By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"That must have been a time when The New York Times didn't keep a show open," Patrick Cassidy says. "I just don't get it."
As Bruce Scivally writes in his Superman on Film, Television, Radio and Broadway, at some point the show stopped being popular with grown-ups. Kids loved coming, Scivally wrote, because "Holiday remained in his Superman costume after the matinees and invited the kids backstage for autographs. Towering over his young fans, the 6-foot-4-inch actor signed their programs and admonished them to drink their milk and be good."
Benton says he was "surprised" that the show flopped. But he knew early on It's a Bird... wouldn't have a long run. He and his wife had their son in April 1966, and when he went to the theater to celebrate and hand out cigars, Prince told him, "We're not getting the audience." Everyone, cast and crew, was forced to take a pay cut—all except Benton, a new father. He was stunned.
"I think it was really a wonderful show," he says now. "Adams and Strouse did a great job, Hal Prince did a great job, and our cast was terrific."
Matter of fact, Jack Cassidy, Michael O'Sullivan as the jealous scientist Dr. Sedgwick, and Patricia Marand, who played Lois Lane, were nominated for Tony Awards. Yet, still, on July 17, 1966, after but 129 shows in front of dwindling audiences, the musical closed. And, to this day, Benton and Strouse are left to wonder why.
The prevalent theory: Shortly before It's a Bird... opened, ABC premiered Adam West's Batman, which took the wind out of Superman's campy cape. "Capelash," David Newman called it.
"I thought it was a wonderful show and literally misinterpreted by the public because Batman had appeared on television and took away the feeling of its originality," Prince says via e-mail from London, where he's in the midst of launching yet another show. "Obviously, both projects could not have been more different—Superman was never camp. But still, the public misunderstood, and despite a great review from The New York Times, stayed away in droves, as they say."
Benton's not sure, though, that was it.
Audiences, he says, "were focused on the singing and dancing and flying and stagecraft. I also think they thought it was deliberately ironic and naïve. The show was not getting an audience because it was not a children's show. But it was a Superman show, and people thought it was a children's musical. But it was an adult's musical. It was one of those things that was seen not to be one thing or the other."
And then it was nothing at all, save for a horrid 1975 ABC-TV production buried on late-night television (starring Lesley Ann-Warren, Loretta Swit and Kenneth Mars) and a musty script occasionally hauled out by high schools and regional theater companies who post their stripped-down productions straight to YouTube. There was, though, the one standard: "You've Got Possibilities" performed by a newcomer named Linda Lavin, last heard performing the song in a 2005 Pillsbury commercial featuring the Doughboy.
Three years later, Kevin Moriarty was asking Charles Strouse if, gosh, well, would he mind if he had a crack at Superman?
When, in April of last year, Moriarty announced that It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman! would close out the Dallas Theater Center's inaugural season in the AT&T Performing Arts Complex's Wyly, the unthinkable happened: People outside of Dallas theatergoers were excited. And not just people, but, like, fanboys with comic book websites who ran interviews with Sacasa-Aguirre as he plotted the course for the show. The dork knights thrilled at the news that the writer had replaced Max Mencken with Lex Luthor—thrilled! Finally, a Superman musical for Superman fans. Even MTV's website ran a handful of lengthy news items in the months after the announcement.
Moriarty certainly picked a good time to announce his Superman musical: At right around the same time, director Julie Taymor, who's tamed The Lion King for Broadway, and U2's Bono and The Edge were crafting their Spider-Man musical, then scheduled to open in February of this year. But the guesstimated $50 million Spidey was coming apart at the webs—too costly, too extravagant. So it stalled, and in recent months its biggest names (Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming) dropped out because of "scheduling conflicts," despite a promised opening this fall.
It seems only fitting that the first, best superhero get a jump on that punk Peter Parker.
Funny thing is, Moriarty almost didn't make It's a Bird... when it was first offered to him. That was in 2008, when Moriarty was in New York meeting with Strouse's manager, Carolyn Rossi Copeland, about something unrelated to the Superman show. At which point, of course, the subject came up. Moriarty couldn't help himself: He asked if they ever planned to do anything with it. She said no, it's just sitting there, help yourself. He took a copy of the script—suddenly, his boyhood dream in the palm of his hands!
"And I read it with a lot of excitement—and then thought, 'Oh, this has not dated well,'" Moriarty told me days after the April 2009 announcement. "In its time it was probably fresh and funny: Both Pop Art and camp were new and surprising in 1966, and we were at the nadir of superheroes at the time. People didn't take comics or superheroes seriously, and the musical sent all that up, which is not where we are now. Our relationship with superheroes has changed."