by Toni Collins, November 2006
What a great year for Superman fans. Not only did Brandon Routh bring Superman back to life for us, but Hollywoodland allowed us to explore the death of the Superman so many of us loved. And perhaps because of this resurgence of interest in Superman, several revivals of the Broadway musical "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" were staged in community theatres around the USA. This was an exceptional treat for those of us both old enough and lucky enough to have seen the original in 1966.
My wonderful husband has indulged my Superman obsession for 30 years now, and this summer he did not fail me. We went to see Superman Returns in both 2D and 3D, and we drove huge distances to see two different productions of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman." The first was a joyful, teenage production in San Jose, CA, chronicled on the Superman Homepage. The second, presented by Showtunes! Theatre Company in Kirkland, Washington, promised to be much more, with a mostly professional cast and composer Charles Strouse in attendance
But what greeted us looked strange. The stage was bare black, except for a red, blue and yellow slide announcing the title of the show. ncongruously, half a dozen music stands were lined up across the front of the stage. And then four musicians took their places at the back of the stage. How could the glorious music of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" be recreated by just four musicians?
Desperately searching for answers, we finally read the director's notes in the program. "In concert, with no wires or special effects, we hope to make this Superman fly by the sheer talent of those involved..." This was to be a "staged concert reading" of Superman.
I was skeptical, but it didn't last for long. Following a crash of cymbals and the deep bass of a glorious grand piano, the punctuation of a tommy-gun trombone filled the theatre. With only four musicians, Superman's driving overture still overpowered the audience and transported us straight to Metropolis.
In the original Broadway overture, Superman and Lois Lane's voices were piped over the orchestra in a perfect introduction to their relationship: he saves her life, she hopes to grab his heart, he flies away. Here in Kirkland, Superman and Lois actually appeared on the stage, placed notebooks gently on those music stands, and uttered the same lines. "Sheer talent" was definitely on display and, yes, it was going to be a good evening after all.
The performers were clear, their characterizations consistent, and their voices superb. They made us laugh, and they made us love them. But any revival begs to be compared to the original. This show is no exception.
Forty years have passed since "It's a Bird It's a PlaneIt's Superman" originally appeared on Broadway. And while every director will have his own vision for a production, it's time to document the perfect decisions that made the Broadway production truly great.
First of all, the Broadway staging was incredibly clever. In the opening number, a phone booth followed Superman around the stage, and his clothing literally flew to him on wires. Contrast this to modern day staging where Clark's business clothes tend to lie piled in a heap awaiting his transformation to milquetoast.
Other special effects delightfully showcased Superman's strength. He lifted a platform filled with citizens of Metropolis, aided by a hidden forklift backstage. Breakapart props displayed his incredible abilities. And the acrobatic abiliites of both Broadway villains and Bob Holiday allowed fight scenes that are perhaps the greatest to ever grace the Great White Way.
Most important, and sadly lacking in modern productions, Superman actually flew. The 1966 Superman, Bob Holiday, was not only a marvelous singer, he was game, courageous and strong. When historians call "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" a flop, they tend to mention the obvious wire that lifted Bob Holiday across the stage. Having seen the production, I can tell you that in 1966, the wire didn't matter. Those were the days of Howdy Doody and Lambchop. Christopher Reeve was just thirteen years old, and no one expected Superman to fly without a wire.
In fact, occasional problems with that wire were a part of the charm of the show. The Playbill for the Broadway show recounts that a stagehand once lost control of the wire, and it swung into the audience's view. Bob Holiday, breaking the fourth wall, said "Excuse me," as he retrieved the wire. The audience roared their approval when he then flew across the stage. Another night, a shackle on the harness broke and Bob fell six feet onto the stage. It's reported that he jumped up, turned to the audience and announced, "That would hurt any mortal man!" This brilliant recovery earned him a standing ovation.
But more than Bob Holiday's ability to fly, he truly embodied the role of Superman. In the February, 1990, issue of Comic Scene, Lee Adams, lyricist for the show, reminisced about Bob's audition. "The first guy to walk in ... was 6' 4", handsome, [and a] good singer.... He was a perfect Superman. We kept auditioning [because] he was too good to be true." But in the end, Bob Holiday beat out 51 super wanna-be's.
Bob himself remembers that moment in his book Superman on Broadway (co-written with Chuck Harter). When he read the audition call in the newspaper, he got chills. "Oh My God! It's happening right now! I've got to audition! Superman was my hero, and this was a chance of a lifetime."
Charles Strouse, composer of the fabulous music for this show, remembers Bob Holiday as being wonderful. In a "Talk Back" session after the Kirkland performance, he recalled that Bob always insisted upon greeting fans still wearing his Superman costume. He completely embraced the role of Superman.
Contrast all this with Kirkland's Superman, Eric Englund. Certainly it's not his fault that the producers decided to keep him earthbound. And Eric had both a presence and a voice that paid tribute to Superman. He was handsome, he was strong, and he delivered a performance that captured the grandeur all Superman fans yearn for.
But I couldn't help feeling that he was really playing Dudley Do-Right instead of Superman. True, both are heroes who dress in red, blue and yellow, but that jutting jaw and tremor in Eric's voice reminded me far more of the Canadian Mountie than the man from Krypton. After the show, Eric changed back into street clothes faster than a speeding bullet. He just didn't seem to love being Superman the way Bob Holiday did.
Perhaps the most telling moment that Kirkland's Superman was being played more for laughs than for reality came at Superman's lowest point in the story. Lois Lane encounters Superman in an unguarded moment, and he is wearing a roller in his spit curl. Can you imagine Brandon Routh or Christopher Reeve with rollers in their hair? It just wouldn't happen.
And while it may be true that the audience found this moment hilarious, contrast that image with the direction producer Harold Prince gave to Bob Holiday in 1966: "Don't characterize it; play it straight." Contemporaneous reviews captured the perfection with which Bob Holiday implemented this mandate.
"Bob Holiday, tall, wide of shoulder, slim of waist, the embodiment of Superman, makes the show come alive and sparkle. His portrait of a ponderous human miracle, in love with good deeds and unabashed virtue, is delightful" (Bolton, New York Morning Telegram).
"From the boyish curl hanging down over his forehead to the red-footed feet set solidly on the floor, the man is all sincerity" (Nadel, New York World Telegram).
"Possibly enviously underpraised is Bob Holiday's Superman. An actor approximating a Superbuild while practically oozing Superman's stolid goodness is a find" (Cue Magazine).
There was no way that Bob Holiday's Superman would wear rollers just for a laugh. In his own words, "I'm putting my full body and soul into this show and no matter what happens I'll know I have given all of myself to it" (Wilson, New York World Telegram).
And let it always be remembered, that in his utter sincerity and solid portrayal of virtue, Bob Holiday was incredibly funny. Columnist Norman Nadel called Bob Holiday's directness and forthrightness "the funniest single element in the whole production."
To this day, the original "Superman kids" who saw Bob Holiday in 1966 have fond memories of him. My brother and I still remember the kindness he showed us backstage. And when he sang "Why must the strongest man in the world be the bluest man, tell me why?" he made my little eleven-year old heart break. Other "Superman kids" have shared some of their memories with me, and the new documentary Holiday in Metropolis features even more now-grown "Superman kids" who saw and loved Bob on Broadway. He is a man whose goodness and sincerity has reached forward four decades.
But there was another man whose strength helped to make "It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman" a great show, the late Jack Cassidy. Today's theatre historians question why, as Daily Planet columnist Max Mencken, Cassidy was given star billing and Bob Holiday appeared last in the credits. In fact, in modern productions, the role of Max Mencken seems superfluous, almost a distraction. The audience wonders why he's even there.
To read the script, Max is just a jealous columnist at the Daily Planet. But to have seen Jack Cassidy was to have seen pure charm, with menace and guile frothing just beneath the surface. Jack Cassidy had the ability to make you love him while you hated him. It takes a rare performer who can communicate all that to an audience.
Personally, I fall into the camp that says Bob Holiday should have been granted star billing on Broadway. He brought Superman to life. But there is no denying that from the moment Jack Cassidy appeared on the stage, you knew he was evil and that he'd be scheming to bring Superman down. Without that roguish strength, there's no reason why the other villains in the show would join forces with a mere writer. But Jack Cassidy's Max Mencken transcended this mundane profession, and brought villainy straight into the halls of the Daily Planet. One of the best running jokes in the play is that he works right next to Clark Kent and never sees that his nemesis is sitting just six feet away.
Bob Holiday today tells the story of how he and Jack Cassidy loved to try to upstage each other. Armed with nothing more than milk and cookies, Bob reveled in stealing Jack's big scenes. It's a testimony to the camaraderie and presence of these two greats that they could play enemies on stage, and yet maintain a friendly rivalry. That's part of the respect that the best performers pay each other.
Ultimately, the greatness of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman rested on the shoulders of these two men. They did their jobs well, respectively bringing a hero and a villain to life. So why did the show close after only 129 performances?
Perhaps it was the competition. That Broadway season opened such great shows as Sweet Charity and Mame. Still playing from previous seasons were the venerable hits Cactus Flower, The Odd Couple, Man of La Mancha, and Fiddler on the Roof. There was a lot of good theatre to be seen in 1966.
In Kirkland, Charles Strouse was asked about this relatively short run of this show. Quoting Hal Prince, he told us the lesson he learned from Superman that ultimately made one of his future productions a huge Broadway hit. "If you write a show, and it's perceived as a children's show, and they can bring their parents to it, it's not going to be a hit. But if it's conceived and thought of as an adult show which is fine for kids, it can be a hit." Many years later, when he composed the music for a different character from the comics, he kept this lesson in mind. It was critical to the success of his Broadway mega-hit Annie.
So for all future directors and producers of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" revivals, what are the lessons to be learned? Invest enough money for some special effects; they're a necessary part of the Superman mythos. Next, ensure that Max is intimidating, and that he communicates his villainy from the moment he steps on stage. Finally, play Superman straight. His goodness and strength are the backbone of the play. If you play the character for laughs, you lose the integrity of the show.
Bob Holiday and Jack Cassidy. The strength of these two men carried a great show from Philadelphia to Broadway. The question today is, will their legacies ever be matched?