In this shot by Sara Krulwich, which accompanied Ben Brantley’s NYT review, a be-beanied Man of Steel (Edward Watts) strikes a pose. (The beanie in question was awarded him by the freshman class of the Metropolis Institute of Technology (seen here Frugging with abandon); the bouquet of roses by MIT’s cheerleading squad (Mashed Potatoing what their mammas gave them), during the first-act closer,”It’s Super Nice.”
F and I headed up to NYC yesterday to catch the very limited run (March 20-24) of the ENCORES! concert staging of 1966’s “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s SUPERMAN” at City Center. Because we are your great-aunts. (NOTE: Ellipses aren’t exactly unheard of in the titles of musicals (“Tick, Tick … BOOM”), but when the punctuational/typographical history of Broadway is written, I’m willing to bet this show’s title, dual-weilding its dot-dot-dots as it does, will merit at least a footnote.)
In my book, SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY, the-pub-date-of-which-is-April-1st-but-you-can-totally-get-the-ebook-now-for-reasons-that-elude-me, I was a little hard on this show. In my defense, I based my dim view on repeated listenings to the original cast album, the (admittedly hazy) recollections of 3 people who saw that production, and the execrable 1975 made-for-television adaptation, which is findable on the internet, but to which I will not link, for it is The Worst, and deserves to be forgotten, because no fooling it is terrible terrible terrible, and Men do name it Abomination seriously don’t look for it you were warned.
A bit of background:
“It’s a Bird …”, produced and directed by Harold Prince, debuted on Broadway in March 1966. The show was written by David Newman and Robert Benton (who would, a decade later, work on the screenplay of Superman: The Movie) with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams (the team behind 1960’s “Bye Bye Birdie”).
It featured dramatic stunts (star Bob Holiday “lifted” bleachers filled with people over his head, and flew high out over the footlights via an elaborate system of cables and pulleys manned by burly backstage Teamsters) and known stars: Patricia Menand, who’d created the role of Anna in “The King and I”, played Lois Lane, and song-and-dance-man Jack Cassidy received top billing as Daily Planet gossip columnist Max Mencken.
The look of the show was dosed with bright and trendy Pop-Art colors, and cleverly designed: At one point, the ensemble sang and danced in a towering set divided into compartments to look like a comic book page.
A sure thing, right?
Nope. The show closed just four months later, on July 17th, after just 129 performances.
The reviews weren’t what did it in; the Times actually liked it a lot. Writer David Newman remains convinced that the timing was wrong: the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman TV show had premiered in January of that year, scant months before “It’s a Bird … “‘s debut. Newman, and several people involved with the production, reason that audiences were tired of funny superheroes. This reasoning doesn’t hold up particularly well, however, when one considers that the “Batmania” fad sparked by the Adam West show was only getting started by the time “It’s a Bird …” opened, and would not show signs of abating for over a year.
I believe the real issue was that “It’s a Bird …” — which added children’s matinees during the run to meet demand — attained a reputation as a dismissible piece of “kiddie theater” that it simply couldn’t shake.
A made-for-TV adaptation that trades the show’s earnest, sing-your-guts-out Broadway sudsiness for broad, cheap, 70s-variety-show corniness. And Lesley Ann Warren’s trying this breathy sexpot thing with her voice, which NO YOU ARE PLAYING LOIS LANE STOP IT. Cringeworthy.
I should have realized that seeing these songs performed live, even the ones I’d outright dismissed, would have a way of … well, enlivening them, really.
And that was precisely the dynamic of this ENCORES! staging, bright and exuberant and six different kinds of charming as it was. They got the tone right: tongue-in-cheek/playful, not ironic/eye-rolling. Plus there were lots of attractive people doing the Watusi. So. I mean.
Brantley’s review nails it; he calls it entertaining and two-dimensional. Which: Yes, and HELL yes. This is some old school musical-making, here. So old school it dipped my pigtails in an inkwell. So old school it came with a slide rule. So old school its Periodic Table stops at Boron. So old school something something Ichabod Crane something. Is how old school.
Listening to the original cast album, I was always struck by how quaint and of-its-time the show seemed: Don’t like a particular song? Hang tight, it’ll be over in less than two minutes.
The ENCORES staging leans hard into the original show’s blithe 1960s-osity. Not just the set and the costumes, though yes, very much those. Put it this way: The villain of the piece attempts to undo Superman via pop psychology (1966, ladies and gentlemen), which knocks the Man of Steel back on his heels for a bit. But then, in his final number, he just sort of … shakes it off.
No introspection, no brooding, just … gets over it. Imagine if other shows did that. “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark” would be a tight little one-act.
Listening to Lois Lane’s various love ballads on the cast album, I never heard anything in Menand’s voice besides what her words were telling me: Oh how I love that Superman of mine. Jenny Powers’ take on the role seems more layered and self-aware, and she finds the joke in “All I Ever Wanted,” for example. We’re not laughing AT her — this isn’t Lois’ “Somewhere That’s Green” moment, in which she pines for something that to us seems shallow. We’re sharing her confusion — the hell DOES she want, anyway?
Listening to the cast album, you don’t quite get what Daily Planet gossip columnist Max Mencken is doing in the show; he’s a broad, shticky throwback. A Vaud-villain, as it were. But I now realize he’s the audience proxy, the cynical shyster who just doesn’t understand why people love Superman so much.
Seeing the show produced makes one other thing very clear: the show’s truest and most passionate love song doesn’t belong to Lois. It’s sung by Max, played here by Will Swenson with oleaginous brio. “You’ve Got What I Need” is a duet between the show’s two villains, Max and mad scientist Dr. Abner Sedgewick (David Pittu), as they realize they can bring Superman down together.
Pittu attacks his songs with nefarious glee, rolling the hell out of his r’s in “Revenge,” which is only good and right and fitting. And Alli Mauzey (moonlighting here from her stint as Glinda in “Wicked”) eschews Linda Lavin’s weird little-girl breathiness on “You’ve Got Possibilities” for a beltier, blow-your-hair-back delivery. As Superman, a thankless role, Edward Watts serves ably (and fills out the suit with aplomb), but as Clark, he’s a lot of fun, forever fighting his hair-squiggle and looking guilelessly confused.
In place of the stunts, a cardboard cutout of Superman — the same Joe Shuster drawing that graces the original cast album, a nice touch — flies across the stage. The blithe cheesiness is the joke, and it works.
During Superman’s closing number, “Pow! Bam! Zonk!” in which Superman defeats a troupe of Chinese acrobats because sure he does, those damn Batman-inspired jagged-edged sound effect balloons (“THWACK!”) drop from the ceiling. They were there in the original run, too, added, like the song, at the last minute (remember, the Batman TV show had debuted just a couple months before “It’s a Bird …” opened). We will never be free of them.
So, what have learned?
1. Enthusiasm matters. Performers who are having a good time effectively coerce you into sharing it, damn their eyes.
2. The sight of many people Frugging (or doing the Mashed Potato, or the Funky Chicken, or the Watusi, or the Swim) is a great and good thing.