Thursday, September 02, 2010

Fixing the "Superman" Musical



One of the first obscure musicals I wrote about here was It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman, so I've been interested to see what's been happening with its attempted "Revisal" by the Dallas Theater Center. A version of the show with a new book by playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa opened there a few months ago; it was an expensive production clearly done with an eye on a Broadway transfer, but not much seems to have come of it yet. Of course things might be different if the Spider-Man musical turns out to do better than people expect.

This is a description of the revised production, and Aguirre-Sacasa talked to Comic Book Resources about the approach and the songs that were dropped and added. (The added songs mostly come from a pool of cut songs that Strouse and Adams recorded as demos, and which can be found as an appendix to the CD release of the original cast album.) DC wouldn't allow them to include the Superman characters that the musical left out -- so Max Mencken the columnist was changed to Lex Luthor, but then changed back to a version of Max who acts very much like Lex Luthor. But the setting was changed to the period when Superman comics began; the plot was changed; the tone made less campy; and so on.

Not having seen the revisal, I'm not going to try and pass judgment on whether it worked or not. I will say that revisions of failed musicals often seem to start from a one-size-fits-all attitude toward what makes a musical fail. The idea is always that the songs are great and the original production was fine but was dragged down by the book. (The book always gets blamed for everything.) In the case of Superman that's probably not true at all. The book, written by David Newman and Robert Benton at a time when they had already written their then-unproduced script for Bonnie and Clyde, is funny and smart; someone I know who saw it on Broadway described it as one of the funniest books ever written. It has its problems now, mostly because its approach -- viewing comic books ironically -- is no longer in fashion. But the show had bigger problems than the scriptwriting per se, though some of its larger problems are inseparable from script problems. Director Hal Prince clearly was not engaged by the material (he admitted as much in his memoirs), and Jack Cassidy threw off the proportions of the show by being too big a name for what should have been a small part.

My problem with "revisals" generally is that it's very hard to fix a show after the fact. It's incredibly tempting, given the benefit of hindsight and more time than the creators had during the hectic tryouts, but nothing seems to help all that much. Even Candide, which has just been announced for its millionth revised version, has (in my opinion) never arrived at a version as good as the original Lillian Hellman book -- that has its problems, but it's one with the score in a way that none of the subsequent versions are. It's the difference, I suppose, between a book that's created in conjunction with the score and a book that's created around it.

But at least Candide has a legitimately great score that you can't help wanting to save. In Superman, while there are some fantastic songs from Strouse and Adams in their prime -- just after they had created perhaps the greatest Broadway score of the '60s, for Golden Boy -- a lot of the weakest moments come from the score, not Benton and Newman's book. In particular the team could never figure out how to characterize Superman in song. I don't blame them: it's almost impossible to write songs for a character who is simultaneously a hero and a parody of one, and who has no sense of irony about himself. The closest character is, strangely enough, Candide -- and Bernstein and his lyricists solved the Candide problem by giving him songs at mostly un-ironic moments. But Superman's songs aren't goofy enough to be funny and they're not serious enough to work un-ironically, so the score is a big reason why there's a void at the center of the show. I actually like his big eleven o'clock number, "Pow! Bam! Zonk!" (written before the Batman TV show, I might add) -- but it's just not strong enough to make him the star of his own show.



One solution someone suggested to me years ago was to take Lois's ballad "What I've Always Wanted," about how she's longed for domesticity and settling down, and give it to Clark Kent and/or Superman. It would fit him quite well with only a few lyric changes, give him a more substantial musical moment, and make Lois a less sappy character as well. But while the revisal cut "What I've Always Wanted" it didn't hand it over to anyone else. So it will probably remain a show where the best song goes not to Clark or Lois or even the villain, but a gossip columnist's secretary trying to seduce Clark Kent.



Oh, well. I should add again that the original orchestrations of Superman, by Eddie Sauter, are some of my favorites ever. Sauter wasn't the first orchestrator to do without violins (this was actually a minor fad at the time, with shows as diverse as Funny Thing Happened On the Way To the Forum and 110 in the Shade letting violas do the main string work instead, and Don Walker even eliminating violas and using only cellos in a couple of shows), but he created a sound for this show that was like none other, a combination of brassy, romantic and otherworldly; in other words, perfect for Superman. His Entr'acte is one of the best of all time, so good that it was recorded for the cast album (Entr'actes aren't usually recorded because they tend to be very similar to the overtures):



Update: From comments, reader "MSPote" has seen the revised version and has a fuller description of it:


Hi -- Interesting post. I did get to see the revisal/revival, and it was fantastic. It "worked" beautifully. I wasn't privy to any behind-the-scenes information -- just a regular theater-goer -- but it didn't seem to me that "everything was blamed on the [orginal] book." As you mentioned, some songs that originally had been cut were added; and not every song that made the cut back in 1966 was left, or even left untouched. "Doing Good" was abbreviated and put in Pa Kent's mouth in a brief Smallville prologue. "You've Got Possibilities" was given to the character of the gossip columnist, who is now herself the columnist, not a columnist's reporter. And it now helps set up a fabulous twist near the end of Act II. "Pow! Zam! Bonk!" is still there, largely untouched so far as I could tell. "We Don't Matter" is now a duet between Sharpe (the gossip columnist, who is "more cynical than Lois," says Clark) and Clark Kent (who takes what used to be Lois' lyrics, sticking up for humanity and its potential). The Entre'Acte was still there (no overture though), although Lois' sappy ballad has been cut from it (since it no longer appears in the show).

If you ever get the chance to see this new version in regional theater, which I think is where it will be heading (if anywhere -- DC, sadly and I think unnecessarily, doesn't seem too supportive of future productions) I urge you to do so. I think you will find that, other revisals aside, this one is a great one.


2 comments:

Anthony said...

I seem to recall an interview with Howard Chaykin about his rejected pitch for revising Superman (the character) for DC (the job would go to John Byrne). His first splash page would have been Superman flying through the air with headphones on listening to How to Succeed in Business: "You've got the cool, crisp eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth..."

The best line to give to Superman in a musical show, and it wasn't in "his" musical.

MSPOTE said...

Hi -- Interesting post. I did get to see the revisal/revival, and it was fantastic. It "worked" beautifully. I wasn't privy to any behind-the-scenes information -- just a regular theater-goer -- but it didn't seem to me that "everything was blamed on the [orginal] book." As you mentioned, some songs that originally had been cut were added; and not every song that made the cut back in 1966 was left, or even left untouched. "Doing Good" was abbreviated and put in Pa Kent's mouth in a brief Smallville prologue. "You've Got Possibilities" was given to the character of the gossip columnist, who is now herself the columnist, not a columnist's reporter. And it now helps set up a fabulous twist near the end of Act II. "Pow! Zam! Bonk!" is still there, largely untouched so far as I could tell. "We Don't Matter" is now a duet between Sharpe (the gossip columnist, who is "more cynical than Lois," says Clark) and Clark Kent (who takes what used to be Lois' lyrics, sticking up for humanity and its potential). The Entre'Acte was still there (no overture though), although Lois' sappy ballad has been cut from it (since it no longer appears in the show).

If you ever get the chance to see this new version in regional theater, which I think is where it will be heading (if anywhere -- DC, sadly and I think unnecessarily, doesn't seem too supportive of future productions) I urge you to do so. I think you will find that, other revisals aside, this one is a great one.