By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Then came the cartoons by Max and Dave Fleischer, Rotoscoped masterpieces that still set the benchmark for animation; and the long-running radio show sponsored by Kellogg's. For a long while, and especially during a World War in which he never intervened except to sell bonds and the promise of democracy, Superman served as inspiration—illegal alien as ultimate patriot, the protector of the red, white and blue dolled up in red, blue and yellow.
And then his villains blossomed from a street-level shade of menacing to sci-fi baddies to tyke-show sillies such as Bizarro, the Toyman and Mr. Myxzptlk, a "derbied Bugs Bunny of an imp from the Fifth Dimension," in the words of Tom De Haven, an English prof who wrote both the greatest novel about the hero (It's Superman) and an opinionated history (Our Hero: Superman on Earth). Then, in '51, came a black-and-white savior: George Reeves as Superman, for seven seasons a stalwart defender of truth, justice and the American Way. And then, he died.
In the meantime, a man named Fredric Wertham convinced Congress comic books were turning kids into gay, crazy terrorists. At which point comics retreated into juvenilia, and all of the sudden the Superman family included a super-dog, a super-horse and even a super-monkey named Beppo. At which point, Superman became saddled with the eventually inescapable rep as the indestructible Boy Scout. He also dated, briefly, a mermaid.
He was, in other words, vulnerable for the first time in his existence. Ripe for parody and ridicule. And show tunes.
Charles Strouse recalls exactly how It's a Bird... was hatched: His songwriting partner Lee Adams had been at Esquire in a previous life. There, he knew two boys—Robert Benton, a smart-ass University of Texas lit-mag contributor, and David Newman, a way-too-well-read Yankee by way of the University of Michigan—who would eventually define the Esquire voice and vibe, which was: "a wise guy thumbing his nose at the world," wrote Carol Polsgrove in her 1995 magazine history It Wasn't Pretty, Folks, But Didn't We Have Fun? Legend has it that Lee Adams, with his collaborator Strouse, told the twosome fun's fine, but how'dya like to make some real money?
"The truth is, Lee liked them, and he wanted to do a show with them, and he knew they were interested in musical theater," Strouse says now. "One night David and Bob were up at my apartment, and David said, 'My son had this idea.'"
Leslie Newman was picking up a copy of Action off their son Nathan's floor when the idea hit her (Nathan too): Superman! This was sometime in 1964, when Strouse and Adams were seen as hit-makers, after they'd scored the musical adaptation of Clifford Odets' gritty, jazzy Golden Boy starring Sammy Davis Jr. and 1960's Bye Bye Birdy, the rock and roll parody with Dick Van Dyke (who'd star in the film as well).
"David always gave credit to his son," Strouse says. "It was not us coming to them. It was their idea, and we loved it. We said, 'Don't go any further. That's a fantastic idea.' We were very emotionally connected to him—Superman."
Benton loved Superman too. He says he can still remember where he was when he bought his first Superman comic. In 1938, Benton, born in Oak Cliff, would have been 6.
"It was right around the corner from the Adolphus Hotel, between Commerce and Main," says Benton now. He grew up here. His father worked downtown, for Southwestern Bell. "There was a tiny newsstand. I remember going in there with my father. It was a Friday or Saturday. And I remember he was buying True Detective, and he bought me this comic. I remember this image of a man in a silly outfit holding this car up. It was Action Comics No. 1."
It took the foursome 13 months to finish a draft; Strouse and Adams usually took twice that long. "It was one of the things I had the most fun doing," Strouse says. "We liked each other. We laughed all the time." And they really liked what they had: an arch and satirical piece of Pop Art that didn't really get Superman—the story hinged on the villains rendering a hammy Superman an insecure whiny baby—but was just light and affectionate enough to make the sarcasm palatable.
"He is a great character," says Benton. "He's this schizophrenic in a kind of way—two guys in love with one girl. And he's caught in some kind of impossible thing, like an optical illusion. And there's a kind of tragedy in his life, which is heartbreaking. He's caught in something he can't get out of. It's impossible."
The show opened at the Alvin Theatre on March 29, 1966; the cast album came out in May. And by July, it was clearly a goner. Which, in retrospect, seems inexplicable: Critics almost universally adored the production, directed by ascendant Broadway royalty Hal Prince, who by then had produced or co-produced The Pajama Game and West Side Story and was only beginning to take charge in front of the stage. This line from Stanley Kauffman's glowing review in The New York Times—"It is easily the best musical so far this season, but, because that is so damp a compliment, I must add at once that it would be enjoyable in any season"—has been reiterated more often than the musical itself.