Up, Up and Away: DTC's Kevin Moriarty on the Status of the "New" Superman Musical

It has been seven months since Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty announced the lineup for DTC's inaugural season in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, during which time the venue's been finished and feted and Moriarty wove a month-long Midsummer Night's Dream that ended its run yesterday. It has, he tells Unfair Park, been "its own min-super adventure. But like a good DC comic book, it ended victoriously in every way."

Which, right on cue, brings us to the reason for this item: the season-ending It's a Bird ... It's a Plane ... It's Superman, a top-to-bottom, side-to-side reworking of the short-lived 1966 Broadway production that takes flight seven months from now. How, we wondered, was it coming? It was a simple question that turned into a 45-minute conversation in which Moriarty revealed that next week, he and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa will head to New York City to read the work with its original authors -- Charles Strouse (who wrote the music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Oak Cliff's own Robert Benton (who penned the story with David Newman) -- and figure out whether they've struck gold or hit kryptonite.

"We'll divide the parts," says Moriarty, who adds that the confab will take place in Strouse's living room. "That will be our first time for all of us to be together to see what we have. That'll be exciting. It could be terrifying. But it will be fun. Not only will we hear the thing out loud, but we'll also brainstorm and share ideas. And it's possible we'll discover we need maybe two, maybe three new songs or that the old songs need really radical lyrical adjustments."

Aguirre-Sacasa -- a playwright, a comic-book scribe for Marvel and one of the writers of HBO's Big Love -- took several months to bang out a first act, due, in part, to the fact Big Love returns in January. The hardest part of the process, says Moriarty, was figuring out the time frame in which to set the piece and finding the tone most appropriate for a musical about Superman. After originally setting the piece post-World War II, they settled on 1939 -- a year after Superman made his debut in Action Comics No.1

"That's because the plot we have crafted now takes place on the one-year anniversary of Superman's arrival in Metropolis as an adult," he tells Unfair Park. "This is the first year in which Lex Luthor's not being anointed Man of the Year, and he's having to to deal with the fact he's seen his importance and stature in the community go from being the single most important man in Metropolis to the second-most important man. And it's still early in the relationship between Lois and Clark Kent and Lois and Superman, both of which have become very important. They have enough history. They've already fallen in love, and that love triangle -- Clark loves Lois, but Lois is in love with Superman, who, of course, is Clark Kent -- has become the beating heart at the center of the piece.

"And 1939 seems perfect to me," Moriarty continues, his answer quickly turning into a monologue. "It still puts us in the Depression, but in America we're not in the war and largely we're not concerned with the war. It's been said many times before, but Superman's greatest superpower is that he inspires others to be better, and 1939 is a time where you can bring that to life on stage without it being perceived as silly or corny or campy. That's a time when people need hope. .. And, it's a time when one superhero and one intrepid girl reporter and one diabolical man can make a big difference."

Those who recall the '66 original, whose soundtrack remains in print, will discover all of the songs remain -- only, they're no longer performed by characters who performed them in the original. In fact, most of Benton and Newman's characters are long gone, replaced by, among others, Lex Luthor, Daily Planet gossip columnist Cat Grant (who didn't make her comic book debut till 1987) and The Scarlet Widow (a holdover from the Superman radio show of the 1940s).

"When Robert handed me the first draft of Act One, I said -- and this was no surprise -- I told him he absolutely nailed the tone and the spirit of the Superman comics in the script," Moriarty says. "He had that instantly. Honestly, the story and justifying a song and a character arc is something any good writer has to be able to do over a couple of months. On the other hand, capturing the tone of Superman for most theater people is an incredibly elusive thing. But this absolutely encompasses Roberto's voice; I can see his personality. It isn't the exact same as when he's writing for Marvel or Big Love. You can hear the color of his voice -- the tone, the point of view. He's writing in a style that's true to the style, the hope and optimism and very consciously trying to hit a Front Page kind of witty, fast, sparing, late 1930s patter. That's been something I had always hoped for.

"And what's been surprising to me is how moving it is. Me being a real Superman fan, I may not be the fairest judge. But there are a couple of moments in the script, especially late in the play, where Clark Kent has to make a choice about the nature of his life and Lois has to do the same thing, and it totally pays off. I tear up every time I read it. That surprises me. I read a lot of comics, and that's really unusual to me. Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" makes me cry -- like when Krypto dies, it's so moving. It's one of my favoritet comics, even though it doesn't feel like one. And "The Death of Superman" had a lot of stunning moments. But for the most part, I don't cry at DC comics. But this surprised me: I can't believe I am choking up."

Later this week we'll have more of my talk with Moriarty -- including his expectations for It's a Bird ... following its run at the Wyly. And, he talks about how he could have only staged a production like this on a Dallas stage.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky