Wednesday, October 24, 2012

He wrote the libretto, now he'll write the book

Ever since the whole Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark fiasco happened last year, I've been saying, "I really hope Glen Berger publishes a tell-all book about it."

Guess what? He is!  Per the New York Times, Berger's Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History will be published in 2013.

Berger is the musical's co-librettist and one of the few people to be involved with the show throughout its long journey to opening night. When the producers fired Julie Taymor, they retained Berger, though they brought in a new librettist (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) to collaborate with him.

Because of this -- and because, y'know, he's a writer -- I've always felt that Berger is the ideal person to write the tell-all book about the Spider-Man musical. And, face it, this is a saga that's crying out for a tell-all book.

I should also note that I took a playwriting master class with Berger several years before this all happened and found him to be a likable, unassuming, smart, somewhat nebbishy man -- totally not the kind of guy that you'd picture writing the most expensive Broadway musical ever produced. He came to prominence writing whimsical Off-Broadway plays with a kind of shabby-nostalgic aesthetic (Underneath the Lintel; O Lovely Glowworm) and then found himself working with Bono on a multimillion-dollar superhero musical with flying and special effects.

I can't wait to hear what he has to say about all of it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Work-Art Balance (Theater Pub column)

My latest San Francisco Theater Pub column, "The Work-Art Balance," went up on Thursday and is provoking a lively discussion. In the column, I reflect on my four years of attempting to balance the demands of my 40-hour-a-week office job with my playwriting ambitions.

I can't say that I have it all figured out at this point, so I'd love for you to read the piece and chime in in the comments. How do you find the time and energy for your art? Psychologically and practically speaking, how do you deal with living in two different worlds, having two different careers? How do you ensure that your stability does not slide into complacency?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Collective Nostalgia

Terry Teachout's recent musings on nostalgia, particularly the thought that "the English language needs a word whose definition would be 'nostalgia for that which one has not experienced,'" made me think of the novel Prague, by Arthur Phillips, and this passage in particular:
To quantify nostalgia, to graph it backward into the misty and sweet-smelling past, to enumerate its causes and its expressions and its costs, to determine the nature of societies and personalities most affected by the disorder -- these were Mark Payton's obsessions, and he wove academic laurels from their leaves. He strained to establish laws as measurable and irrefutable as the laws of physics or meteorology. He strove, for example, to determine whether there was, within a given population, a ratio, p/c, that could predict the relationship between individuals with a "strong" or "very strong" leaning to Personal Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for events within one's own past) and those with a commensurate leaning to Collective Nostalgia (i.e. nostalgia for eras or styles or places that were outside of one's personal experience). In other words, if you were likely to be affected by recollections of your Hungarian grandmother's sour cherry soup served in the Herend bowl with the ladybug at the bottom, were you more or less likely to feel fondness for movies that treated with tender, nearly eroticized affection the life of English aristocrats in their country houses prior to the First World War? Payton felt certain he could arrive at a predictable ratio p/m, the relationship between a strong tendency to Personal Nostalgia and the possession of an objectively good Memory. Either hypothesis (that the relationship was direct, or that it was inverse) seemed feasible to him. Finally, the ratio c/h, the relationship of an individual's propensity to Collective Nostalgia and his or her actual Historical Knowledge of the place-era for which he or she felt this nostalgia, was theoretically determinable, and here the scholar strongly suspected an inverse proportion: The less you knew about life in those country houses, the more you wished you had lived there.
Prague explored the theme of Collective Nostalgia -- and in particular, the nostalgia that Americans have for beautiful European cities -- ten years before Midnight in Paris did, and with even more wit and insight than the film. Mark Payton's quixotic quest to quantify nostalgia, which eventually drives him insane, is not the main plot, but it underlines some of the book's key themes. After all, the story takes place in Budapest, and most of the characters are convinced that they'd be far happier in Prague. They yearn for a change of place, while Mark yearns for a change of time.

Collective Nostalgia is something I find myself thinking about a lot. (Conversely, I am not very prone to Personal Nostalgia -- e.g. I had a good college experience, but seldom have I ever wished I could go back there.) As a kid, I loved time-travel stories -- not the sci-fi ones that involved traveling to the future or investigated philosophical conundrums like the grandfather paradox, but the ones that were really historical fiction disguised as time-travel fantasy. I desperately wished that it were possible to visit other historical eras, and I would still like to do so -- but, as Terry Teachout says, to visit, not to live. No 21st-century feminist woman can sincerely say that she would prefer to live in an earlier decade -- the idea of traveling to the past and making a home there is totally a white-male privilege. (Interesting, then, that in Midnight in Paris, the character who chooses to stay behind in the past is a woman. But then, I have some issues with that movie -- I didn't love it as much as you might assume.) I am grateful for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, secular humanism. I would never want to turn back the clock to a more racist, sexist era. I may decry some of the uncouth excesses of the modern world, but I realize that, to a large extent, they are the price we pay for freedom. And I am willing to pay that price. I may wish that people used their freedom more prudently and thoughtfully, but that is no reason to take their freedom away.

Yet at the same time, I have that intense collective nostalgia for so many aspects of the past -- culture and customs that I never experienced for myself. I wonder if it would be possible to bring back some of those things without bringing back the less enlightened parts of the past, or whether they are inextricably linked. Is swing dancing a super fun way of socializing with friends and dates, or is it an expression of a patriarchal culture? (the man leads, and is strong and stolid! the woman follows, dizzy, frilly, twirling!) More to the point: if partner dancing became popular once again, would it lead to a renewed ossification of gender roles?

In short, I wonder if it is possible to be both a confirmed nostalgist, and a modern-day progressive liberal. Does my attraction to the past mean that, deep down, I am more conservative than I'd like to admit? Can I resolve my contradictions, or do I hold, within me, some kind of time-travel paradox?

See also: my post from 2008 about watching Mad Men and imagining living in that era.