Friday, July 16, 2004

Obscure Musicals: SUPERMAN

The actor who played Superman on Broadway recently wrote a book, coincidentally entitled Superman on Broadway. I haven't read it, but Jerry Beck recommends it, saying that "this book collects all his memories of the experience, clippings, stills, TV appearences, just everything... plus the story of his showbiz career before the tights and cape - and his subsequent business in home design." Holiday's other Broadway appearances included a supporting role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! produced by the producer-director of Superman, Harold Prince.

Superman was one of those shows that seemed to have everything going for it and still flopped. It had a score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; after their moody jazz score for Golden Boy, this score brought back the bright playfulness of Bye Bye Birdie, with songs ranging from mid-'60s pop (one of the songs, "It's Superman," is written in such a way that it can be, and is, sung either as a conventional Broadway ballad or an uptempo song with a vaguely rock/pop beat) to '30s pastiche ("You've Got What I Need," a duet for the villains, is a Cole Porter takeoff that even directly references "You're the Top"). The big hit was "You've Got Possibilities," one of those show tunes that starts quietly and then gradually builds to a loud, belt-heavy climax.

The book, by David Newman and Robert Benton -- the team that would write Bonnie and Clyde for Hollywood the next year -- was a very funny take on the Superman story and comic-book mythology in general. It wasn't a campy parody like Batman, which premiered while Superman was playing on Broadway. It was more of a comic re-examination of Superman: let's see what happens to this character when we put him in '60s New York, among a completely new set of characters (the only other characters retained from the comic book are Lois, Perry and Jimmy), and let him be plagued by '60s self-doubt. That's Superman's biggest problem in this story; when he fails to stop a building from being blown up and the town starts to shun him for his failure, he becomes depressed:

Why must the strongest man in the world
Be the bluest man? Tell me, why?
Don't they know the strongest man can cry?

The villain, Abner Sedgewick (Michael O'Sullivan), now puts his master plan into effect by talking to Superman and, basically, analyzing him the way a pop-culture commentator analyzes a comic book; telling Superman that his persona is just a symbol of his need for love, and that the Superman/savior pose is unacceptably arrogant and kind of fascist ("Who told you we needed a Superman"). Unable to deal with this kind of complexity, Superman collapses, and is only brought out of it by realizing that things really aren't that complicated: there really is evil and it's realy his job to stop it. Superman saves the day, of course. Other adversaries include a Winchell-esque columnist named Max (Jack Cassidy) and a troupe of Chinese acrobats who are upset that no one's impressed with them now that Superman is doing amazing stunts for free.

The show got a rave review in the New York Times, but it only ran for 129 performances. The biggest problem was that, though the show was called "Superman," Superman was really more of a peripheral character. He doesn't get the best songs or the best lines. The biggest star in the cast, Jack Cassidy, played a wisecracking, amoral guy who likes Lois Lane and dislikes Superman; this basically should have been a minor part, but Cassidy was so good, and such a well-known actor on Broadway, that this became practically the central role, and would have been even bigger if a long musical monologue called "Dot Dot Dot" (a parody of Winchell's writing style) hadn't been cut. (Lee Adams recalled that no one knew why the song bombed with tryout audiences. I think it's obvious why it bombed: the audience was impatient to get to Superman stuff, and didn't want to sit through four minutes of irrelevant Winchell-isms.) The best song, "You've Got Possibilities," went not to Patricia Marand's Lois Lane -- who mostly got deliberately square-sounding ballads -- but to Linda Lavin, playing Cassidy's secretary. This meant that in a musical about Superman, much of the focus was on characters who had little to do with the plot and nothing to do with the Superman mythology. I sometimes get the feeling that a more sensible producer/director than Prince would have said "It's called Superman, so Superman has to be the star." But it doesn't seem like anybody said that, and I don't think Superman will ever be a success, despite the fine book and score, because of that problem of focus.

The Original Cast Recording is still available and hugely entertaining, except for a really stupid song called "It's Super Nice." There are also some pictures from the original production. The show is sometimes revived, though not on Broadway; the Encores series was supposed to do a concert version of it, but it was cancelled when September 11 made one of the plot twists (a building being blown up by the villains) distasteful.


Hector Coris said...

Just found this blog!
Wanted to let you know that the new theatre company, Opening Doors Theatre Company, is producing a concert version of ...SUPERMAN! on March 11-13 in NYC.
For more details, go to

guitarmom said...

Bob Holiday has a newly re-designed website. Come visit and learn about the original Broadway production: