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Friday Feature: “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman”

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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s the return of the Friday Feature!

When a mad scientist threatens Metropolis, it’s Superman to the rescue…right?  What if Superman wasn’t there?  What if the Man of Steel was otherwise occupied, being honored for his heroic deeds by a group of local kids at the very moment City Hall was being blown up?  Faced with his inability to save the day, would the Last Son of Krypton finally be pushed over the edge?

That’s not a story you’ll find in any DC Comic, however, now or then.  Rather, it’s the plot of the 1966 Broadway musical It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, currently being revived in New York for a limited run through March 24 as part of City Center’s Encores! series.  Years before Julie Taymor and Bono infamously brought Spider-Man to Broadway, producer-director Harold Prince, songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and writers Robert Benton and David Newman saw the potential in bringing Clark Kent, Lois Lane and company to the musical stage.  The team devised a plot about a revenge-crazed scientist and expanded the traditional Clark Kent/Lois Lane/Superman love triangle by adding Jim Morgan, a paramour for Lois, and Sydney, a suitor for Clark.  Yet Superman folded after just 129 performances, despite three Tony-nominated performances and a deliciously enjoyable score that’s endured thanks to the Columbia Records cast album produced by the label’s chief, Goddard Lieberson.  With Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s timeless creation once again taking down the bad guys on a New York stage, the time has never been better to revisit this oft-forgotten part of the Superman mythos.

Are you able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?  Okay, just “jump” to keep reading!

Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who had already written two hits (Bye Bye Birdie and Golden Boy) and one flop (All-American) seized upon the notion of musicalizing the comic book hero and approached two young journalists by the names of David Newman and Robert Benton.  The foursome then turned to Prince, whose producing credits included Damn Yankees, West Side Story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Fiddler on the Roof.  Prince had begun to establish himself as a director with A Family Affair, Baker Street and She Loves Me, and accepted the invitation to helm Superman.  Reflecting in his 1974 memoir Contradictions, Prince acknowledged some of the contradictions inherent in this version of the familiar Superman story: “The script I optioned had been completed a year earlier [in 1964] and anticipated the Pop Art craze.  It was old-fashioned and funny in a wisecracking way.  Dressed up in 1940s clothing it would have passed in a season of Too Many Girls and Panama Hattie.  The jargon was the 1960s but there was no attempt to comment on those times.  It didn’t even occur to me that we might have…Written in 1964, Superman set the [pop art] style.  Produced in 1965 [actually 1966], it followed it.”

Indeed, for a show proudly billed as “The New Musical Comedy” and written in the glib “throwback” style Prince describes, Superman did touch on numerous then-current themes, among them psychoanalysis and the Cold War.  It had the misfortune, though, of arriving at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre on March 29, 1966, ten weeks after the debut of the twice-weekly Batman television show.  It’s been often repeated that Batman killed this Superman, that this comparatively “straight” musical was no match for the campy TV comedy (which employed numerous Broadway mainstays, from Ethel Merman to Eli Wallach).  After all, everybody was watching that show for free in the comfort of their living rooms.  Strouse, in an interview for the cast album’s 1992 CD reissue, quoted David Newman as calling it “capelash.”  Prince certainly believed that was the case: “Though The New York Times called Superman the best musical of that year, we couldn’t compete with Batman five nights weekly on television, ZOWIE sweatshirts, and Andy Warhol.  The fad had peaked, and we closed in four months.”  Indeed, Superman had a song called “Pow!  Bam!  Zonk!” that was likely written long before the creators could have seen such onomatopoeic words enter the lexicon on Batman.  (Alas, the song revolves around Superman taking down some of the silliest henchmen in superhero history, a troupe of Chinese acrobats known as the Flying Lings.  Don’t ask.)

Superman had plenty to offer, though, including a strong cast led by Jack Cassidy as supremely smarmy columnist Max Mencken, Linda Lavin as his long-suffering secretary Sydney, Patricia Marand as Lois Lane, Michael O’Sullivan as ten-time Nobel Prize loser Dr. Abner Sedgwick, and Bob Holliday as The Man of Steel himself.  Curiously, few of the comic book’s mainstays were featured in the musical; the much more bumbling Dr. Sedgwick stood in for Lex Luthor, and the characters of Mencken, Sydney and Lois Lane’s possible love interest Jim Morgan (Don Chastain) were all created for the musical.

Superman - Encores

2013 NY Production

Yet in their score, Strouse and Adams hit upon many central truths for the familiar DC (then National Periodical Publications) characters.  The composer and lyricist were aided mightily by the effervescent orchestrations of big-band veteran Eddie Sauter, who would go on to orchestrate 1776.  A rousing overture sets the musical’s tone, incorporating high-flying action music, vaudeville panache, silent movie-style accompaniment, and even a groovy pop-rock tune.  The overture is interrupted by spoken asides that got laughs in New York this many years later: Superman’s “Bullets can’t hurt me!” or Lois’ swooning “Oh, Superman!  You saved my life again!”  (In 1966, Lois Lane was still far from the assertive, award-winning journalist she’s portrayed as today, and frequently spent her escapades trying to uncover Superman’s secret identity – a central plot point of the musical, as well, though it’s not Lois doing the sleuthing.)  Superman’s opening song establishes his character with the same tongue-in-cheek style played straight.  “Every man has a job to do, and my job is doing good,” the square-jawed hero sings.  “Every night when the job is through/I fold my tights, proud to know I’ve done all I could!  It’s a satisfying feeling when you hang up your cape/You know that you’ve averted murder, larceny and rape!”  In the song, Superman refers to “the old Clark Kent disguise,” a subject that is still debated by comics fans today.  Is Clark Kent the disguise, or is Superman?Lois doesn’t hide her feelings in the musical: “Oh, how I wish I weren’t in love with Superman,”  she sings in “It’s Superman,” a song that’s later reprised as a series of interconnected interior monologues in which each character comments on the titular titan.  (Dino, Desi and Billy covered the song for a 1966 Reprise single produced by Lee Hazlewood, and the Ned Odum Boys did the same at Columbia!)  Lois gets her biggest musical moment when she questions “What I’ve Always Wanted” to a truly lovely, aching Strouse melody: “One kiss and something in me melts/And what I’ve always wanted turns out to be something else…”  Superman himself has a similarly introspective song.  “Why can’t the strongest man in the world be the happiest man in the world?  Why does the strongest man in the world have the heaviest heart in the world?” he wonders in the heartfelt yet still humorous “The Strongest Man in the World.”  Superman’s insecurities have been touched upon by many comic book writers over the years.  In a 2002 story arc from writer Jeph Loeb, Superman even sought the counsel of a psychiatrist.  And his alienation from humans is said to be a major theme in the upcoming Man of Steel film.  In its lighthearted way, the musical even touches on that subject.

Dino Desi and Billy - SupermanStrouse and Adams saved some of their best material for the supporting characters.  The top-billed Jack Cassidy, according to Prince, bullied the director for additional material during the musical’s out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia.  But Cassidy’s material is choice.  Cassidy’s unctuous Menken attempts in vain to seduce Lois in “The Woman for the Man,” but in the irresistible “So Long, Big Guy,” he takes sheer delight in Superman’s failure to save Metropolis.  (“Boy, I could make a million bucks with that kind of talent…and that X-ray vision!  You know what I could do with X-ray vision?” he leers.)  Cassidy’s devilish glee is even more evident with the joyous Broadway pizzazz of “You’ve Got What I Need,” with Mencken and Dr. Sedgwick teaming up for a villainous plot and a vaudeville routine!  Sedgwick has his big moment with the lyrically clever “Revenge,” in which he name-checks in rhyme some (real-life) Nobel Prize winners who stole his thunder.  An odd diversion is “It’s Super-Nice,” a modern number sung by local Metropolis kids at the ceremony honoring Superman while Dr. Sedgwick is carrying out his nefarious plans against City Hall.  The rock-ish “It’s Super-Nice” sounds a bit like Neil Diamond’s “Crunchy Granola Suite” (which Superman predates) crossed with Strouse and Adams’ Bye Bye Birdie!  (The songwriters even reprised the last few notes of “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” in the song.)

The most lasting song from Superman, though, is likely “You’ve Got Possibilities.”  Sydney, as deliciously brought to life by a pre-Alice Linda Lavin, sizes up Clark Kent: “Haircut?  Simply terrible!  Necktie, the worst!  Bearing, just unbearable!  What to tackle first?  Still, you’ve got possibilities…though you’re horribly square!  I see possibilities, underneath there’s something there!”  Adams gets in a number of sly lyrics (“You’ve got possibilities, maybe even a lot!/Red hot possibilities, why be shy and ill at ease?/I see possibilities you don’t even know you’ve got!”) as Strouse ratchets up the excitement in his Latin-flavored melody.  The song went on to be recorded by artists including Matt Monro and Peggy Lee.

Superman Cast

1966 Cast

Despite the early closing on Broadway, the story of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman didn’t end in July 1966.  Writers Benton and Newman went on to write Bonnie and Clyde for the big screen, and yes, 1977’s now-classic Superman: The Movie!  Newman also had screenplay credits for Superman II and Superman III.  Strouse and Adams’ future musicals included the hit Applause, and Strouse teamed with Martin Charnin for the mega-hit Annie.  Prince became the most Tony Award-winning person in history, and his very next musical after Superman was none other than Cabaret.  It, of course, solidified Prince’s reputation as one of Broadway’s most innovative directors.Superman has been revived and revised numerous times, too.  The less said, the better, about the 1975 television version which disco-fied the score and made ludicrous alterations to the plot.  On stage, it’s been seen most notably in 1992 at East Haddam, Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House, in 2007 at Los Angeles’ Reprise and Manhattan’s York Theatre Company, and in 2010 at the Dallas Theatre Center.  The latter production boasted a completely revised book by playwright and comic book/television writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (The Sensational Spider-Man, Glee, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).  Aguirre-Sacasa stripped the musical of its sixties trappings and reset it in 1939.

Superman’s charms have not been lost on the New York critics in 2013.  Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it “exactly what it aspires to be…a singing comic strip in which scenery, characters and even songs feel as if they have been rendered in the Benday dots of bright ink we associate with the Sunday funnies.”  He added, “If you ever have wondered what a Roy Lichtenstein painting would sound like if it were given voice (and a top-drawer orchestra), then do your best to catch Superman which bubbles with quick-hit, single-panel songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.”  In the New York Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz asked, “Will Superman make you believe a man can fly? Who cares? Prepare your spirits
for takeoff!”

As for the original production, Ken Mandelbaum wrote in his 1991 tome Not Since Carrie that “[unlike comic strips-turned-musicals Li’l Abner and Annie, the latter also by Strouse] “Superman was nothing but a cartoon…The particular plot invented for the musical was uninspired [and was] noticeably lacking in suspense or wit.”  Whatever the musical’s shortcomings, though, the score is prime musical comedy.  Sony Broadway’s 1992 CD reissue, produced by Didier C. Deutsch, added a brace of demo recordings performed by Strouse and Adams, including three songs that were cut from the show.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has already outlasted Superman; in fact, its notorious 182 original preview performances managed to accomplish that.  But true aficionados and fanboys alike know that It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman has “got what you need” for a musical theatre comic book fix.  Up, up and away!

Original Broadway Cast Recording, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman (Columbia LP KOS 2970, 1966)

  1. Overture
  2. Doing Good – Bob Holiday
  3. We Need Him – Patricia Marand, Jack Cassidy, Bob Holiday, Company
  4. It’s Superman – Patricia Marand
  5. We Don’t Matter at All – Don Chastain, Patricia Marand
  6. Revenge – Michael O’Sullivan
  7. The Woman for the Man – Jack Cassidy, Patricia Marand
  8. You’ve Got Possibilities – Linda Lavin
  9. What I’ve Always Wanted – Patricia Marand
  10. It’s Super Nice – Company
  11. Entr’acte
  12. So Long, Big Guy – Jack Cassidy
  13. The Strongest Man in the World – Bob Holiday
  14. Ooh! Do You Love You? – Linda Lavin
  15. You’ve Got What I Need – Jack Cassidy, Michael O’Sullivan
  16. It’s Superman (Reprise) – Patricia Marand, Bob Holiday, Linda Lavin, Jack Cassidy, The Flying Lings, Don Chastain, Company
  17. I’m Not Finished Yet – Patricia Marand
  18. Pow! Bam! Zonk! – Bob Holiday, The Flying Lings
  19. Finale – Company
  20. Dot, Dot, Dot (Demo) – Charles Strouse and Lee Adams
  21. A Woman Alone (Demo) – Charles Strouse
  22. You’ve Got Possibilities (Demo) – Charles Strouse
  23. Did You See That (Demo) – Charles Strouse and Lee Adams

Tracks 20-23 added for Sony Broadway CD reissue, SK 48207, 1992

Written by Joe Marchese

March 22, 2013 at 12:45

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