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...

by | September 7, 2008 | Comments

Further Reading by Kim Newman

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.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

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).

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

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).

Further Reading by Kim Newman

Clark Kent/Superman (a bland, blow-dried David Wilson) isn’t top-billed (any more than Reeve was in Superman the Movie): on Broadway, smoothie Jack Cassidy played the Daily Planet’s smug, lecherous, self-centered Walter Winchell-like columnist Max Mencken; here, we get Mel Brooks regular Kenneth Mars, who can’t underplay anything, hasn’t the charisma to carry the whole show and lacks the pipes to do justice to some of the show’s best numbers (especially the hit ‘For the Man Who has Everything’). David Wayne weasels more entertainingly as the number two villain, Dr Abner Sedgwick. Driven mad by his persistent failure to win the Nobel Prize (which inspires a very funny song), Sedgwick teams up with Max and the Metropolis criminal contingent to undo Superman. It seems odd now that Sedgwick isn’t Lex Luthor, but Superman’s comic book nemesis wasn’t featured in the 1950s George Reeves show and so didn’t become essential to the Superman mythos until Gene Hackman was cast.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

Lois Lane is played as a bipolar ditz who fails to remember Clark even when she’s briefly in love with him (her signature line is ‘Oh Clark, I didn’t notice you there’). Lesley Warren is smart, sexy and fun — it’s not surprising that she was a strong contender for the role when Donner was casting, but (like Stockard Channing) she lost out to Margot Kidder. Lois is balanced by Sydney (Swit), Max’s cast-off who vamps Kent (‘You’ve Got Possibilities’) — though the staging muffs the clever joke that she tries to seduce him by unbuttoning his shirt, which means he has to keep fighting her off rather than let her see the big red S underneath — and belts out a showstopper about Max’s great love (‘Oooh, Do You Love You’).

Sydney predates the introduction of the similar Cat Grant character in the comics (and the first season of Lois and Clark), but is also the first of a line of dumb-smart semivillain gals with a secret yen for the nice guy in tights who played in the movies by Valerie Perrine, Pamela Stephenson and Parker Posey. Perry White (Allen Ludden) does a running joke of dashing out of his office with old news (Lincoln Steffens’ telegram from Moscow) and firing the Jimmy Olsen-look copyboy (Danny Goldman). When Superman considers jumping off Metropolis’s Warren G. Harding bridge because he feels he is ‘a freak’, a couple of hippies called Joe (Michael Lembeck) and Jerry (Stuart Getz) — representing Superman’s creators Siegel and Shuster — talk him out of it because, in their terms, being a freak is a good thing.

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

A few optical effects are sub-children’s television show (and Batman-style ‘pow’, ‘bam’, etc. overlays are overused), but that’s perhaps the point. Much business (Lois asking Superman to try out his x-ray vision on her underwear, for instance) used in the 1979 Superman originates here, as does the joke Bryan Singer picked up on that Superman preserves his secret identity because no one notices Clark Kent (even a computer forgets him). Laugh-In’s Garry Owens does serial-style cliffhanger announcements, some of which are quite funny (‘Will Superman make it or not? See Chapter Three: Superman Makes It!’).

Director Jack Regas later worked on Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, exactly the sort of children’s show this parodies. It’s a shame the special didn’t run to stronger performers as Superman as Max, but the material is charming enough to shine through the orangey-purpley 1975 videotape haze.

Tag Cloud

2020 Lionsgate 20th Century Fox DC Comics SXSW Teen batman MTV finale APB USA Network cancelled Film Festival free movies Reality Star Trek Hear Us Out war Opinion Walt Disney Pictures zero dark thirty Comic Book mutant Pet Sematary Rock jamie lee curtis DirecTV comedies zombies Schedule 71st Emmy Awards spider-man historical drama YA The Witch supernatural blaxploitation casting TBS documentaries Apple TV Plus Food Network SundanceTV Lifetime romance singing competition Quiz chucky Travel Channel Western blockbuster ratings Anna Paquin Song of Ice and Fire Cannes independent worst Rocky cops Holidays The Arrangement Family Rom-Com Oscars Trivia Film Emmy Nominations Ellie Kemper video children's TV 007 National Geographic See It Skip It thriller twilight cars First Look Disney streaming service sitcom Adult Swim Bravo Winners TV spanish language Calendar Tubi Arrowverse sequels crossover Vudu Musical Biopics sequel romantic comedy Hallmark Disney VICE Syfy politics WGN Kids & Family Sundance TV Fantasy hollywood cats scary movies Photos transformers cooking Ovation series Mudbound hispanic Comics on TV breaking bad Spike Women's History Month comiccon Britbox HBO Go concert best Nominations game of thrones TLC FX Paramount dramedy Superheroe Superheroes spain MCU medical drama laika name the review 2019 dogs TCA 2017 unscripted Television Critics Association Emmys adaptation Comedy films PaleyFest obituary LGBTQ AMC dragons RT21 space nbcuniversal HBO NBC sag awards psycho harry potter news Television Academy halloween HBO Max Amazon Prime what to watch Black History Month Trailer TCM Paramount Network Marvel Studios Cartoon Network FOX MSNBC stop motion facebook Grammys Stephen King reviews Apple superhero indie Pirates ESPN Sundance Now screen actors guild stoner Thanksgiving Logo cults docudrama ghosts talk show OWN doctor who cartoon true crime political drama TIFF Fall TV witnail Writers Guild of America Shondaland crime based on movie Marvel Television stand-up comedy natural history 24 frames RT History franchise American Society of Cinematographers movies Turner Classic Movies The CW Amazon Prime Video police drama Amazon golden globes CW Seed GLAAD YouTube Premium History dc canceled TV shows quibi biography 4/20 Polls and Games Infographic toy story Awards screenings comic Binge Guide CNN Pop Winter TV CBS Trophy Talk 21st Century Fox criterion Comedy Central LGBT sports Lucasfilm Chernobyl classics child's play technology Classic Film social media festivals Sundance Rocketman Mindy Kaling Academy Awards Discovery Channel Christmas Video Games movie 45 Reality Competition aliens south america binge IFC Tumblr Captain marvel Awards Tour versus crime drama revenge A&E joker 2015 cancelled television cancelled TV shows Podcast Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt book BAFTA PlayStation TNT foreign cinemax teaser Sci-Fi zombie BBC Super Bowl dark El Rey 2017 mockumentary Endgame NYCC Star Wars television Baby Yoda WarnerMedia 2016 Heroines Character Guide The Purge spinoff green book Crunchyroll Mystery renewed TV shows E! werewolf Amazon Studios anthology FX on Hulu Acorn TV Horror Ghostbusters Interview Cosplay BBC America 2018 Certified Fresh YouTube dceu GIFs game show boxoffice OneApp directors composers Box Office mission: impossible Masterpiece Nickelodeon science fiction Netflix Christmas movies Mary poppins vampires adventure Netflix Elton John San Diego Comic-Con Valentine's Day ITV Turner TruTV Spring TV psychological thriller Disney Channel Columbia Pictures parents Pixar diversity DC Universe asian-american tv talk X-Men Marvel Holiday Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Hallmark Christmas movies Nat Geo a nightmare on elm street Set visit award winner YouTube Red Lifetime Christmas movies rotten PBS TCA Awards latino First Reviews nature A24 spy thriller Tomatazos Black Mirror canceled Spectrum Originals CBS All Access all-time Dark Horse Comics 72 Emmy Awards SDCC fast and furious anime Country strong female leads E3 CMT VOD Funimation streaming Creative Arts Emmys GoT BET Awards crime thriller Pride Month Martial Arts richard e. Grant Action satire DGA reboot comics Sony Pictures Esquire Starz Mary Poppins Returns Tarantino TCA Winter 2020 kids disaster TCA miniseries Apple TV+ Election Musicals Showtime Mary Tyler Moore universal monsters Marathons travel DC streaming service Disney Plus robots FXX Brie Larson justice league Disney+ Disney Plus slashers Watching Series Universal Warner Bros. Hulu documentary Avengers theme song Year in Review Premiere Dates Summer animated christmas movies The Walking Dead Toys Countdown USA video on demand serial killer Best and Worst Crackle Epix President Music Extras VH1 BET rotten movies we love discovery Sneak Peek Animation period drama Red Carpet indiana jones ABC Family Peacock critics Fox News New York Comic Con emmy awards elevated horror Pop TV BBC One hist TV renewals Shudder cancelled TV series ABC IFC Films TV Land Freeform Drama die hard