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It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman is currently being revamped for the stage for a June revival at the Dallas Theater Center, which Earth’s Mightiest will be covering. In the meantime, however, what follows is a look back at the original Broadway production from 1966 that starred Bob Holiday as the Man of Steel.
Back in the 1980s, Earth’s Mightiest editor Edward Gross had the opportunity to meet with husband and wife screenwriters David and Leslie Newman to discuss their efforts for the first three Christopher Reeve Superman films. In the course of that conversation, things shifted to the Broadway musical, which the late David Newman had co-written with Robert Benton. What follows is the portion of that interview from so long ago centering on the show.

EARTH’S MIGHTIEST: To be honest, I really know very little about that show.

DAVID NEWMAN: That's very simple. Benton and I were freelancing magazine articles, and two guys, Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, the composers who had written Bye Bye Birdie and a lot of great shows, went to lunch with us and they suggested we write a musical. That didn’t happen, but we had a wonderful time. Our son Nathan was eight years old at the time and he was reading comic books, and Leslie came out of his room and said, "You know what would make a great musical?" And she held up a Superman comic book. And I thought, "Wow, what a great idea." Benton liked it, and then Adams and Strouse liked it, so we wrote this musical called Superman, which Hal Prince produced and directed. It was a wonderful show, which took a year to get on as Broadway shows do. We were in trouble in Philadelphia, we got it whipped into shape and opened in New York in March of 1966, and got the greatest reviews you've ever seen in your life. We thought we had a smash hit...there was a line at the Alvin Theatre, now the Neil Simon Theatre, which went around the block, and we thought, "Here it comes, guys. Get me that house in San Jose." We went off for a week thinking we had made it big, but what happened… well, we had our own theories as to what happened. Benton called it "Capelash," as opposed to backlash. The Batman television show had come out on television at about the same time, and one of the things that happened, I think with some hindsight....

LESLIE NEWMAN: It was a very different approach to the subject than we took in the films.

DAVID NEWMAN: It was a musical. It was fun, but it wasn't camp. We took the character very seriously, though it was playful. He sang and danced...we're not talking about The Bible here anyway, but it was a lot of fun. Jack Cassidy played the villain, a guy named Bob Holiday played Superman. But then one or two things happened. One, I think, was the Batman show, just because it was a time for pop-art. A lot of magazine coverage had Batman, Superman and Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup as though it was all part of the same phenomenon, and I think people said, "Why should I pay twelve bucks a ticket when I can watch Batman for nothing?" The other thing, despite the reviews and everything like that, was that people kept coming up to the box office and saying, "I want fifteen tickets for my son's birthday party on a Saturday matinee."

LESLIE NEWMAN: Nobody wanted tickets at night because they thought it was a kid's show. It was a very sophisticated kind of humor in which the attempt to destroy Superman was done through psychoanalysis.

DAVID NEWMAN: There was this wonderful sequence we call the brainwashing scene, where the evil scientist asks why he dresses up like that. Is it a need to be noticed? [all laugh]

LESLIE NEWMAN: But this was hardly stuff for five-year-olds. People just had this notion that it was for kids. It really was ahead of its time.

DAVID NEWMAN: We were selling out matinees and going empty at night. They changed the advertising and used sexy girls, but nothing worked. After three months, one day in July, it just closed and that was the end of that. Then I forgot about superheroes and many years later the Salkinds came to us, and they had no idea that I had done this show. I began to think that there was something in fate that this red caped creature would fly into my life every ten years and save my ass, which he did.
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