Sunday, March 31, 2013

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman: The Musical!

Holy cow.

I've known about It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman! for around 10-12 years, but I had never seen it in any form.  Originally produced as a campy Broadway spectacular  in 1966 (it debuted the same year as the Adam West TV show), the show ran for about four months before closing.  I think that, these days, the show has mostly been forgotten.

In 1975, because nobody was paying attention, ABC broadcast a version of the musical.  Reportedly the program aired a single time, fairly late at night and in a dead zone where networks were often trying to figure out how to fill the airwaves*.  To the best of my knowledge, there is no legally obtainable copy of the broadcast available.  For Superman fans, the musical is about as close to an intentionally obscure artifact as I can think of to that king of pop cultural ephemera, the Star Wars Holiday Special.  Superman fans have all seen clips or stills, but we haven't seen the actual full program.

Can you read my mind?

This week, I did obtain a copy.  We'll keep it a little shrouded in mystery, but my source knows who he is, and knows how awesome he or she is.  As the existence of this video may not be entirely on the up and up (and so offended am I that I have immediately burned the DVD so that NONE may find yourself tainted by the sheer audacity of it's illegality), I'm keeping the gifter's name out of it.

But, thanks, man.  That was SUPER of you!**

The video itself is a transfer from tape.  Tape from 1975.  So, it's got some rough edges and the sound is occasionally wobbly because: aging analog media.  It's not the drug-fueled nightmare that the Star Wars Holiday Special devolves into within minutes of the opening, and, frankly, the Star Wars Special had about 20 times the budget of this show.  It's also an oddball bit of nerd media, and would fit nicely on your shelf next to the shelved low-budget, very 90's Justice League pilot, the Legends of the Superheroes, the Captain America TV movies, etc... etc...   But the musical is pure hammy schmaltz, but intentionally so, and it's oddly charming, even if it's not much of a musical.

If I can compare it to anything, its sort of a post-Adam West, Carol Burnett-era, self-aware cheesefest that takes itself none too seriously.  It's certainly a product of it's time when superheroes were not thought of as cool, brooding avengers, but hokey totems of kiddie morality plays living in impossible/ illogical worlds.  It's not even condescending, it's just...  not willing to see superheroes as a genre or medium that has much to offer and that's inherently ridiculous.

I know I say this a lot, but until Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and Bryan Singer's X-Men arriving back-to-back, that was more or less the adult world's consensus on the topic.  Even the wildly successful Batman films by Tim Burton didn't break the streak, and you can see the result in the two follow up Batfilms under Schumacher, which are a 90's attempt to recapture the hammy worldview ladled on superheroes by anyone not immersed in funnybooks 24/7.

I hesitate to state that the musical has an all-star cast, but it does have some recognizable players.  Most notably, the lovely Lesley Ann Warren plays Lois Lane (she was considered for the part in the Donner film, by the way).  MASH actress Loretta Swit plays a lady reporter in the Daily Planet bullpen.  Al Molinaro, who played Al on Happy Days, appears as a gangster.

Superman is played by David Wilson, and like all of the parts, it's with a sort of vaudevillian cheeriness and Saturday matinee aw-shucks, niceness, even when he's dropping some (intentionally) hilarious dialog.  He's as 2D as the sets - which are meant to look like cartoon drawings.  The overall effect is intentionally more Harvey Kurtzman than Curt Swan.

Your Man of Steel, ladies and germs

Our Lois is sweet, but is an animatronic Lois who exists to ignore Clark and love Superman from afar.  Her entire arc of getting angry at Superman and then wanting him again occurs inside the space of two minutes.  Its just part of the milieu.  Our gangsters seem unionized and happy to sing as a chorus.  Even their crimes seem cheery.  It's that sort of a show.  It's all part of the same school of musical worldview that's overly simplistic and myopically childlike and that didn't exactly delve deep into the romance between Hugo and Kim in Bye-Bye Birdie or the motivations of The Music Man.

All in all, this musical is the antithesis to the overwrought production that almost took down Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.  In our production, Superman flies via awkward green screen technology, and only after exiting a scene.  On stage, he just walks and hops, and looks like a thin guy in a pair of blue tights with a red cape tacked on and who sports a black wig.  I haven't seen Spidey and the Goblin get stuck dangling above the audience, but this production embraces the fact that you will NOT believe a man will fly.

As a musical...  eh.  Everyone does their part and is game for the goofy theatricality, but there are no songs that you'll remember once the DVD stops spinning, nothing threatens to cross over for radio play, and the book itself just isn't that inspired.

For a musical about Superman, the songs are mostly superfluous to the fact that this is a Superman musical - seemingly culled from the bins of other musicals where they might not have mattered, either.  They just sort of occur rather than spring from the drama of Superman's world.  I'm no expert in musical theater, but here they seemingly sing just because everyone needs a number and it's been 3-5 minutes since the last tune.

Weirdly, the plot gets so contrived, there just isn't that much Superman in the Superman musical until the second half.  And this is after a remarkably promising start with an excellent depiction of Jonathan and Martha Kent that's hilarious, weird and oddly on point.  There are too many villains, hobbled A, B, C and D plots, and no connection or chemistry between Lois and Superman.

What's fascinating about the musical is that the nefarious plot is pretty firmly grounded in pop psychology and it may be the first appearance of the continually used "what if the superhero were less super?" idea used in everything from Superman II, to Spider-Man 2 (and 3, to some extent) to Judge Dredd (the Stallone version).  We've all seen the "but who is the superhero without his powers/ costume/ gun/ helmet?" plot before.  This version more or less straight up has hand-wringing villains state that they plan to make Superman doubt himself and thus destroy himself.  But, again, it's that trope of the writers believing they've cracked some code by asking "but what if the invulnerable guy suddenly felt vulnerable?!!!".

I'm not taking a dig at the musical, because it actually handles the question with a good sense of humor and seemingly asked the question far in advance of most other media.  Our Superman doesn't lose his powers, he just feels like a loser when he's duped into being at a ceremony where a laundromat is being named in his honor while villains use the distraction to blow up city hall (and an evil reporter turns the city against him).

Thematically, the desire to take apart The Man of Steel seems to have started less as an act of writing bravery within comics as superhero comics started to grow up over in the actual funnybook side of the biz.  It's possible that this line of thinking was first seen in a 1966 musical.   Could it be we saw the signs of things to come as the musical tried to appeal not just to kids who want to see their favorite hero on the stage, but also to the adults who haven't thought about Superman in a decade or three?  The pop psychology, the self-loathing... all played to the hilt for camp in the musical became high drama in other, much more highly regarded superhero films and comics.  The primary difference being: the musical does it all as a sort of "ha ha ha!  Wouldn't it be funny is Superman were as emotionally crippled as us?" instead of the assumption of the past two decades: that, to be interesting, a superhero has to be an emotional wreck.

These same ideas of the "what if?" of the hero's fallibility would be so ingrained in the DNA of the idea of the invulnerable hero that they'd resurface again and again and again.  I blame the psychoses of Mort Weisinger.***

I'm going to be pondering this one for a while.

For Superman fans, it has that feel of so many comic adaptations until circa 2000.  The writers are clearly only tangentially aware of who and what Superman is, relying on the same basic four or five facts anyone off the street might know.  And while that's where you can start, for reasons I cannot begin to fathom, that's as far as the writer's went.  The cast is strewn with characters made up for the musical when existing characters would have been fine.  And, man, there's no Jimmy Olsen.   Who... really, no Jimmy in a MUSICAL?  That's just wrong.

It's nothing John or Jane Q. Public would notice, but it's hard not to get your super nose a little out of joint when you know the reason the writers didn't even try may have been due the cultural status of comics in 1966.

For the hardcore Superman fan, the musical DVD is a must.  For comics fans and completionists, check it out.  It's not much of a musical, but it is interesting as artifact.

I understand there's a new version of the musical running, a sort of answer to the cumbersome production of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark.  Their Superman, in flight, is not a man on wires but a cardboard Superman held aloft.  The story is supposedly still sweet and simple.  And, more than anything, after the Dark Knight cycle of movies, four Spider-Man movies and however much writing we've done on how super-heroes must be misfits out for revenge of some sort, maybe we're pushing back against the black cloud of angst and want our superheroes a bit more colorful and larger than life?  I don't know.

I certainly wish the stage show well.

And, in a way, I really did enjoy this thing.  I think if I were an angry 20-something trying to convince people to take comics seriously, this would leave me on the floor weeping, but from my current perspective, there's something to this musical, and if it gets redone and repopularized in 2013, I'm all for it!

*keep in mind, Saturday Night Live was put on because it was cheap and they needed to do something on Saturday nights other than run old movies
**you see what I did there?
***not really, but we don't have time to get too into this tonight

Apparently the whole thing is on YouTube, so go nuts...

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Ha! "Animatronic Lois." Nice.