When I was a kid, my father took me to a Hollywood office to meet an actual Broadway producer, Norman Twain. This wasn’t viewed as an opportunity for me, but for Twain, who wanted to screen a TV movie he’d made out of a Broadway musical to see how a child (me) would react. It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman had some of my favorite actors in it: David Wayne, who’d originated Og, the leprechaun in Finian’s Rainbow, and Cinderella herself, Lesley Ann Warren, from the TV musical I’d grown up with, as Lois Lane. Throw in Kenneth Mars (as so many comedies did back then) and naturally I was enthralled.
But what was Twain doing? You can’t make a TV movie geared towards musical comedy-loving kids, can you? My positive reaction presaged the networks’ negative one. They refused to air it in prime time, and I eventually saw it at 11:30, opposite Johnny Carson.
The question of tone can be a tricky one, as acknowledged by Superman’s original producer-director, Hal Prince. How seriously do you treat a superhero? Putting one in a musical was an untried idea back then, and the marketing department couldn’t find enough ticket buyers for such an odd bird (odd plane?) and it closed after three months. The show’s book writers, Robert Benton and David Newman, tweaked the tone considerably when they wrote the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, a huge hit at the time, filled with state-of-the-art special effects. On Broadway in the 1960s, all special effects looked fairly pitiful. And the musical embraces its cheap ineptitude.
Today, one of the shows that sells the most seats is Spider Man, a superhero musical whose extremely expensive state-of-the-art special effects demand to be taken seriously. How things have changed!
This week, Encores! is mounting the musical with a very amusing lack of high tech. Directed by John Rando, with impressive choreography by Joshua Bergasse, the cast for the most part gets into the spirit of the thing, and the results are mostly delightful. My favorite song in the score has long been The Strongest Man in the World, which allows the Man of Steel a bit of jelly-like pathos; it tickles me. Too many of the Charles Strouse-Lee Adams numbers waste time describing Superman, and does anyone on earth really need an introduction? Five times? But the other numbers provide amusing showcases for character actors: Alli Mauzey, Will Swenson and especially David Pittu as a mad scientist, encouraged to go over the top with his usual satisfying results. Edward Watts is everything you could want in a Superman: funny, muscular, good voice and presence. Nobody believes me when I tell them this, but his isn’t the largest role in the musical (biceps, yes; role, no).
Wonderful as so many of these elements are, at Encores! the true treat is the chance to hear a Broadway score with impeccable fidelity to how it was heard opening night. The orchestra, not the play, is the thing. Superman features something highly unusual: an enormous 27-piece band with no violins.
The orchestrator was Eddie Sauter, and I can name nobody in his profession with a better reputation. He’d been responsible, to some extent, of the sound of the Benny Goodman orchestra. As years went by, and Big Bands went out of fashion, he continued to innovate and amuse in the area of what we might call orchestral jazz. His sound is big, exciting, and, here, funny in and of itself. Superman is not Strouse’s best score – not close – but what Sauter did with it is glorious. He employs the growl of the tenor sax as a harbinger of evil – and remember, the evil characters are the most fun of all. Notes that Strouse must have written as quarter notes are divided into four sixteenth notes. And, in a show that couldn’t place its money in stagecraft, there are musical special effects aplenty.
Sauter’s other Broadway works include The Apple Tree and 1776 – one could hardly get more varied than these. Superman is another fine example of Charles Strouse writing contemporary music; at times its peppy swing calls for dancing a shag. And so, after 47 years we have a score that sounds like an artifact of its era. It’s rock, in a way, but not the sort that features distorting electric guitars and hard drums. Should we call it “roll?”
When I was a child, then, seeing my favorite character actors essay a musical on TV was the main event. Today, as you can tell, I’m far more enthusiastic about the sound of the Encores! orchestra, which is made up of specialists who understand exactly how their instruments were played fifty or more years ago. (Yes, styles of playing evolve over time.) I guess this sounds like an odd thing to be fascinated with, but, as strange as you may think I am, I think grown-ups who are still obsessed with comic books are far weirder. Grow up, already! And come enjoy the enormously appealing sound of It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman.