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Up, Up and (Maybe) Away — With Superman's First Rehearsal

by Jerome Weeks 14 May 2010 4:30 PM

Why have theater-symphony-arts announcements become media events? Because they need to get attention. And for the Dallas Theater Center, it’s upcoming revival of the musical, ‘It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!” is important. Which is why people were gathered at the Wyly Theatre Friday …


Why have local theater-symphony-arts announcements become such media events?

Dallas Theater Center managing director Mark Hadley had the most succinct explanation in this instance — for why members of the cast, crew and design team, plus local media, assembled on the ninth floor of the Wyly Theatre Friday afternoon for the first rehearsal of the Theater Center’s new version of It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s Superman!

It’s “the biggest production we’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s absolutely a huge deal for us.”

Superman is now officially the Theater Center’s Moby-Dick: the company’s big risk and potentially its big payoff (with national attention), the culmination of the theater’s first season at the Wyly. Hence, this attempt to cut through the daily media-internet chatter about American Idol with a press conference-turned-lecture-and-pep talk (such media events are often designed to snag the rare bit of local TV time).

Attention — as Death of a Salesman reminds us, six floors down at the Wyly — must be paid.

Artistic director Kevin Moriarty, who’s staging the musical, saved most of the new information about the previously announced show for one last summation of all the work that’s gone into seriously re-working the 45-year-old, Charles Strouse-Lee Adams tuner.

metro1Sketch of the Metropolis set for Superman!

Yes, Strouse — the composer of Bye Bye Birdie, Applause and Annie — has created four new songs for the Theater Center show. Yes, they’ve also gone back to some of the numbers that were cut from the original Broadway production during its out-of-town tryout.  And perhaps most importantly, yes, playwright-and-comic-book-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has completely re-written the Robert Benton-David Newman book. Gone are the Chinese acrobats and the mad scientist Dr. Sedgewick trying to kill Superman in what Moriarty understandably called a “baffling” plot. But they have retained bad guy Max Mencken, once a Daily Planet gossip columnist played by Jack Cassidy in the original and now a hotshot mastermind played by his son, Patrick (below right).

Faced with the question — how can a stage show compete with the superhero-formula franchises that  Hollywood has turned into the biggest, sometimes best but often the most bloated summer action-blockbusters around? — Moriarty and his team have, more or less, gone back to first principles. Rather than updating the once-campy show, Moriarty has taken a page from some of the more compelling franchises that have managed to find a new jolt of life by defibrillating the old guy (like Batman Begins or Smallville).

He’s set the show in 1939.

Which is why Moriarty went over (in detail) the history of how Superman got started. Action Comics delivered Our Boy in June 1938, so for this show, the Man of Steel has only been doing his caped crusader gig for a year. He will be a Depression-era Superman, a New Deal Superman facing a looming new world war — and still discovering how his secret identity is a major hindrance when it comes to any possible love affair with Lois Lane. In this way, all of the sacrificing-himself-for-a-larger-cause, all of the commitment-to-hope, the romantic-comedy entanglements, the expression of (in Moriarty’s words) “something deep and true about what we hope it means to be an  American” — all of it will seem fresh and real again.

Maybe. But it looks like a smart move. The period costumes, the sense of re-discovery, the collective struggle, re-invigorating an icon with something more than a new marketing twist: Richard Hamburger went back to something of the same World War II spirit for his South Pacific and it was one of his more affecting productions.

It also speaks to Moriarty’s own interest in the material. As Unfair Park reported a year ago, this is important to Moriarty because he was a big Superman fanboy. Moriarty even related how when he was seven, he wore a home-made Super Kevin outfit to school as a way of coping with his small size and eyeglass-wearing nerdiness. So this production is not just big for the Theater Center. It was a heartfelt confession that the cape and the tights once meant something to him — more than just another musical, at any rate. For him, the creation of Superman was a watershed moment in American (and personal) mythology.

“I’m not foolish,” Moriarty said. He knows there are plenty of reasons that his musical could fail. It did once already, and the track record with attempted revivals is particularly dim.

But the Theater Center’s Superman may not succeed —  not just because, as Moriarty said, theatergoers may well see the wires holding up actor Matt Cavanaugh as he flies and not buy into the whole illusion. The show’s timing may simply not be right. After all, the marketplace is jammed with similar overmuscled guys. We’ve had our patriotism and idealism pandered to on store shelves and cartoon shows by much richer, slicker, bigger outfits than the Theater Center. We are a polarized, jaded, overstimulated audience — especially when it comes to the crowded caped crusader market.

So why should we buy into Moriarty’s self-sacrificing beacon of goodness, heroism and, let’s not forget, hummable musical comedy traditions?

“If we can approach the piece with that level of hope and determination and confidence” that the comic book originally had, Moriarty declared, “they will go with us.”