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).
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.
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.
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.