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"A merry musical comedy spoof by the 'Bye Bye Birdie' songwriters!" And a merry, musical spoof is exactly what was presented by the young performers of San Jose, California's Actors Theatre Center in their August, 2006 production of It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!
From the moment the curtain opened, excitement filled the theatre. The production captured the color and exuberance of the 1960's with mini skirts, go-go boots, and sweet young dancers in a gilded cage. The teen-age actors poured all their youthful energy into this performance, and carried the audience straight into Metropolis. Maintaining the 1966 timeline was a wise choice by the director, Jeff Hicks; doing so maintained the integrity of both the musical style and lyrics.
The plot of It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! is driven by its musical numbers. Strong, blaring brass, bass and drums contrasted with delicate wind instruments and keyboard, successfully carrying Superman through heart-wrenching travails and dangers. The orchestra was forceful enough to thrill the audience, yet it never overpowered the young actors. Again, the director hit exactly the right balance with the music in this show.
Our show opens with Superman changing into Clark Kent in a clever musical number, and the citizens of Metropolis singing of their love for Superman. We then meet the brilliant professor Dr. Abner Sedgwick, who seeks Lois Lane's help in locating Superman. Hence begins the dual plot lines of Dr. Sedgwick planning to destroy Superman, while Lois falls for Sedgwick's assistant, Jim Morgan. Sedgwick manages to turn the town against Superman at the same time that Lois gently lets Superman know that she's fallen for "a guy with both feet on the ground." The double blow is more than Superman can stand, and he wilts away. Of course, Sedgwick teams up with every nefarious citizen of Metropolis, including arrogant reporter Max Mencken who pines for Lois, and his plucky secretary, Sydney, who falls for Clark Kent.
This convoluted set of characters may be alien to Superman fans, but the costuming and characterizations of these adept, young actors kept the playcard straight. Sedgwick was maniacal, Mencken was egotistical, Sydney was sassy, and Lois was the sweetest woman on earth. So great were their portrayals that the audience completely forgot that these actors hadn't even earned a high school diploma. Lois Lane was only twelve years old, but had a voice that filled the theatre and a stage presence that belied her young age.
So in a production full of cartoon characters, how does a play become a spoof? That, as they say, is a job for Superman. Given that the only recording of the play is a 1975 adulterated rendition featuring a befuddled and lackluster Superman, all future productions had to think this play was a spoof. Fortunately, director Jeff Hicks didn't fall into the trap of replicating the 1975 Superman. He instead cast a sweetheart of a Superman, blond and goofy, with the widest smile on Earth. The audience loved him the way you love a golden retriever puppy. Superman may have been spoofed, but the show was so full of energy and spunk that we loved it anyway.
There were a few rough spots. Dr. Sedgwick's Brainiac 7 computer accidentally fell flat onto the floor. But the brilliant young actor lifted it and kissed it ceremoniously, proclaiming, "There, that's better." You couldn't ask for a funnier moment. A deeper flaw in the staging occurred after Lois Lane falls in love with Jim Morgan, and sings a ballad about how much she's always wanted a normal life. Unfortunately, a creative dance was added in the background, making Superman look like the "normal" husband she wants. This destroyed the audience sense that Lois was newly in love with Jim, and made her plot-critical announcement of this love to Superman seem incongruous. (Of course, we still discover how devastated Superman is. Though Lois has walked out the door, we fans finally get to hear Superman say, "I love you.")
One of the funniest moments of the Broadway staging seems to have been lost to history. Linda Lavin, who'd played Sydney, flirted delightfully with Clark Kent, and on Broadway began to unbutton Clark's white shirt, singing, "Underneath there's something there." Miss Lavin's perfect comedic timing had the audience in suspense that Clark would be exposed, until trumpets blared and Clark jumped away. The musical cue is still in the score, but there must be no record of that moment in the script.
Of course, none of that ruined this show. Superman saved Metropolis, and the teen-age energy of all the performers carried the night to an exciting conclusion. Then, a fabulous touch was tagged on to the end. The curtain calls for It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! are written right into the last song, so the show ends with the audience cheering madly. But Jeff Hicks took us one step further, reprising the signature song of the show, "It's Superman," after the curtain calls ended. Cast members poured into the audience, roused us to our feet, and we all danced and sang one last number together. How can you help but love this show?
Do You Know the Way to San Jose?
Every die hard Superman fan in America needs to see this It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman! It's an important part of Superman lore, and it can't be captured on video. We owe it to the Man of Steel to make this show a part of our lives.
If you live on the West Coast, try to get to San Jose to see it this last weekend. Tickets are still available at the Theatre Center website.
If you can't make it this weekend, don't despair. Two more West coast performances of the show are planned. Northwest Superman fans can catch the musical on October 7-8 in Kirkland, WA. And a single performance is offered for fans in Southern California on November 20.
Time for full disclosure: I had to love this show. You see, I'm one of the original "Superman Kids." Who are we? We're the lucky kids who got to meet Superman after Broadway's It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman. Bob Holiday, the most gracious actor under a yellow sun, invited children to meet him and get his autograph after every matinee. I was in awe of him then, and I've never forgotten how wonderful he was to us kids.
How did Bob feel about us? Interviewed in 1966, Bob said, "It's one of those little added pleasures to see those faces light up, to say 'Hi, there, son' - in a big low voice - and hear the kid go "Uhhhhhh!' This is my kick." Even today, Bob says, "Something is alive in me when I think back on the love I had holding you kids and watching your expressions." We've never forgotten him, and he's never forgotten us.
Bob was the absolute epitome of Superman. As columnist Norman Nadel wrote in 1966, "Bob Holiday ... has the Superman instinct like no other actor who comes to mind." But this doesn't mean he was boring, far from it. As Nadel wrote, "Holiday has this directness, this acceptance of perfection, down pat, and it becomes the funniest single element in the whole production."
If you, like me, were one of the lucky "Superman Kids," please drop me a line. I'll make sure that Bob Holiday hears from you. He'd love to know that you still remember him.
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