The "S" Is for Show Tune: The Story Behind the Superman Musical

By Laurence Maslon
19 Mar 2013

Playbill cover from the original Broadway production
Changing tastes in the mid-1950s were not kind to superheroes in general and comic books in particular, which were subjected to a Senate Subcommittee that attempted to yoke their sensationalistic tales to juvenile delinquency. Superman was one of the few heroes left standing (and leaping and flying) in the aftermath and he gently morphed into a reassuring Eisenhower-era figure, a lantern-jawed scoutmaster in red underwear as likely to use his superpowers in a charity stunt to rescue an orphanage as he was to use them to defeat a giant robot descending upon Metropolis.

Square though he could be, the character of Superman piqued the interests of an up-and-coming team of journalists named Robert Benton and David Newman, who inquired after the musical stage rights for Superman in the early 1960s. Benton and Newman were among the first to realize that Superman was not just America's greatest superhero, he was one of America's greatest metaphors. Soon allied with the successful songwriting duo of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Bye Bye Birdie, Golden Boy), Benton and Newman fashioned an original story around the essentials of the Superman legend, as captured in the introduction to the 1950s TV series: "Superman — strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman... who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never- ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!"

Of course, the collaborators had another ace up their leotards: one of the great love stories of modern mythology. Star reporter Lois Lane is hopelessly enamored of our Kryptonian paragon, Superman, unaware that he is Clark Kent. At the same time, Superman keeps up the pretense that his alter ego, Clark Kent, is hopelessly enamored of Lois Lane. It's like a ménage a trois between two people.

By the time It's a Bird…It's a Plane...It's Superman rocketed to Broadway in the early '60s, now produced and directed by the rising Broadway maestro Harold Prince, the prevailing winds streaking past our hero had begun to change. Comic books were starting to become hip. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein had been using a new style called Pop art, which traded on the bold colors, innocent resonance, and commercial acceptance of comic books (in fact, Warhol's first big break came in 1961 when he exhibited a huge silkscreen of — you guessed it — Superman).

The Broadway version of Superman's exploits allowed various preoccupations of the 1960s to fill the background of its musical panels: atomic power, the Cold War and the fear of Communism, the rising cult of celebrity, psychoanalysis, as well as a general ambivalence about the role of heroes in a post-Camelot world — but it was all set to the rollicking energy of the era, brilliantly embodied by Eddie Sauter's Metropolis-meets- Vegas orchestrations.