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A Little Happier: The Musical “Song of Spider-Man” and the Problem of Unknown Knowns.

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A friend told me, “Oh, you have to read this great book, Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History by Glen Berger.” Now when a friend recommends a book so highly, I run out and read it. So I did.

This book tells the story of the very controversial, much-criticized, and debated musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. It was one of the most expensive, most ambitious, and most dangerous Broadway musical of all time. It was also a big flop.

This book talks about how the show came together, and how despite (or perhaps because) of the involvement of so many brilliant people, people like Julie Taymor and Bono, and so much money, it went terribly wrong.

The book is the memoir of Glen Berger, the playwright who co-wrote the “book” for Spider-Man.

Reflecting on the many intractable problems of that show, Berger writes:

So were we prepared? Who knew….Donald Rumsfeld talked of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. But—this pertained to theatre as much as to wars in Iraq—what he should have mentioned but didn’t was a fourth category: the unknown knowns. According to Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zlzek, unknown knowns are the things that we know, or that we should know, but maintain willful ignorance about, because we’d rather not acknowledge them.

Berger gives an example of how scenic designer Rob Bissinger pulled Julie Taymor and him aside at one point, and mentioned a problem he was having. One of Bissinger’s roles was to meet with potential investors with a model of the set and explain the show to them. Bissinger told Taymor and Berger:

I’ve told the story of the show, like, a hundred times. And it’s a great story. It’s really great. But…it’s weird, but…there’s this place, in the middle of Act Two…and every time I got to it…something…just didn’t make sense….

Berger reflects that for their team, Bissinger’s raising of this problem could have been the beginning of a long conversation, with a serious and thorough examination of what was jamming the gears in the presentations. But instead Berger and Julie Taymor just moved on. Berger continues:

Those concerns of Rob Bissinger’s about the middle of the second act that we didn’t want to investigate [were] another unknown known.

I think this is a great phrase, and a great reminder, and I’ve often experienced this problem in my own life. There is an unknown known—something that I know, deep down, is a problem, it’s something that should be addressed, but because it’s easier to ignore it, I pretend like I don’t know about it.

It’s helpful to be reminded of the unknown knowns, and it’s comforting to know that even the most professional and accomplished people can struggle with them.

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