Inferno—the deepest one, reserved for traitors. In the same story, an unnamed source claimed that Taymor “hated [Berger] more than anyone … She feels he’s the architect of all that’s happened.”
But in April the various parties reached a settlement, and Taymor released a statement that she was “pleased to have reached an agreement and hopes for the continued success of Spider-Man, both on Broadway and beyond.” Berger, for his part, says now, “I’m just glad it’s over, and I hope for the best for everyone.”
Unsurprisingly, when he talks about his experience writing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, Berger doesn’t have the same lightness of tone or humor that he does when talking about his time in Mask and Wig or Seattle or even as a rising playwright in New York City.
Still, he believes this experience was important for helping him decide what kind of playwright he wants to be. “It’s an interesting thing,” he muses. “You write this thing, and you’re lucky if you can get it to a place where it’s christened. And then it enters the real world of directors and actors and theatres and budgets, and if you’re really lucky it retains that kind of purity, and it even has added layers of richness. But often it’s, ‘This actor isn’t quite right, and this director completely misunderstood this aspect of the show,’ and you end up with something less than perfect. But then, be a novelist if you can’t accept this might happen.”
Berger does have a book coming out—not a novel, but a non-fiction account of his Spider-Man experience that he promises will be “beautiful,” “compassionate,” “funny,” and “profound.” A deal with Simon & Schuster was announced in October 2012, and the publication of Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History is scheduled for this November.
He is also working on new musicals—including a movie adaptation of a musical for Warner Bros. (he can’t reveal the title) and a musical about the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War for the Manhattan Theatre Club—as well as a new play. The premise of that piece is “a folk trio in a cabin trying to make one last album before they kill each other,” he says. “I’m sure everything I’ve gone through just gets turned up again.”
And then, just as he finishes analyzing what transpired while writing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive and perhaps chaotic show in Broadway history, he pivots into a story about how he recently took his 10-year-old son’s entire class to the play, “and they were just thrilled by it.”
“I’ll never be completely happy with it,” he says after a pause. But “it works. And that is a very gratifying thing.”