For a while, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman seemed destined to live on only as a sparkling cast album and a cabaret standard (“You’ve Got Possibilities”). Numerous efforts to rework and revise the 1966 musical had fallen flat, from an Encores! staging to a full production at Dallas Theater Center. And then, just as in every superhero story, came an unlikely twist to save the day: The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati.
The Nation’s oldest professional theatre for young audiences, TCT has streamlined the show into a one-hour musical featuring 11 songs that works for casts of children and of adults, like TCT’s MainStage production model. And so a mostly forgotten title is getting a new chance at life with a run at TCT October 6–15, all thanks to Producing Artistic Director Roderick Justice and his quest for a modern hero.
“We were looking at shows in our season about three years ago and this idea of being a hero in our times and standing up for what you believe is right is really relevant to me,” Justice says. “And I went back to my childhood and did some research about this 1966 Superman musical. There have been many attempts to soften the edges; it was written in a different time and the material may not translate or be an easy pill to swallow, especially for children’s theatres. So I reached out to the president of [licensing company] Tams-Witmark and pitched an idea from a cold call, saying, ‘Hey, I think we could have a piece of theatre that would be relevant, marketable, and could have a long life on the middle school platform and professionally.’”
A few calls to composer Charles Strouse and DC Comics later, and Justice was given the greenlight to move forward with associate artistic director Eric Byrd, who helped aim the show’s story more squarely at children. The final test came with a presentation to Tams-Witmark and Strouse, led by a cast of 14 young performers from TCT’s young artist training program, that met with success and delight. Still set in the 1960s, now a love interest has been removed, as well as the culturally insensitive acrobats, and some misogynistic undertones. In its place are fresh orchestrations and the chance for schools around the country to get inventive with its staging.
More importantly for Justice and the show, with the revised script “there is a charm with a child playing Superman, a child playing a mad scientist, a child running around being bandits that really goes hand in hand with the script. So there’s a new flavor that exists when it is performed by kids that was nowhere near in existence before.”
And the process of rescuing shows that might be problematic for contemporary audiences or simply unduly forgotten is one that Justice wants to continue. “The licensing companies may not always have the time or the resources, or they’re not tuned in to what themes children’s theatre might need,” he says. “They certainly have their expertise adapting these for the junior versions, but what we can do is say that, without any cost to the licensing company, we can create a piece of theatre that could live on and impact as many children as possible.”
And not just children—Superman also impacted one very famous legend of the theatre.
“Looking over at Charles Strouse giggle at these songs, at these jokes, it was something I’ll never forget at that workshop,” Justice says. “And these kids will never forget working with this legend and having a chance to breathe new life into this show that he may never have seen coming.”