Further Reading: Superman's Musical Moment in It's a Bird... It's a Plane...
Kim Newman on an obscure slice of the Man of Steel...
This week, as Warner Brothers prepare to mount yet another reboot, Kim Newman looks at a rarely-seen screen incarnation of the Man of Steel and his fight for truth, justice and the American way.
The 1975 TV special It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman is so seldom-seen it tends to get written off by people who only judge from ropey clips in documentaries which bulk out DVD box sets of the Superman movies. The show has problems, but also a lot going for it -- mostly providing a visual record of the 1966 Broadway musical take on the DC Comics characters.
With Batman on TV in the much-derided (but also much-loved) Adam West comedy series, the stage Superman was mounted in the spirit of camp, with colourful cardboard sets and much genial fun poked at the squarest of all superheroes. With a witty book by David Newman and Robert Benton (who would go on to rewrite Mario Puzo's Superman movie script, carrying over several major elements from the musical) and superb songs by composer Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Annie) and lyricist Lee Adams, It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman ran for 123 performances; it tends to get listed in reference books as a flop, though many Stephen Sondheim shows managed shorter initial runs.
The musical was a key step in the evolution of Superman from the kid-friendly comic book, radio, movie serial and TV franchise he was from the 1930s through to the 1960s into the modern American myth figure reinvented by the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeve film in 1979 and recently reworked all over again by TV shows like Lois and Clark and Smallville and the Bryan Singer-directed Superman Returns.
In 1975, this shot-on-video version was mounted for late-night television -- and no one much saw it. Romeo Muller adapted the play: Strouse and Adams contributed a new song (a hymn to rapacious American criminal capitalism) to accommodate Muller's biggest change -- dropping the Chinese acrobats who were Superman's sparring partners on Broadway and replacing them with a horde of old-fashioned, slouch-hatted gangsters (including Harvey Lembeck, of Sgt Bilko fame) who resemble the interchangeable hoods from the 1950s Superman TV show (the big boss is Malachi Throne, who played False Face opposite Adam West's Batman).
Performances are broad (broader even than the stage versions, to judge from the show's soundtrack album) and the sets are stylised cardboard cut-outs -- which is admittedly cheap, but also matches the look of comic books (a BBC-TV version of the Jane strip used cartoon backgrounds to similar effect). 1975-ish disco arrangements mangle some of the songs, Superman's introductory number ('Doing Good') is sadly dropped (I miss the line 'It's a satisfying feeling when you hang up your cape/knowing you've averted murder, larceny and rape' -- though I suspect that's also why the song got cut), only the two women in the cast (Lesley Warren and Loretta Swit) have really good voices, and the choreography looks as if it's been done in an afternoon. But, y'know, it's got a good heart.
Though it's a spoof, modish twists foreshadow the way the superhero would be treated in more complicated dramas. Realising that Superman's bones are unbreakable, the villains set out to break his spirit and turn the world against him (a theme DC Comics have been hammering away at for decades, which Newman and Benton seem to have invented), and a psychoanalyst comes on to diagnose the Last Son of Krypton's survivor guilt and contempt for lesser mortals. There are also a couple of adult winks -- when it's suggested that Clark might be Superman, a villain snaps 'I always thought he flew, but not like that' ('he flies' is archaic slang for being gay).