“This has been the Bob Holiday season here at Encores,” noted Jack Viertel, the Artistic Director of the Encores! program at New York’s City Center. “In January we also did Fiorello.” The occasion for Viertel’s observation was a special “post-performance dialogue” that he moderated after the Saturday, March 23rd, 2013 matinee performance at the City Center Theatre. In 1959 Holiday had played the character of Neil, law clerk of the legendary Fiorello La Guardia, in the classic Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical based on New York’s charismatic Depression-era mayor. More relevant to Viertel’s remark, however, was that Bob also played the titular hero in the original 1966 production of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” which was also the name of the production that had just filled the stage of the City Center prior to Viertel’s panel discussion. Holiday was in the audience for that rousing and delightful revival, which was one of the musicals that Encores! chose for its 20th season of performing overlooked classics of the Broadway stage.
Brought to colorful, engaging life in just a few weeks by the incredibly talented artists of City Center, this revival of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” provided audiences with what may well be the closest approximation yet to the original Broadway production. Although designated as a “concert production,” the City Center’s version was quite elaborate, and featured a full orchestra, brilliant direction, superb performances, inspired choreography, and innovative staging and lighting. The only scripts in evidence were those apparently tossed by Superman at the villainous Flying Lings at the end of the show. Watching this new version, it was easy to understand why the March 30, 1966 review of the original production by New York Times critic Stanley Kauffmann included such comments as: “…it’s fun…it would be enjoyable in any season…the whole show has been based on a witty point of view.” This was all still true, and what a pleasant contrast the show was to the dark portrayals of comic book heroes that have come to haunt movie screens and even Broadway (in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) in recent years. This bright, colorful, optimistic show made you wish that Superman would turn the world back for us all by about 47 years, to when superheroes were colorful, uncomplicated characters and it was easy to tell the good guys from the bad.
City Center’s Encores! revival of the 1966 Hal Prince musical “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” also did full justice to its catchy Charles Strouse-Lee Adams songs and clever Robert Benton-David Newman book. Unlike many regional revivals of this show over the years, City Center’s version benefited from what was literally its Broadway-caliber talent, starting with director John Rando and extending throughout its cast, which included actors from such shows as Scandalous (Superman Edward Watts), Grease (Lois Lane Jenny Powers), Wicked (Alli Mauzey), Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (Will Swenson), Golden Child (James Saito), and many others. As legendary composer Charles Strouse noted later during the post-performance dialogue, “Where else can you find a cast as wonderful as this, except in Metropolis?”
Backed by the Encores! Orchestra (directed and conducted by Rob Berman), the singing of Powers and Mauzey, in particular, delivered the full lyrical impact of such Strouse-Adams compositions as “What I’ve Always Wanted” and “You’ve Got Possibilities.” These and other numbers left no doubt that Powers and Mauzey were worthy heirs to the original production’s female leads: the gorgeous soprano Patricia Marand (Lois Lane) and the playful, jazzy Linda Lavin (Sydney). David Pittu’s mad scientist Dr. Abner Sedgwick and Will Swenson’s maniacal gossip columnist Max Mencken were also standout performances. And the actor upon whom so much depended—Edward Watts—was nothing short of spectacular in his dual role as both the awkward Clark Kent and courageously unpretentious Superman. Further empowering Watts’ performance was costume consultant Paul Tazewell, who created one of the best-looking Superman costumes ever in terms of color and design, complete with an accurate and perfectly executed “S” symbol.
Then there was the show-within-a-show: the Flying Lings, a team of resentful Chinese acrobats who blame their unemployment on Superman’s superior ability to amaze the public. Portrayed by Craig Henningsen, Suo Liu, Jason Ng, and Scott Webber—whose collective talents include spectacular abilities in martial arts, acrobatics, tumbling, and ballet—the Flying Lings performed a show-stopping sequence that including precision-choreographed pole-twirling, swordsmanship, and backflips. At a time when audiences nationwide are paying top dollar to see The Peking Acrobats touring company, the City Center’s “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” gave audiences what could be almost considered as a “free preview” along with the show. Even more remarkable was director Rando’s comment during the post-performance dialogue that several of the “Lings” had never been on stage before.
1966's Superman Bob Holiday with
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“I wanted them to be formidable opponents to Superman,” Rando related. “When we called them in and first saw them perform, all we could say was ‘Wow!’ ” This was the audience’s reaction as well. Also, any lingering impression left by previous revivals of the Lings as offensive ethnic stereotypes was blown away by their kick-ass capabilities and determination in the City Center’s rendering of the characters. If there was any stereotype in the show it was Pittu’s Dr. Sedgwick as a quintessentially eccentric Oxford don, complete with the “Hogwarts” accent to go with it.
Joshua Bergasse’s 1960’s Hullabaloo-style go-go choreography, scenic consultant John Lee Beatty’s brightly colored comic book cutout Metropolis skyline backdrop, lighting designer Ken Billington’s bold use of bright primary colors on the background cyc to match the story’s changing mood, and stage manager Tripp Phillips’ efficient use of minimal set pieces wheeled in and out on casters all contributed to a fast-paced, totally enjoyable viewer experience that deftly conveyed the comic-book esthetic of the subject material.
As if this Encores! revival wasn’t enjoyable enough already, Viertel’s post-performance dialogue provided behind-the-scenes background details that enriched the experience. In addition to Viertel, Strouse, and Rando, participants in the session also included Strouse collaborator and lyricist Lee Adams, choreographer Bergasse, members of the cast, and other artists. During this 45-minute session, a number of fascinating details were revealed about the extreme dedication Encores! devotes to its productions. One was that they dug deep into the Trans-Witmark archives to find the original annotated sheet music arrangements for the 1966 production by legendary composer and jazz arranger Eddie Sauter, who orchestrated the show. The effort was well worth it, as the extra “zing” one hears on the Sony Broadway original 1966 cast CD was clearly audible during City Center’s performance, and a delight to the ears.
“Sauter’s sound was artistic and magnified it [our music],” Strouse recalled. “Sauter’s sounds were streaked with excitement.” Other comments about the score noted how the show’s unique sound combined elements of 1950’s/1960’s Broadway, 1960’s pop music, and jazz. As such, the score of “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” can be considered as an “evolutionary” link in the history of the American musical theatre.
Director Rando explained why the production elected to use a wooden cartoon cutout of Superman to depict his flights, as opposed to hanging actor Edward Watts from wires. “We didn’t have the time to figure out how to fly our Superman,” Rando explained. “And although it was a wacky idea, we all agreed the cutout actually worked.” This reviewer agrees.
The inevitable question of the post-performance dialogue was, of course, why “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” only lasted 129 performances. Several reasons were suggested. A renown theatre historian on the panel cited the competition at that time, which included the original runs of some of the greatest musicals in the American musical theatre: Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Sweet Charity, and Mame. Charles Strouse also noted that the tone of the show may have been hard for 1966 audiences to understand: campy, but not as campy as the Batman TV series (which premiered 60 days earlier on ABC) and comical, but in a way that may have been too subtle for the times. It was the latter reason, however, that Lee Adams cited, quoting the show’s co-writer Robert Benton as attributing weak box office to “capelash”; the Batman TV craze sweeping the nation at the time had audiences assuming that “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” simply offered more of the same. Unfortunate but true.
Bob Holiday and composer Charles Strouse
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A Q&A period concluded the post-performance dialogue session, and an intriguing detail was revealed in an answer to an audience member asking if this most enjoyable revival might be revived again in the near future by City Center Encores!. The answer was that there were ongoing discussions about that very idea, as well as a possible TV version.
A fitting conclusion to the event came when Viertel, prompted by another audience question, asked original 1966 Broadway Superman Bob Holiday to stand up and take a bow. Wearing a sporty Superman jacket, Holiday waved to the audience, pointed toward his new friend Edward Watts, and acknowledged his great performance as the latest Superman. Judging by the number of autograph-seekers gathering around Holiday after the dialogue, however, it was clear that for many fans of the show, Bob Holiday will always be their favorite singing Man of Steel. – Brian McKernan