MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the first Superman film and do it as a musical.
In 1966, just a few short months after the debut of the Batman television series, legendary Broadway composer Charles Strouse (a three-time Tony Award winner for Best Score, including another musical based on a comic, Annie) opened a musical called It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman (with lyrics by Lee Adams). Looking back, the musical is often lumped in with the many projects launched in the late ‘60s in a bid to cash in on Bat-Mania. However, as I noted in an old Comic Book Legends Revealed, there likely was no such connection. Strouse didn’t write It’s a Bird … as camp, but with the same straightforward approach he later did with Annie; the result just happened to be a campy musical.
While the initial musical was a financial flop, the show was well-regarded enough that in 1975, ABC aired a TV version. I bring this up to note that the idea of Superman as a musical wasn’t unprecedented during the mid-‘70s, and in fact had just been prominently displayed on television. So keep that in mind when we address today's legend, sent in by reader Charlie L., who wanted to know whether it’s true that Steven Spielberg not only wanted to direct the first Superman movie, but wanted to do it as a musical?
In summer 1974, hot off of the success of 1973's The Three Musketeers and the highly anticipated sequel The Four Musketeers, the father and son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind (along with their producing partner Pierre Spengler), acquired the film rights to Superman. Their intent was to follow their unique production approach to the Musketeers films, which they filmed at the same time and then released a year apart. That technique saved a lot of money on production (Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson later famously used the same model).
Few films have had quite as legendary of a production process as the first Superman. Although the rights were secured in mid-1974, shooting didn’t begin until nearly three years later, with the Salkinds encountering difficulty in finding either a director or an actor to play Superman (they famously even auditioned Ilya Salkind's dentist!). At various points, pretty much every hot director was approached, from Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin (just coming off of The Exorcist) to Richard Lester (who had helmed the Musketeers films) and Sam Peckinpah.
Among the directors interested in the job was a young man who made his mainstream directing debut in 1974 with The Sugarland Express. Steven Spielberg was finishing up work on his next film, Jaws, and was very interested in Superman. Ilya Salkind recalled the situation to Barry Freiman in an excellent interview at Barry's website, The Superman Homepage, noting that Spielberg's agent was pushing his client hard to the Salkinds and Spengler.
Spengler and Ilya Salkind looked at Spielberg's work and saw what many others did: a talented filmmaker. They were interested, but Alexander Salkind was less enthused. At the time, Spielberg was famously over-budget on Jaws (which had its own legendary production problems). The older Salkind told his son, "Let's wait until the big fish opens."
In summer 1975, the "big fish" movie opened, becoming one of the biggest blockbusters in film history. Then Alexander Salkind was very interested in Spielberg. As Ilya Salkind recalls, though, now that Spielberg was a star, he not only could do whatever project he wanted to do next, but it was likely he held a bit of a grudge about being dismissed by Alexander Salkind.
Ilya Salkind told Freiman:
"I said 'look, he's never going to do it' now that Jaws is so huge.’” Salkind contacted Spielberg's agent but their window of opportunity had closed. "I called [Spielberg's] agent and the agent said ... [he wanted] to do Superman singing and dancing, which was really a very polite way of saying [no]. And I understood it immediately."
And that would be the origin of "Spielberg wanted to do a Superman musical."
I think we can trust Ilya Salkind's take on the situation. If he feels that suggestion was made in jest, then I think it’s only fair to take it that way. So with that in mind, I'm willing to with the legend as ...
Thanks to Barry Freiman and Ilya Salkind for the information! And thanks to Charlie for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is email@example.com.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!