It was 1966, smack bang in the midst of the Silver Age of Comic Books, that the idea struck. With the popularity of superheroes old and new once more skyrocketing, the opportunity to capitalise on the public’s renewed interest in comics had grown too great to turn down. And what better way to do so than through the power of the Broadway musical?
The post-war years hadn’t been kind to DC and Marvel’s super-powered symbols of hope. Having driven the comic book boom in the 1930s and ‘40s, the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman saw their sales dwindle, changing tastes seeing them frequently usurped on store shelves by science fiction and romance comics. A spate of high-profile critiques on the industry intensified the issue, most notably from psychiatrist and author of ‘Seduction of the Innocent’, Fredric Wertham, who denounced comics and their impact on children, even Superman not safe from accusations of fascism in the publication: “Superman (with the big S on his uniform — we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an SS)…”.
It was just this scrutiny from conservative critics that would lead to the Association of Comics Magazine Publishers ushering in an era of self-regulation in their own industry, courtesy of the newly-minted Comic Code Authority (CCA). The CCA ruleset bound creatives to an agreed (and heavily censored), list of restrictions, including (but not limited to): restraints on the use of slang and the word “crime”, a ban on victorious villains, and – naturally – no sexy time. Yet, it wouldn’t be long before our caped heroes would rise once more, Marvel and DC weaving increasingly popular tales for its audiences in spite of ongoing regulations. The Flash led the pack in DC’s revival, with the company’s big hitters soon to follow, while Marvel’s introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man re-cemented America’s love affair with superheroes.
But even in the comic industry’s darker moments, things hadn’t looked all so bad for Superman, the most celebrated superhero of them all, thanks to a small screen debut for the beloved spandex-wearing crime fighter. The duty of bringing Clark Kent to life fell into the capable hands of one George Reeves, who donned the cape (and pants) for Adventures of Superman’s 104 episode run from ’52-’58, kickstarting a period where Supes essentially just looked like everyone’s dad. And to imagine, Henry Cavill probably hasn’t eaten anything other than chicken and eggs since 2013 to stay in Man of Steel shape. But alas, these were the days long before Zack Snyder’s chiselled and moody modern reboot of the character, when Superman stood first and foremost as a beacon of justice and hope.
Between the success of George Reeves’ version of Krypton’s most famous son and the now-dubbed Silver Age of Comic Books, it was only a matter of time before the Broadway stage came-a-calling. Enter writers David Newman and Robert Benton, musicians Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and director Harold Smith Prince, creators of It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman.
When you think of Superman, musical theatre probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. But for the quintet behind what would become the first-ever theatrical foray for a superhero character, that clearly wasn’t the case. It seems so preoccupied were they with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. At a then-mammoth cost of $600,000 It’s a Bird opened in 1966 with Bob Holiday in the lead role to a warm critical response, but tepid box office return. Less than four months after its opening, the curtains closed on the first iteration of the show for the final time.
Robbed was the world of the sing-a-long classics, ‘We Need Him’ and *checks notes* ‘Pow! Bam! Zonk!’…
At least, that was, until a frankly all-too-long nine years later, when Superman ceded his position as the hero of the story, and in his place stepped the ABC network with its 1975 television adaptation of everyone’s favourite comic book musical, It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! For ninety minutes, spread over eleven “chapters”, Superman’s all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza hit TV screens across America. A new cast (David Wilson in the titular role), a tightened script and a few story shuffles here and there, but at its core this was the same show that lived so briefly and burned so bright the first time around, this time broadcast into the homes of unwitting viewers nationwide.
Was it a hit? Not so much. Is it the weirdest Superman content you’re ever likely to see? Absolutely!
It’s not without its charms: David Wilson’s bumbling Clark Kent, the relentlessly tongue in cheek humour, dancing mobsters and one or two soundtrack bangers. But it’s also undoubtedly very much a product of its time. Daily Planet reporter Sydney Carlton (Loretta Swit) is introduced as “cute as a button” and “sweet as pie” as she types up her latest story in her hat, fur coat and pearls. Clark bemoans the “gabby lady” in the phone box he impatiently waits to use. And the antagonistic borderline sex pest Max Mencken (Kenneth Mars) is one step away from getting himself cancelled. Suffice to say, it’s wasn’t the most progressive. Even poor Louis Lane (Lesley Ann Warren), the strong-willed, intelligent trailblazing journo is reduced to insufferably doting over men and dreaming of marriage.
Still, at least there’s the villain of the piece. Sure Lex Luthor was an established part of the Superman canon by this point, but why have the real deal when you can have the megalomaniac Lex-a-like Dr. Abner Sedgwick instead? Angry at being snubbed for the Nobel Prize a whopping ten times, he plans to exact his revenge on the world through excessive scenery-chewing. Consigned to the pages of history Sedgwick might be, but owing to the magic of Youtube, us lucky souls can still relive his one-time appearance in full…
In the years since hitting television, there’s been somewhat of a life after life for It’s a Bird. Bob Holiday, star of the original play, returned twice more to the role after its Broadway stint, while the show also bagged revivals in 1992 and 2007 (with American Horror Story’s Cheyenne Jackson as Superman in the latter production), 2010, 2013 and even a brief 2014 run in London.
But what of the men responsible for the original show? Director Harold Smith Prince went on to bag himself an impressive twenty-one Tony Awards, helming the likes of Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Composer Charles Strouse would score both the stage and film versions of Annie, while lyricist Lee Adams would later co-write the All in the Family theme alongside Strouse. For writers David Newman and Robert Benton though, this wouldn’t be the end of their time with the Man of Steel. Alongside Mario Puzo and Leslie Newman, the duo would go on to pen the screenplay for Christopher Reeve’s Superman (1978), the most iconic take on the character of them all. A true hero’s journey.
To quote Superman himself, “The ‘Amazing’ can only be created by facing fear, risk, and failure during the process.”