Sunday, July 4, 2010

Superman the musical... Broadway bound?

Back in 1966, just as camp TV series Batman was turning the dark knight into a national joke, the musical It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman opened on Broadway.

The book was by soon-to-be Academy Award-nominees David Newman and Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde) and the songs by Bye Bye Birdie’s Charles Strouse and Lee Adams; it opened to generally favorable reviews, picked up three Tony nominations (all for members of the cast) and closed after less than four months.

The news that it just might be Broadway-bound again boggles the mind… my mind, anyway, but fair is fair: I — like most people, given that abbreviated run — know the show only from the 1975 TV version, which is so staggeringly awful that it really is, well, staggering.

The TV special has never been available on commercial video or DVD, but like so many other ghastly gems (The Star Wars Holiday Special, anyone?), the bootlegs are out there for those who just have to see it. And, dear reader, I did.

The plot, such as it is, involves the collusion of mad scientist Abner Sedgwick (David Wayne, Batman’s Mad Hatter) and reporter Max Mencken (Kenneth Mars, who sometimes sounds remarkably like Gene Hackman playing Lex Luther) to destroy Superman by undermining his self-confidence, Sedgwick because he wants to rule the world (the better to punish Sweden because he’s never won a Nobel Prize) and Mencken because he’s a jealous schmuck. Plucky girl reporter Lois Lane (Lesley Ann Warren, then just plain Lesley Warren) swoons over Superman (David Wilson) but barely knows his alter ego, Clark Kent, is alive. Clark nurses a crush on Lois, while his comely colleague, Sydney (Loretta Swit) pines for Mencken, who only has eyes for Lois. Sedgwick and Mencken’s plan appears to be succeeding until Superman crosses paths with a couple of wise hippies who think he’s just great because he’s a freak — all the cool people are freaks. Very ‘60s.

Granted, Superman: The Movie (1978) — which Newman and Benton co-wrote along with a host of others, credited and uncredited — but big special effects can distract viewers from a multitude of sins. It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… had none, and I found the songs insipid beyond belief. The comic-bookish sets are hideous and cheap-looking, and the episodic construction (complete with a narrator who hypes the next installment) is straight out of the Batman series which, for the record, I always hated. The script, which tinkers with that of the show (there are, for example, no Chinese acrobats; the original play had five) is full of “timely” allusions, from mobster Malachi Thorne’s solemn “My fellow hoods, let me make one thing perfectly clear… there’s someone we gotta take out” to Mencken’s threat that an errant computer is going to get the 2001 treatment if it doesn’t look out. Not clever. Not funny.

The show was revived in 1992 at the Godspeed Opera Housein Haddam Connecticut, and got a very decent review from the New York Times’ Stephen Holden that apparently impressed no-one. But the Dallas Theater Center’s new production seems to be making an impression, which I suspect is proof that timing is everything — there is, after all, a mega-budget Spider-Man musical lumbering its way to Broadway as I write.

This new version of It’s a Bird… It’ a Plane… reportedly dials down the camp, features several new songs (and eliminates others) and got an extensive overhaul by playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose credits lean to the macabre, including a 2009 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Variety’s reviewer liked it, but all I can say is that it would have to be pretty damned fabulous to erase the memory of that excruciating TV special.

1 comment:

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