We’ve seen books that celebrate the making of Annie, The Producers, Hairspray and No, No, Nanette – but did you know that there’s also one on It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman?
Indeed, in 2003, Bob Holiday and Chuck Harter wrote Superman on Broadway. The former of the two certainly knew the territory, for in 1966 he was flying over the stage of the Alvin Theatre as the Man of Steel in producer-director Harold Prince’s newest musical. So now, as the show celebrates its golden anniversary, giving a look at the book yields many entertaining facts.
Holiday tells us that as a just-starting-out entertainer he opened for The Three Stooges. Things got better when George Abbott hired him to play assistant to Fiorello in the musical named for the New York mayor (and co-produced by Prince). Holiday played the entire 795-performance run and did the national tour, too.
Eighth billing one day; next day, he’s touring in stock, doing the Keith Andes part in Wildcat with someone quite unexpected in the Lucille Ball role. In the New York Mirror in June, 1963, one critic wrote “Those two-minute kisses on stage in Wildcat between Mamie van Doren and her six-foot-four leading man Bob Holiday must be for real. Mamie is not that good an actress.”
Later the Journal American reported the two “were instructed to cut the kiss down to a half-minute.” Holiday protested “I’d rather take a pay cut.” Forty years on, Holiday said in the book that he was serious.
Holiday also played Randy in Lady in the Dark and Lancelot in Camelot. Good thing he did the latter – for when the 33-year-old read in a newspaper that Prince needed someone “six-foot-four, weight between 190-210, handsome, in his mid-30s, black hair, blue eyes and strong features,” he showed up and sang Camelot’s “C’est Moi” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.”
Fifty-one hunks applied, including Don Bragg, who’d won a gold medal for pole-vaulting in the 1960 Olympics. But Prince didn’t say “Get me that Don Bragg fellow,” but chose Holiday, who’d found that those previous four weeks of constant weight-lifting had paid off.
So far, so good – but, Holiday reports, “When I got the script, I had mixed feelings. Why was Jack Cassidy getting top billing when I was playing the title character?” (Is there any doubt that Holiday was a true actor?)
Actually, bookwriters David Newman and Robert Benton, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams did seem to center on Cassidy’s Max Mencken — a newly invented, never-in-the-comic-strip character. They did give serious attention to Lois Lane, and to play her, they chose Joan Hotchkis, who’d only been an understudy in two Broadway plays (with a small role in one of them).
Prince had such high hopes for his show that he raised ticket prices to an all-time, unheard-of high: $12. Actually, that was the tariff for only the first eight rows of the orchestra – meaning that premium prices in essence started long before The Producers. But he did make the next six rows $10, the rest of the orchestra $9, the mezzanine and boxes $8, and the remaining seats $5 and $2.
The reason for the two lowest prices was, as Prince told the press, “to bring people back to the theater who left it some time ago for economic reasons.” (Suffice to say we don’t see them these days, either.)
Speaking of economics, Superman was budgeted at $400,000, most of which — $250,000 – came from Columbia Records who’d make the original cast album which is still happily with us.
The reviews in Philadelphia weren’t good. Ernest Schier of the Bulletin did say that “There’s a girl named Linda Lavin who suggests a young Nancy Walker. She brightens things up with a song called ‘You’ve Got Possibilities.’” That would soon be recorded by Peggy Lee (although she wasn’t a Columbia artist) and over the years has been heard in more than a few television commercials.
Joan Hotchkis was replaced by Patricia Marand, late of Wish You Were Here. Holiday confesses in the book that “I have no memory why this was done.” Perhaps he was unnerved by seeing all those empty seats at Philadelphia’s Shubert. Business was so bad that Prince cut the tryout by a week and came to New York to preview instead. Holiday was told he’d get the cover of Life, but lost it to Adam West, then playing Batman on TV. (In other words, fifty years before we had a movie called Batman v Superman, we had a previous tussle between them,)
Suddenly none of that mattered after Stanley Kauffmann, in his only season as the critic of the Times, wrote that Superman was “easily the best musical so far this season” – and this in a season that had already yielded Sweet Charity and Man of La Mancha. Needless to say, this was the quotation used in Big Print in the full-page ad taken two days after opening. Underneath and to the side were endorsements from literally twenty other critics. (The advertising company did stop short of using columnist Earl Wilson’s opinion, which must be the strangest endorsement ever given by anyone writing about theater: “Patricia Marand’s so good her husband Frank Farrell may change his name to Frank Marand.”)
Prince felt vindicated, but was still smarting from the $65,000 loss he incurred in the City That Denied Him Brotherly Love. He soon told Variety that he’d “never again try out a show in Philadelphia, not as long as those critics are there …those gang of slightly post-college twerps.” (Indeed he never did.)
Superman did get three Tony® nominations – for Cassidy, Marand and Michael O’Sullivan, who played Dr. Abner Sedgwick, a mad scientist who wanted to crush the Man of Steel. But it won none. And despite a marvelous score with Strouse’s pop-art-flavored melodies and Adams’ best set of lyrics, Superman wasn’t doing well.
In those days, most adults went to the theater without their children. In order to spur kiddie attendance, Prince dropped the Monday evening performance in favor of a Thursday matinee. No go. Maybe the $12 fee was just too extreme.
So although Holiday has a lyric in his opening song, “It’s a satisfying feeling when you hang up your cape,” he didn’t feel that way on July 17, 1966 when he hung it up after the 129th performance. He did get to repeat his role the following year at St. Louis’ mammoth outdoor Muny, where the Post-Dispatch review was headlined “10,086 Enjoy Superman, Exploits, Songs.” Charles Nelson Reilly played Sedgwick and Karen Morrow was Lois.
That was Holiday’s last appearance on Broadway. As of 2003, he was in the homebuilding business. But three of the creators had good times ahead. Newman and Benton, who in a pre-Broadway interview stated “We wanted to do something besides adapting an old movie,” later wrote the screenplay for the smash-hit Superman film in 1978. And although Schier had noted, “The tricky business of turning a durable comic strip into an entertaining musical poses formidable obstacles,” Strouse eleven years in the future would do all right by another comic strip character. She, however, wore a red dress rather than a red cape and boots.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.