In March of 1966, a new musical opened on Broadway with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams (the pair was only six years removed from their classic Tony Award-winning musical, “Bye Bye Birdie”) and a book by Robert Benton and David Newman. The musical had a peculiar star – the Last Son of Krypton himself, Superman! “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman” received mostly positive reviews, but it was a commercial flop, remaining in production for less than four months.
Now, over forty years later, Superman is getting another chance to make it as a musical star with a completely re-imagined version of the original musical, complete with a brand-new book by author, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (current writer of Marvel’s adaptations of “Stephen King’s The Stand” and past writer of “Marvel Knights: Spider-Man,” “Marvel Knights: 4” and most recently, “Marvel Divas”). Aguirre-Sacasa is no stranger to the stage, as he is an accomplished playwright with a number of plays under his belt and is also currently a writer on the staff of the HBO hit series, “Big Love.”
One of the most notable problems with the original musical was the decision to bring very little from the actual comic into the story, choosing instead to feature prominently a brand new newspaper columnist character named Max Mencken, who vied with Superman for Lois Lane’s affections. As Aguirre-Sacasa recounted when CBR News spoke to him about the project, “I heard this musical when I was ten or eleven, and I loved the idea that there was a Superman musical, but it baffled me that there were no characters from the Superman mythos. There were fun songs but no Lex Luthor, no Jimmy Olsen, no super-villains – basically nothing that you would expect from a Superman musical. I mean, there was Lois Lane and Clark Kent, but that’s it.”
Luckily for Superman fans, two years ago, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty was talking with Charles Strouse’s manager, Carolyn Rossi Copeland, when the topic of “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane” came up. She sent Moriarty a copy of the script, but he told her he would have to pass, as the work was just too dated. Surprisingly, Copeland told Moriarty that Strouse might be willing to discuss that very topic, so Moriarty flew to New York to meet with the venerable composer (Strouse is the winner of two Tony Awards for Best Musical, as well as a Tony Award for Best Original Score for the mega-hit “Annie”). When Strouse asked Moriarty what he thought could be done to make the show work for today’s audiences, Moriarty recommended hiring Aguirre-Sacasa to re-write the book. Once he got the go-ahead from his writing partner, lyricist Lee Adams, Strouse agreed.
After also receiving permission from the original book writers widows, Aguirre-Sacasa began the re-write. Essentially, the entire structure of the show was thrown out and replaced with a brand-new story set in Metropolis in 1939, one year after the Man of Steel’s first appearance. As Aguirre-Sacasa notes, “By making it a year after Superman’s debut, we could cut into the story – enough time has passed that Lois Lane is already in love with Superman (and not interested in Clark) and Lex Luthor wants to kill Superman.”
In many ways, the setting is similar to that of the archetypal Fleischer Superman cartoons of the early 1940s. Aguirre-Sacasa also observes that setting it in this time allows him to write the Daily Planet setting in a “His Girl Friday” style (the classic 1940 Howard Hawks’ romantic comedy film about a female reporter very much in the Lois Lane mold).
Gone is Mencken, and in his place stands Superman’s arch-rival, Lex Luthor, who effectively takes over all of Mencken’s songs from the original musical. Aguirre-Sacasa described the set-up as: “A year after Superman’s arrival, Metropolis’s mayor has named him ‘Citizen of the Century,’ snubbing Luthor, who decides enough is enough, time to kill Superman.”
The writer continued on to describe Luthor’s plan, “Luthor assembles a team of super-villains to do his dirty work for him, arming them each with a different colored piece of kryptonite (He’s trying to fabricate green kryptonite, but he can’t figure out the last, unknown element). The villains are all drawn from Superman’s history, recent and distant. The Prankster and Toyman, of course, and Magpie from John Byrne’s run (though she’s been retro-fitted into the period), Terra-Man from the 1970s (the musical’s debuting in Texas, so it’s great to have a cowboy in there), the Scarlet Widow, who’s from the old radio serial (here a ‘sapphic scourge of the underworld’) and Hocus and Pocus, who will be like evil magicians from vaudeville.”
Strouse and Adams will be slightly re-writing the original songs to fit the new book, and writing a number of brand-new songs, as well, including a Lois-Clark rooftop duet and a Kryptonian lullaby for the opening of the show (before Superman gets to Metropolis, audiences will first follow him from his infanthood on Krypton to his teen years in Smallville with Lana Lang).
Taking another page from the 1980s Post-Crisis Superman reboot, Aguirre-Sacasa is working a more recent comic book creation into the show. As he describes it, “just joining the staff of the Daily Planet is Cat Grant, the gossip columnist from the Chicago Tribune, who is replacing the late, great Max Mencken. Grant comes into the newsroom with a lot of attitude. She’s challenging Lois’s status as queen bee at the Planet and setting her (romantic) sights on Clark, while pursing the juiciest bit of gossip ever: The rumor that Superman has a secret identity!”
The idea behind the revamp is to take all the best of Superman’s supporting cast and villains and put them together into one epic tale while still preserving a great deal of character drama (there’s at least three love triangles in the story). By the time the show is over, audiences should be able to reflect on how rich and enjoyable Superman’s mythos really is. As Aguirre-Sacasa so nicely puts it, “All my comic work is for Marvel since I’m exclusive with them, but I now understand why people say that there’s no better comic book character to write for than Superman.”
“It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman” debuts at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas, Texas, on June 18, 2010 and will run until July 25.