By Guest Contributor
Comics history is full of all types of weird things: bizarre comics, bizarre behind-the-scenes stories and (every once in a while) something like It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman! Staged on Broadway in March, 1966, and other than the original Broadway cast recording and a dismal ‘70s TV special, It’s Superman! has mostly become memories in the minds of those who saw one of the original run of 129 performances (one of those, incidentally, was a teenage Jim Shooter, who was taken to see it by tyrannical Superman editor Mort Weisinger, on his first big trip up to DC Comics).
The book, by David Newman and Robert Benton, features music by Charles Strouse with lyrics by Lee Adams (both of Bye Bye Birdie fame). Produced at the same time as the Batman TV show, but independent of it, It’s Superman! tapped into the fad of comic book deprived pop art, focusing on Ben Day dots and colorful set pieces, along with a pastiche-driven portrayal of the Man of Steel.
The play featured Superman and Lois Lane in a Metropolis populated by new characters, giving the original writers room to introduce villains mad scientist Abner Sedgwick, and sleazy gossip columnist Max Mencken. Their plan is to not only ruin the Man of Steel through psychology, but also to find out his secret identity and expose him to the world. It’s pretty cookie cutter stuff, really, but put through the lens of 1960s America, complete with stereotypical Chinese baddies (the unemployed acrobats The Flying Lings) and music that borders between mod and vaudeville, it’s kind of amazing…even during some of the more painful moments.
It seems that the writers only really cared more about their own characters, infusing them with more motivation, personality, and chutzpah than the established ones. Max’s secretary, Sydney, actually gets the best numbers the whole show: “You’ve Got a Lot of Possibilities” (which enjoyed some success outside of the show), and “Ohh, Do You Love You!”, while Sedgwick gets to enjoy the absurdist “Revenge.” Lois’s “What I’ve Always Wanted” boils her down to a cardboard girly-girl desirous of the 1960s housewife’s vision of conformity in suburbia, while the jarring lyrics of Superman’s own first number, “We Need Him” had to have been intentionally bad.
Encores! at the New York City Center brings the show back through this weekend, modestly with a small set yet done in a big way through sharp costuming and a full orchestra. Where there are no wireworks for Superman, and the orchestra takes up the back part of the stage, their production of It’s Superman! has a cast who is so in on the show’s own inside joke of being an outsider’s view of a 1960s superhero comic book come to life that they instantly sell it. This cast grew up with the Batman TV show and the Christopher Reeve Superman and one can only wonder how their performances differ from the original.
David Pittu shines as the maniacally pathetic Sedgwick, and Will Swenson, many times, steals the show as the sleazy Max Mencken, a wanna-be swinger with designs on Lois. The two of them, particularly together, result in more ham than a corner deli in Manhattan, and you really have to love them for it.
Jenny Powers is great casting for Lois, and it’s unfortunate Lois isn’t written as anything more than a co-dependent woman, rather than an independent journalist. Her numbers are primarily about that co-dependence and the Betty Draper desires that were (as most of the pop culture of the time says) the dreams of every red-blooded American woman.
Not to be outdone, however, is Edward Watts as Clark Kent/Superman; he somehow (through either accident or design) channels Bud Collyer’s voice work on the Superman radio show via Kirk Alyn in the old movie serials, giving us a tongue-in-cheek classic Superman played with panache and humor. Given the solid costuming for Watts, and his physical presence, he completely works as that classic Superman who, though not around in the comics anymore, still remains the cultural memory of the character. Even with a sense of make-believe in his portrayal of Superman, Watts completely sells the absurdist world of an Eisenhower-era Superman faced with the 1960s threat of…psychoanalysis!
It’s A Bird…It’s A Plane…It’s Superman is a cultural artifact brought back for Encore’s revival, and a must see for students of Superman history. The orchestration by Eddie Sauter, long thought lost in lieu of a simplified version for rental purposes, was painstakingly restored from the original notes by Josh Clayton. It’s a blend of jazz, mod, and vaudeville sounds; colorful, dynamic, and just plain kitschy, the orchestrations are often the best part of the music.
But at the end of the day, it’s an incredibly rare chance to see a revived part of both comic book and pop culture history, complete with a great cast and a lot of charm. I applaud Encore! for keeping the good, bad, and ugly intact to present the musical as close to its original vision as possible.
Christopher Irving first cut his teeth as a journalist and historian in the pages of trade publications like Comics Buyer’s Guide and Comic Book Artist magazine, before authoring a handful of books on comics and their creators. He continues to run Graphic NYC with Seth Kushner while also contributing to his blog and digital magazine www.thedrawnword.com. His work can soon be found in the pages of editor Jon B. Cooke’s latest magazine, Comic Book Creator, through TwoMorrows Publishing. Christopher Irving’s latest book is Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics (powerHouse Books) with Kushner.
Order tickets here: http://www.nycitycenter.org/tickets/productionNew.aspx?performanceNumber=6631
City Center has arranged for fans to get a special discount on tickets with code COMIC. Offer not valid for March 23 2pm performance.
$24 – Balcony Sides (reg $30)
$48 – Mezzanine Center/Sides, Balcony Center (reg $60)
$86 – Mezzanine Center/Sides (reg $115)
Visit NYCityCenter.org, call CityTix at212.581.1212, or visit the Box Office at 131 W 55th St, and use code COMIC*