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Major Magazines of the Day Featured Articles about "It's A Bird It's A Plane It's Superman©". This week, we look at VARIETY!

Hal Prince Raps Philly
by Tom Morse

Critic baiting, normally the forte of David Melnick, has a new practitioner in Harold Prince, the producer of "Superman." The impresario denies bitterness over the pre-Broadway travails of the new musical but vows he'll never again tryout a show in Philadelphia, "not as long as those critics are there."

"Superman" opened a tune-up Feb. 15 at the Shubert in Philly. The critics gave it one qualified approval (Gaghan News) and two pans (Schier, Bulletin, and Murdock, Inquirer). It did badly at the box office.

Prince cut its scheduled pre N.Y. run from four to three weeks. It began previewing March 9, and opened March 29 at the Alvin, N.Y. Now, says the producer-director, the show is off to a good start on Broadway. Box office sales are going "better than well," and the show has cooked up more welcome fuss than any production of his since A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Prince, interviewed in his New York office a few days after Superman's Broadway preem, let fly with invective against the Philly scribes. He accuses them of misunderstanding the humor of the show.

The Quaker City aislesitters also dwelt on the tuner's faults in their reviews, he claims, and made jokes about it of the sort that serve the writer's ego more than the theatre. Perhaps his kindest description of them was "that gang of slighly post college twerps."

At the heart of the producer's complaint is his belief that the tuner was a good one to begin with, so that the Philly reviews unfairly depressed its chances at the b.o. He estimated the show lost $65,000 in its three-week tryout.

"I'm not bitter," he insists. "It's a practical business consideration. I'd be a fool to go back there with a tryout. I lost a lot of money."

To buttress his argument that the Philadelphians "couldn't discern the makings of a smash," Prince describes the revision of the show between its Philly and Broadway debuts as "about average for a musical."

Four new songs were written during the interval by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and there was "the usual amount" of dialog refinements by writers David Newman and Robert Benton.

But he says, "there was none of the hysterical thing everyone wants you to say about a tryout on the road. There was not one moment of panic. The show's virtues were essentially there."

He approvingly quotes George Abbott's axiom, "You can't fix a bad show," and then wonders out loud why the Philly critics couldn't see that "Superman" would need only average repairs.

Panic or not, the Philly run was "Debilitating and difficult," Prince admits. As producer-director, he was constantly in a position of having to buck up the sagging spirits of the performers, who had to try to extract houses from theatergoers who has been convinced in advance that the show was a turkey.

The producer believes that he couldn't have done it had there not been a New York run-through before an enthusiastic invited audience on the Sunday before the Philly preem. The knowledge of that sustained him, he says.

"At our first preview at the Alvin after returning to New York, there were cheers, actually cheers," he recalls. "There were laughs we hadn't heard in four weeks. It was like turning on an applause machine."

In lambasting the Philly critics, Prince singles out Ron Snyder, of local station KYW-TV, who in his review coined the culture joke, "It's a bird, It's a plane, It's a bomb." In a later interview, says Prince, Snyder asked him combative and bullying questions such as, "Can you save the show?" and "Are you going to bother to take it to New York?"

Prince also condemns Ernest Schier of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, sealing his review "Collegiate and pretentious." The producer didn't mention Murdock and Gaghan by name.

Other negative factors about Philly, Prince says, are that audiences there are eccentric in their tastes. He lost $22,000 in 10 days on the tryout for Fiorello!, later a Broadway hit, and that there are "an incredible number" of walkouts in Philly audiences.

[Not everyone in Philadelphia hated the show!]

He also charges that producers are "constantly being buttonholed on the street by some expert, ready with advice on how you should fix a show." The same has been said of other tryout towns, of course, notably Boston.

Prince reserved his only kind words for the Philly theaters (nice and well run), stage crews (could not be more cooperative), and box-office help (wonderful). But he says Boston and Detroit are the best tryout towns, "and more and more producers are coming to realize it."

Bob Holiday
Bob Holiday
As Superman
April 6, 1966

Next week we'll share what some of "those Philly critics" actually said!

Photos courtesy the Estate of Bob Holiday
Text © Tom Morse, Variety, April 6, 1966
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