Kevin Moriarty, artistic director of the Dallas Theater Center, had two boyhood obsessions: musicals and Superman.
It would have been an odd coupling no matter where he lived, but it was downright weird in his hometown of Rensselaer, IN (population: 6,400). Weird, and difficult to integrate. Superman just doesn’t seem like a song-and-dance kind of guy, does he?
That’s what Moriarty thought, too, until he stumbled upon the original cast recording of It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! at his small town’s library. Superman! had had a less-than-noteworthy stint on Broadway, running for only 129 performances before fading into relative obscurity. Moriarty didn’t know anything about the plot or the characters, except that here was Superman, singing. He was hooked. “I instantly freaked out,” he remembers. “I started making up a story to go along with the record, because I didn’t have any way of knowing what the story was.”
It was serendipitous moment of glee for the young, musically inclined superhero fan. It couldn’t get any better than that. Or so he thought.
Two Fridays ago, the Dallas Theater Center debuted the world’s first revival of Superman!, rescued from Broadway oblivion by the little Indiana boy that refused to give up on his main man. “It’s hard for me to believe that I have the opportunity for the first time in my life to bring these two loves together,” he tells Paste during a phone conversation just 36 hours before the opening curtain. “Everywhere you look there’s someone singing, dancing, building something…or attempting to fly.”
The excitement in his voice is shameless—contagious even—as he explains the improbable turn of events that finally got the Man of Steel to sing. It all started in a meeting between Moriarty and legendary Broadway music writer Charles Strouse, who, along with co-legend Lee Adams, penned the musical portion of Superman!. In passing, Moriarty mentioned to Strouse his personal fondness for the musical, to which Strouse replied, “I love it too! Why isn’t it done more often?”
It was a question Moriarty had been prepared to answer for years, and so he did, relating all his best ideas for a Superman! that could really fly. Strouse was all ears. “By six o’clock that night, the executive director of Charles Strouse’s company called me and said, ‘We’ve got all the original writers. They’ve all signed off on this,’” Moriarty says. And just like that, a little boy’s dreams came true.
But Moriarty still had his work cut out for him. Superman! was anything but a hit when it first ran on Broadway. Critics applauded the project, but the audience just didn’t show up. As Moriarty explains, audiences’ general lack of interest could have largely been a sign of the times. Americans in the 1960s directed their hero-worship toward free-loving, anti-establishment folks like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon, not buttoned-up, white-bread good guys like Clark Kent.
Still, Moriarty knew that if he wanted a hit, he would have to rely on a lot more than good timing. His first order of business was assembling a production team worthy of Krypton’s Last Son, especially a writer with the ability to make a live, onstage Superman heroic, accessible, and, perhaps most of all, not a joke.
As fate would have it, he was old friends with just the guy: playwright/Marvel comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who also just happened to listen to the original Superman! cast recording as a kid, and also dreamed of a project like this. “Kevin, like me, thought the 1960’s musical didn’t quite capture the essence of Superman. It was like a series of little skits; it needed a new book,” Aguirre-Sacasa says. “So, when he called me up, I was like, ‘I’m there. Absolutely.”
Aguirre-Sacasa immediately agreed to join the team, as did Strouse and Adams, eager to revamp a project they both loved. A year’s worth of work between the four of them resulted in a new storyline, which Aguirre-Sacasa was kind enough to preview.
It’s 1939, the year after Superman’s arrival in Metropolis, and Lois Lane is asking for a commitment from her larger-than-life boyfriend. But there’s a new reporter in town, Sydney, who has her own romantic interests… in Clark Kent. Meanwhile, local tycoon Max Menken is sick and tired of Superman getting all the attention and decides to take the Man of Steel out the picture for good.
“It’s a big epic that starts on the planet Krypton and ends on the rooftop of the Daily Planet,” Aguirre-Sacasa elaborates. “And by putting this show in the ‘30s and doing it like an old-fashioned musical comedy, you can embrace Superman and his old-fashioned values as an ideal as opposed to irrelevant.”
And there are other additions to the project that set it apart from the original in potentially amazing ways.
Take, for instance, the fact that Lois Lane is played for the first known time by an African American woman. “I got an e-mail from my agent saying I had gotten an audition for the project,” says Zakiya Young. “I was like, ‘Um, okay…but I’m black.”
But the casting announcement had indicated it would be “colorblind,” so audition she did. And she nailed it, Moriarty says.
Could it strike folks as out of the ordinary that Superman and Lois Lane are about to be an interracial couple? Sure, says Young, but look at the big picture. “Superman is an alien from Krypton,” she laughs. “I mean, we’re asking audience members to believe a man can fly. If we do our job and draw people into this dreamworld, it isn’t going to matter.”
Moriarty says interest in the DTC’s project has been widespread and has translated into ticket sales. “Comic book fans are curious, ‘Can Superman fly and sing in the same show?’ Musical theater fans are excited by the chance to see a very rare production of a musical that they’ve known about for years but never had the opportunity to see.”
Already, there are rumors and whispers of a national tour. But for now, Moriarty says his focus is on the man who captured his heart all those years ago. “What we’re longing for is an irony-free, uncynical moment where we can come together and transcend who we are. I think that’s what’s always been the appeal of Superman, and that’s what we’re trying to tap into.”
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman! is currently amidst a five-week run. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit DallasTheaterCenter.org/.