Note: Interview with Superman Matt Cavenaugh coming soon.
Q: I know this is a crazy time. It's a pleasure to speak with you and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.
KM:It is indeed a very crazy time. And it is also my pleasure to talk to you. And I'm a big fan of the Superman Homepage and the fact that you might write something that ends up there will be a thrill.
Q: I am coming to see the first preview of the show on Friday and I'm thrilled to see it. It's not exactly a revival, it's not a remounting of the original...what are they calling it?
KM:I think people are often calling it a revisal because we are... we are revising and re-looking at the material with fresh eyes as contemporary Superman fans with love for not only the history of the musical but equally for the character himself from 1938. His existence is from 1938, but I haven't been alive for most of Superman's existence.
KM:Well I have been a life-long Superman fan from my earliest childhood. And the importance Superman has had in my own life, first as I kid and now as an adult who still reads comic books: That impact has been immense. Superman stands for his unfailing optimism, his belief in service to others above personal gratification. His constant successful struggle to live up to the best ideals of America and to inspire others to do the same thing. That's something that resonated with me as a kid and still very much does today in this modern world that we live in.
And the other thing that has always been important to me is his own sense of identity and his place in the world as an outsider, as an immigrant from another planet, as an orphan, as an adopted son, he exhibits so many traits that have been an essential part of the American character in different ways that almost anybody can relate to. How do you integrate those parts of yourself to be a meaningful part of a broader community? That's one strand of this story of how we came to this moment in time. From the life-long love of Superman from comic books to movies to TV shows.
When I was in Junior High I stumbled across (this was before the internet or anything like that and I was living in a very small rural town in Indiana) a record album of the original cast recording of "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," which originally premiered on Broadway in 1966. I didn't know there was a Broadway musical of Superman. When I saw it was written by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, as a fan of musicals, another major influence on me as kid, I recognized their names right away. I knew together they had written "Bye Bye Birdie" and that Charles had written "Annie". Both musicals that were among my favorites as kid. And I couldn't believe these writers of musicals that I love had written a musical about my most favorite character.
I was totally blown away. I grabbed the album, went home and listened to it. I didn't have a script, I didn't know what the story was, so I had to make one up in my head, I just imagined that Superman was being selfless and doing his best to stop corruption and evil and was struggling with how Lois Lane could fall in love with the real him and how she could fall in love with Clark Kent and not just Superman and how he could integrate all of that. I made up my own story as I listened to it, but I was also a bit perplexed by the tone, because the tone seems to be not my experience with the tone of Superman, it wasn't the tone of the comic books I knew, it wasn't the tone of Superman movie which had been such a huge impact on me. It felt a little bit jokier, it felt a little more satiric, it felt a little bit more pop culture even thought those aren't necessarily words of phrases I would have though of as a kid.
Anyway, I listened to the record a bunch and years went by and I finally had a chance when I became a professional theater director to read the script. Which is not widely available, but I managed to get a copy and I read it eagerly and discovered that in fact it would have been exactly in tune with the times in 1966. It defiantly is not in tune with our relationship with superheroes and our need for truth and justice and an American way that is inclusive of everybody. It felt like the script was doing something differently entirely. It was situating Superman in the middle of a pop culture 1960s America that was defiantly moving away from earnestness and heroism and moving toward one of the most important social revolutions in American history. The musical was I think right for its time, but the time has changed so much. In fact the time we live in now reminds me more of the time in which Superman was created than it does of the mid 1960s.
1938 when Superman was created was depression like we had never seen before in America and we were on the eve of a major war that will bring the entire world into conflict. I think Superman was created in that crucible of where we were as a country by a young Siegel and Shuster. And I think actually the times we live in now, though not as dire as it was in 1938, non the less, economic crises, a nation that is at war and is struggling to keep up with the best of it's ideals, I think that it feels more like 1938 than 1966.
That was all back story from years ago. Meanwhile I am building a directing career. Two years ago I had a meeting with Charles Strouse and we were talking about a variety of projects. Just in conversation in passing, I said: "the piece of yours that I have always loved the most for all these years and the piece I wish would have a greater life because it hasn't been heard of in so long in any major professional production is It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman." Charles said: "I love that piece it's one of the most joyful experiences I ever had writing a piece and Lee and I wish that it would have a future life. Why don't you think about doing it?" I said: "Charles, the truth is that I think there are parts of the book that aren't right for our time anymore." I thought that would be the end of the conversation since this is an established piece and that typically is the way these things work. Instead he said: "Well what kind of things would you like us to think anew about?" I said: "The love story needs to be at the center of the piece, I think we should make the time period go back in time so it's set in 1939 (one year after Superman has arrived in Metropolis) instead of 1966, and I think we really want to look at the character with joy, with humor with singing and dancing, but nonetheless with an earnestness. We don't think it's funny that Superman fights for truth, justice, and the American way even though obviously there are great opportunities for humor when you have someone flying around and evil villains trying to fight him."
Much to my surprise Charles said: "This sounds exactly like something we could get behind. It sounds like we would need a new writer of your generation to come in and work with us on re-looking at the book. Do you know anyone who could be appropriate for that?"
Instantly I thought of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a friend of mine, a collaborator of mine, and a fellow comic book fan, and indeed a comic book writer, but I had not talked to him about the Superman musical. We had only talked about other projects, but right then and there to Charles I said: "I have this friend, he is a really exciting writer, he also is a comic book writer, he also is a fan and I think he'd be perfect for this." Charles said: "Great! Let's move these conversations forward." In a week we had everyone signed off and signed up and suddenly launched ahead with the project. That is unbelievably rare. Usually these things take years to put into motion. But as soon as I called Roberto he was instantly thrilled and like me had known the material for years and had desperately wanted to work on it.
Charles and Lee have been fabulous through the process. We found a couple of trunk songs, songs they had written in 1966, that were performed out of town but then didn't actually make it into the show. They didn't use them in the Broadway production. We've put them into the show. They have written a couple of new songs. Then we created this fabulous new revised script that puts the characters and the plot into some new contexts.
Q: Fans are very aware of various rights issues about the characters and DC's guardianship of the property. How has it been to work with DC?
KM: DC has not been involved in any official way and in any close way. Of course Charles and Lee Robert Benton and David Newman worked out the original rights issues back in the 1960s to turn Superman into a Broadway musical. Since we were working within that piece and revising that piece presumably those issues were settled back then.
Originally we though it would be great fun to draw on characters from the Superman universe who were not part of that original 1966 script. DC encouraged us not to do that. They asked us to continue to use the characters that are in the musical. At one point we had entertained the idea of what if Lex Luthor was in the musical since he is obviously an incredibly rich fabulous Superman villain. DC did not want us to use Lex Luthor since he was not part of the original musical.
I think we have all the same hopes and dreams. I am a life long huge fan of DC comics, I got in endless battles as a kid of who is better Marvel or DC and I always fought on DC's behalf. I share their desire, I'm sure, that Superman is treated respectfully and appropriately. I would hate to do any damage in anyway to the character. I think we share those values.
Q: Are you Broadway bound with this production?
KM: Right now we are concentrating on getting the show open and figuring how to make it really work as a piece of dramatic material with this cast here in Dallas. With anything you do creatively you always hope there are opportunities for a future life.
Q: You spoke about an American way that included everybody. I read that you have done some original casting looking at characters in a new way in your production. Can you talk about that?
KM:Dallas Theater Center and the American theater in general is in a different place than it was in the 1960s. We do color blind casting for all of the plays we do at Dallas Theater Center. When we do a Shakespeare play like Midsummer's Night Dream it's not unusual at all for us to have actors of all different races playing roles that would have been originally been played by Elizabethan white men and boys. Now we have men and women and people of all races in those roles. We have done the same thing with Superman as we would with any other major musical comedy. In this production, Lois Lane is played by an African American actress, Perry White is played by an African American actor, and other actors of color are in the piece as well. That is not a conceptual part of the show, it is simply color blind casting at work.
KM:I am always surprised when I'm at Comic-Con or something like that, how many comic books fans have a love of musicals. A large number of people who love musicals are not comic book fans. They have little exposure to Superman other than their general awareness of him as an iconic, pop cultural figure. I'm really excited about, and it has been fun in the process as we have been developing the piece, is introducing my theatrical friends and colleagues and very soon our theatrical audiences here in Dallas re-introducing them to the character of Superman and the characters of the Superman universe and re-inspiring them to go back to the comic books and the classic films and TV series and re-awaking that sense of wonder and awe and delight that I've felt all my whole life. I think a lot of the broader American public doesn't keep up with that stuff and maybe have been spending more time focusing on Iron Man or Spider-man and I'm ready to right that wrong and get their attention appropriately back to The Man of Steel.
Q: That's great. Thank you so much and best of luck with all the things you have to do. And I look forward to seeing the show on Friday.
KM: Thank you Hal.
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