19 March 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
This 'Superman' can't fly.
"It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" was the unwieldy (and comma-less) title of a 1966 Broadway musical that ran for less than four months. The score by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams produced not a single hit song ... although "You've Got Possibilities" was recorded in England by Matt Munro. 'Superman' was such a resounding failure that, years later, when Martin Charnin approached Strouse to write the tunes for a musical comedy about Little Orphan Annie, Strouse almost refused because he'd already had one flop musical about a comic-book character! ('Annie' became the biggest hit in Strouse's songbook.)
Many bizarre (or Bizarro) decisions were made in the musical 'Superman', chiefly the decision to eliminate most of the established characters. The Broadway musical has no Perry White, no Jimmy Olsen. (They show up briefly in this tele-version.) Superman wastes a lot of time fighting some larcenous Chinese acrobats (played by white actors) who seem more like Batman's sort of villains. The main villain here is an evil scientific genius in the tradition of Lex Luthor ... but he isn't Lex Luthor. Apparently the producers of 'Superman' didn't want to pay DC Comics for the rights to use the Luthor character, so they named their villain "Doctor Abner Sedgwick". In the Broadway production (but not in this TV version), the actor playing Dr Sedgwick wore long flowing hair, just to make sure we all understood he wasn't the famously chrome-domed Lex Luthor.
The lead character in the 'Superman' musical isn't even Superman, Clark Kent, Lois Lane or anyone else in the established superhero canon: it's Max Mencken (who?), an egotistical reporter at the Daily Planet who wants to destroy Superman due to sheer envy. Mencken actually has more time onstage than Superman and Clark Kent together! (And more songs.) In 1966 the big-name Broadway actor Jack Cassidy was looking for a star vehicle, so the 'Superman' production team built up the minor role of Mencken in order to attract Cassidy and take advantage of his box-office name value. This was a fatal error: a musical about Superman ought to be ABOUT Superman.
'ABC Wide World of Entertainment' wasn't so much a TV series as it was an irregular time slot. In the 1970s, whenever ABC-TV had a piece of programming that didn't fit any established niche, they bunged it into whatever late-night slot was available and called it 'Wide World of Entertainment'. The most notorious example of this was the 'Monty Python' special which ABC-TV aired at midnight: several Python episodes were drastically recut to fit the time slot, provoking a famous lawsuit from the Python comedians.
The 1975 television production of "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" -- transmitted under ABC's 'Wide World of Entertainment' rubric -- is a re-staging of the Broadway show, with a new cast. This is a VERY bad musical special, done on a criminally low budget. The entire production is filmed on a cramped sound stage. The musical numbers, which were bad in the first place, are staged in a very unimaginative manner.
In the Broadway version, the nearest thing to a hit song was "You've Got What I Need, Baby", a duet sung by Mencken and Sedgwick when they decide to team up in a plot to kill Superman. Staged on Broadway, this was a rousing up-tempo number that efficiently closed the first act. In this 1975 TV version, the song is stodged down so that Kenneth Mars and David Wayne can perform it with arthritic slowness.
A (very minor) musical high point occurs in the song "You've Got Possibilities" when Loretta Swit, as the villainess, attempts to seduce mild-mannered Clark Kent, whom she doesn't realise is really Superman. When Linda Lavin performed this number in the Broadway production, there was an element of suspense when she sang the line "underneath, there's something there" while she started to unbutton Clark's shirt ... nearly discovering the big Superman "S" underneath. This clever staging was omitted in the TV version, and nothing better is brought in to replace it. Swit's singing voice is smoky and appropriately vampy, but weak.
This TV special does have one poignant moment that didn't occur in the Broadway original, when Superman meets two teenage fans named Jerry and Joe who want to write stories about him and draw pictures of him. This is a subtle reference to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the real-life teenagers from Cleveland who created Superman in the 1930s and sold the character to National Periodical Publications. I wish that "It's a Bird It's a Plane It's Superman" had more moments like this. I'll rate this terrible show only one point out of 10. Pass the Kryptonite.