The Singing Superman: DTC's Kevin Moriarty Talks About Tackling the Man of Steel

Earlier this week, Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty announced the DTC's lineup for its inaugural season in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, and among the list of familiar titles and newcomers, one in particular leaps off the page in a single bound: It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman. It is, after all, a brave, bold choice: The musical -- which starred Bob Holiday, Jack Cassidy and Linda Lavin -- was not a classic by any stretch. On March 29, 1966, It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman opened on Broadway, and, a mere 129 performances later, all but disappeared into the Phantom Zone and has seldom been seen since (save for a dreadful 1975 made-for-TV adaptation).

It has a decidedly Dallas connection: It's Superman was co-written by an Oak Cliff native son, writer-director Robert Benton, as he and writing partner David Newman were waiting for someone to make their screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde into a reality. (Benton and Newman would also contribute to the third draft of the Superman: The Movie screenplay in 1976.) But their version of It's Superman is not the one the Dallas Theater Center will present beginning June 18 of next year. The songs -- music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams -- will remain the same, but the book is, at this very moment, being re-written by Moriarty and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a noted playwright who's also penned Spider-man titles for Marvel Comics.

For Moriarty, who made a splash with his take on The Who's Tommy, this revival is "a very big deal" for many reasons, chief among them: "Growing up in a very small town in Indiana, two of my most favorite escapes were comic books, which you could find in rural Indiana, and musicals, which I found in record stores or at the library. I stumbled across a cast recording of It's Superman when I was 12, and I could figure out Strouse and Adams were the writers of Bye Bye Birdie, which my high school had done, and Annie, and I felt like all of my dreams had come true. Had I been able to commission a piece as a high school kid, I would have had the writers of Annie do Superman!"

In 2003, I spoke to Strouse for a cover story about Benton that ran in the paper version of Unfair Park -- and despite It's Superman's brief run, he spoke of it lovingly nearly 40 years after its debut. Indeed, he said it was the only musical he'd written that he still listened to, and he had fond memories of writing it with Benton, Newman and Adams: "It makes me smile," he said.

But Strouse had all but given up hope that someone would express interest in reviving the production, which was hip by '66 standards but now feels uniformly square decades later -- like some faded piece of Pop Art left out in the rain. Which is where Moriarty comes in: About a year ago, says the DTC's artistic director, he met with Strouse's manager, Carolyn Rossi Copeland, about something unrelated to Its Superman when the subject came up.

"She said, 'Well, it's just sitting there," Moriarty recounts. "She gave me a copy of the script a year ago, and I read it with a lot of excitement -- and then thought, 'Oh, this has not dated well.' 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."

Moriarty called Copeland and told her, well, he'd probably have to pass -- because as much as he loves the show, well, the script just doesn't hold up. At which point she suggested Moriarty speak with Strouse himself, which he hadn't expected. So Moriarty flew to New York City to meet with Strouse, who asked him if he had any suggestions about how to spruce up the book -- at which point Moriarty mentioned Aguirre-Sacasa, who has written not only a number of well-regarded plays and comics, but is also a writer for HBO's series Big Love.

Strouse told Moriarty that sounds terrific, but he needed to speak with Adams first.

"I got an e-mail that night, and they said, 'Let's move forward, who's Roberto's agent?'" Moriarty says. "I picked up my cell and called Roberto and said, ' I think I might have a job for you. I talked to Charles Strouse and...' And before I can finish, Roberto's screaming, 'Is it Superman? Is it Superman?'"

As it turned out, Aguirre-Sacasa had likewise been a lifelong fan of the musical and had been trying for years through his agent to arrange a meeting with Strouse.

"So, through a series of lucky coincidences and persuasive conversations, that's precisely what happened," Moriarty says.

At this moment, though, it's far closer to concept than reality. Moriarty's indulging his lifelong passion for comics, put on hold while in college, to study the earliest Superman and Action Comics titles, from the Man of Steel's first appearance in June 1938 till at least the mid-1950s. Because where Benton and Newman set their story in the then-present day, Moriarty and Aguirre-Sacasa are setting theirs in 1939 -- a year after the Kryptonian showed up in Metropolis.

"We do not have a full outline yet, but Roberto's been writing scenes, which is really fun," Moriarty says. "I'll open my e-mail, and itt'll say, 'First Daily Planet Scene,' and they'll be doing Front Page-style dialogue. We have a pretty good sense of the characters and a fleshed-out list of characters, including a couple of characters who are not in the musical we want to put in the musical."

Such as ...? Here, Moriarty catches himself, trying not to give too much away. But, for instance, iconic Superman arch-enemy Lex Luthor's not in the original musical, and the fanboy in Moriarty can't see doing a Superman musical without the bald-headed baddie. But whatever changes the two make, they will run everything by Benton and Newman's widow, Leslie, before proceeding too far; indeed, Benton and Newman will still receive top-line credit, with Aguirre-Sacasa receiving an "additional material by" credit.

Moriarty says that after he and Aguirre-Sacasa have a completed script, they will take it to New York for a reading with the songwriters, Benton and Leslie Newman. And the foursome will more than likely come to Dallas during rehearsals next year. ("I can't believe I'll be hanging out with Charles Strouse!" Moriarty gushes.) There's also the chance that Moriarty will ask Strouse and Adams to write a new song or two for the piece, to fit in alongside such titles as "We Need Him," "The Strongest Man in the World" and "Pow! Bam! Zonk!" (Incidentally, the original soundtrack's still in print, for those looking to bone up a year in advance.)

"Both of us are taking this very seriously," Moriarty says. "We're so fond of and in awe of the Superman myth. That automatically feels like a real sense of possiblity and responsiblity. Superman was my hero. I was not a Marvel fan. I was a DC boy, and I was a Superman boy, not a Batman boy -- and I was so into DC I'd choose Aquaman over Spider-man. But in college they dropped out of my life. It wasn't until I was pretty mature adult when the darker comics, like the original run of The Authority,had a huge impact on me. It has been so rewarding to enter the Superman universe, with the color and light and heroism Superman even in his darkest momehts has always had -- and to do that joyfuflly and humorously and expansively but also seriously."

At the momemt, the Dallas Theater Center has rights to perform the work only in Dallas -- but if the musical's an artistic and commercial success, and should Benton and Strouse and the other original writers give their OK, then, yes, it could expand elsewhere. The timing's certainly right: Director Julie Taymor and Bono and The Edge are at this very moment writing Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a musical origin story of the Web-Slinger slated to open on Broadway only a few months before Superman takes flight in Dallas.

"In many, many ways, the biggest undertaking of my career was assuming the leadership of the Dallas Theater Center," Moriarty says. "But as an artist, and in terms of the personal investment, this is by far the biggest undertaking of my life -- and, by far, the most fun."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky