PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa Prolific playwright Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, a lover of science fiction, horror and comics, landed a dream job: working on a musical about Superman.
Robert Aguirre-Sacasa
Robert Aguirre-Sacasa

*

Not a new show, but a revision of the 1966 satiric musical comedy It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman, with a score by Bye Bye Birdie writers Lee Adams and Charles Strouse.

The following email interview with the busy comic book writer ("Sensational Spider-Man)", screenwriter (HBO's "Big Love") and playwright (Good Boys and True, Say You Love Satan, The Mystery Plays, Based on a Totally True Story) is this week's Brief Encounter. Meanwhile, the world premiere of the new It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman continues to July 25 at Dallas Theater Center.

How did you become attached to revising the libretto of It's a Bird…It's a Plane…It's Superman?
Roberto Aguirre-Sacase: My friend (and artistic director of Dallas Theater Center), Kevin Moriarty, called to tell me he was thinking about reviving It's a Bird...It's a Plane... Before he'd even finished his pitch, I was like: "I'm in! whatever you need, no matter what else is happening in my life, I'm there!"

Had you been a fan of, or familiar with, the original musical?
RAS: I did know the original musical. The cast album was one of the first records I'd bought when I was 11 or 12, at the old Serendipity record shop in Washington, DC, and — more recently — I'd seen a few readings of the original show in New York City. One at the York, one at the Duplex. I was a fan, absolutely. What drew you to this story as a playwright?
RAS: For me, there were several things that appealed: First and foremost, it was the chance to work on some of those most iconic characters ever created. I mean, Superman? Lois Lane? Forget it...! Second of all, I wanted a chance to write something BIG. All of my plays have, basically, four or five characters. It's a Bird... had a much larger canvas, obviously, and the way we were going about it, it was going to be an epic story, starting on the planet Krypton, on the eve of its destruction, with a father and mother sending their only son away in a rocketship, ending on the rooftop of the Daily Planet building, with a romantic kiss for the ages. Also, so many of my plays have...let's call them dark, adult themes. I really wanted to work on something that was unapologetically positive and inspiring and hopeful. You know, something I could invite all my little cousins to. Finally, it bothered me that this terrific, beloved score — with one of the all-time great musical theatre songs, "You've Got Possibilities" — had kind of fallen into obscurity. I thought, at a minimum, if we could come up with something that allowed people to hear Charles and Lee's score anew, that would be amazing.

Were you given a blank slate to adapt the script?
RAS: To start, yes, essentially. I used a bunch of characters from the Superman mythos to correct what, to my mind, was one of the most confusing aspects of the original musical. A Superman musical with no Lex Luthor? No Jimmy Olsen? Then we did a reading in New York, I invited some folks from DC Comics, who then suggested that we might only want to use characters that appeared in the original musical... So Lex went back to being Max Menken, which actually "fit" better since — truthfully — the villain Max Menken sings; the villain Lex Luthor crooning? Harder to picture. And Jimmy Olsen became a Joe Shuster-like newsboy named Torchy Carter. (Joe Shuster is one of Superman's original creators, by the way.) In terms of the story, a lot of the basic core ideas are still there: Max is trying to destroy Superman; someone's sniffing around Superman's secret identity; and there are love triangles (and quadrangles) galore. No Chinese acrobats, though; we have a motley crew of super-villains.

There is now an interracial couple — Lois and Clark Kent — at the heart of the tale. Was that a specific choice made in the writing, or a result of casting?
RAS: Completely a casting decision. We cast the best actress who came in the door to audition for Lois Lane: Zakiya Young, who — let me tell you — is the Lois Lane of your dreams. Tough, smart, funny, and beautiful. And that voice...

There are science fiction, horror or supernatural references in several of your plays, like Dr. Cerberus (being presented by L.A. Theatre Works July 14-18), The Muckle Man and Based on a Totally True Story. Where does that come from? Were you a comic book addict who watched "Godzilla" movies on TV as a kid?
RAS: Guilty and guilty. I grew up reading comic books. Super hero comic books, Archie comic books, horror comic books, you name it. And watching monster movies. (Saturday nights, on Channel 20 in Washington, DC, at midnight, I used to watch a show called "Creature Feature," hosted by a vampire, Count Gore deVol, who introduced old black and white horror movies...) You'll notice in It's a Bird...It's a Plane, Clark Kent has a similar "adolescent penchant for monster movies," as Lois Lane puts it, and he's always asking her to go see some with him... Actually, one of the scenes in the musical is their first date: To see a revival of the original "King Kong" movie.

In it's original presentation, It's a Bird… was a musical comedy satire of the legend. Did you bump up the satire, or did you want to play it down?
RAS: We played down the satire, a lot. I mean, it's still a musical comedy, there are still the occasional "super-winks" to the audience, as we like to call them, but we're playing it very grounded this go-around. The situations may be fantastical, but the emotional stakes are always — must always — be real. That was our guiding principal. We have to take these characters seriously.

For fans of the cast album, can you tell us what was cut from the score for the new production and what was added? Any new songs written?
RAS: A couple of songs were cut: "Revenge" and "What I've Always Wanted" fell away for very different reasons. We added several songs Charles and Lee had written for It's a Bird... originally but hadn't used. "A Bunch of Happy People," for instance, which establishes the world of the Daily Planet. Charles and Lee wrote a terrific "flirt" song for Lois to sing to Superman, "Even Men Like You," which is later reprised — and flipped — so that Clark sings it to Lois. Charles wrote a beautiful "Anthem" Superman sings to inspire a group of Metropolis orphans (winking to Annie, of course). There's a Kryptonian lullaby, and Torchy leads the chorus in "Did You See That?" a rousing song cut from the original that frames all of Superman's super-deeds. "A Woman Alone" is Lois' eleventh-hour ballad, replacing "What I've Always Wanted," and it's a knock-out. (Another song rescued from the trunk.) "It's Up to Me" replaces "I'm Not Finished Yet," which captures our Lois' spunk. She's no damsel in distress waiting for Superman to save her; she helps save Superman!

What was it like to work with Adams and Strouse?
RAS: Fantastic. They've been incredibly supportive throughout. We actually did our first workshop of the piece in Charles' apartment, and it was slightly surreal to be working with these Broadway legends. Truly a highlight of my career and, well...life so far.

Plot or story-wise, what did you feel needed to be addressed/changed most significantly in the show?
RAS: Besides dialing down the campy tone, we felt strongly that the main love story should shift back to our two leads: Superman and Lois Lane. In the original, Lois fell in love with a lab assistant (!) and Clark fell in love with a secretary at the Daily Planet (!!). The Lois/Clark/Superman love triangle is one of the most famous in comicdom (second only to Archie/Betty/Veronica) and that needed to be our focus. Is there any talk of a New York transfer or future regional life for the production?
RAS: There has been talk and interest, yes. And already I'm making a list of all the things I would tweak or cut or revisit. But there are lots of details to be worked out, with lots of interested parties. But right now, it's about the magic that's happening at Dallas Theatre Center, where the production's selling out night after night. And let me tell you, as a kid who got a nosebleed the first time Christopher Reeve saved Margo Kidder in the first "Superman" movie, that's what it's like for the kids — and there are a lot of them, more than I've ever seen in a theatre for one of my plays, certainly — watching It's a Bird" at DTC...

Would you be able to share with us any details about the musical of American Pyscho or your future playwriting projects?
RAS: Duncan Sheik and I are trucking along on American Psycho, which is sort of the anti-Superman, you know? But it's a lot of fun, too, in a much, much darker way, obviously. (None of my little cousins will be invited to that one, alas...) Also, I'm working on a couple of new plays — one of them is a noir-ish thriller set in the Hollywood Hills — and I just got hired to write the book for a new musical, which I can't announce yet but is definitely a dream come true.

(Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com. Write him at ahetrick@playbill.com.)

Matt Cavenaugh and company in <i>It's a Bird</i>
Matt Cavenaugh and company in It's a Bird Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux
Today’s Most Popular News: