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June 29, 2012

Book Notes - Larry Tye "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Larry Tye's Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero is an exhaustive and entertaining exploration of both Superman the character over the years and his creators.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Following his bestselling Satchel Paige biography, Tye hits another home run . . . . Anyone looking for truth, injustice, and the American way will find it in this comprehensive, definitive history."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Larry Tye's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero:

Superman as a song-and-dance man? It sounded like one of Superman uber-editor Mort Weisinger’s imaginary stories. The Man of Tomorrow had triumphed in so many settings that a crew of theater people decided to give him a tryout in 1966. It was not just any crew, it was Broadway’s finest. Producer Harold Prince was on the way to making Fiddler on the Roof the first musical to last for more than three thousand performances. Music master Charles Strouse and his lyricist partner Lee Adams nearly swept the Tony Awards with Bye Bye Birdie, while script writers Robert Benton and David Newman were a year away from their blockbuster movie Bonnie and Clyde. No one had ever tried before to build a musical around a comic character, but Superman was used to being first and no one had ever lost money gambling on him.

The Man of Steel’s publisher-owners, Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donenfeld, gave their blessing in return for a modest share of the profits and – to protect the franchise – a promise that the play couldn’t be called “Superman.” The title wasn’t a problem: they named the production It’s a bird . . . It’s a plane . . . It’s SUPERMAN. Money wasn’t a problem either for Hal Prince: With Columbia Records on board, he was able to raise $500,000. Strouse, Benton, and their partners had come up with a doozie of a story, in words and notes. Dr. Abner Sedgwick was convinced he had been cheated out of the Nobel Prize, not once but ten times, and he would make the world pay by eliminating its beloved Superman. When force didn’t work, the mad scientist turned to psychology. In order to convince Metropolis that Superman couldn’t save them, he bombed City Hall while the hero was distracted, then he persuaded Superman that he was a Man of Straw for doing nothing. “You’re not stopping crime,” Sedgwick insisted, “all you’re doing is catching criminals after the fact.” The logic was compelling. “Could that be true?” Superman asked. “Why must the strongest man in the world be the bluest man – tell me why?” Those were the kinds of questions Spider-Man might have asked himself but not Superman, or at least not Mort Weisinger’s Colossus of Krypton. Before the curtain fell Benton and Newman’s superhero recovered both his confidence and his powers, in the nick of time.

The play blended the drama of The Adventures of Superman TV show with the burlesque of the comics for what looked like a winning touch of satire. Even the flying, which had stumped serial and TV producers, worked here by keeping it simple. A flying harness of light leather was strapped onto Superman’s chest, upper arms, and back. A flying wire was attached by a wooden clip and pulleys whisked him six feet above the stage. Making it work in front of an audience was a lot to ask. But theatergoers wanted more than anyone to believe. And the producers brought in the same technical staff that had made Mary Martin fly in Peter Pan and Tammy Grimes in High Spirits.

Hal Prince and his team knew enough about Superman to realize that everything would turn not on stunts or even the story, but on finding the right hero. So, like radio/TV guru Bob Maxwell and the movie serials’ Sam Katzman before them, they launched a far-reaching search. No Broadway star needed to fit this bill. They would have plenty with Jack Cassidy, Linda Lavin, and the rest of the cast. The specs for Superman were measurable: He should stand six feet six inches and weigh 190 pounds. A seventeen-inch neck would be ideal, along with biceps that stretched to a minimum of eighteen-and-a-half inches. Mid-thirties was the right age. Black hair was a must, along with blue eyes and legs that looked good in tights. And of course he had to know how to act, sing, and fly. Fifty-two actors showed up, including an Olympic pole vaulter and a bass-baritone from the New York Opera. One fit the bill: Bob Holiday, a thirty-three-year-old singer and comedian on the supper club circuit. He had served overseas in the Army, spinning records for the Armed Services Network, and had been in a Broadway play once, singing the opening song. Most important, he weighed 190 pounds, stood six feet four, and had grown up as an only child in Brooklyn with Superman his favorite comic-book friend. When he heard he had the part “a chill went through me. I said, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’

To show his gratitude Holiday visited the gym every other day for up to two hours, curling 100-pound weights and pressing 160 pounds. Breakfast consisted of powdered protein, milk, and wheat germ. Smoking was out, which wasn’t easy for a two-pack-a-day guy, as was drinking in public. It all paid off when, after every performance, he would invite hundreds of kids backstage, letting them take their best shot at his midriff. It also helped when he fell from his harness, dropping six feet onto the stage. He bounced back up, turned to the audience as if it were rehearsed and said, to a standing ovation, “That would have hurt any mortal man.”

The first test of what an audience thought of It’s a Bird was in February, in an out-of-town run in the historically lovable city of Philadelphia. Not this time. “Is it low camp, high camp, medium camp? Is it a musical parody or a cartoon with music?” asked the Philadelphia Bulletin. The libretto, chimed in the Philadelphia Daily News, “has a form of humor but no great shining wit,” while Strouse and Adams’s songbook “only faintly recalls the animation these collaborators brought to ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’” Disappointed but not done in, the creative team went back to work. The lead song was cut and a new show-stopper written. Scenes were altered, costumes revised, and when there wasn’t time to make the desired changes, outfits were simply turned inside-out. Even the pricing of Alvin Theatre seats was redone to give the New York opening its best shot. Prince offered the broadest range of rates on Broadway – $2 at the bargain end, aimed at drawing a new and young audience, with the orchestra split into $8, $10, and $12 options, the last of which was $1.50 more than for any other musical and was meant to subsidize the cheap seats. It was equally novel to offer a third off the high-priced seats for early mail orders, and it worked: advance sales topped those for Fiddler and Prince’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Fiorello!

It’s a Bird opened on Broadway in mid-March with Mayor John V. Lindsay and much of the city’s establishment on hand. So were reviewers, and their verdicts were up-and-down. Time called it “amiable mediocrity . . . capable only of inspiring benign indifference.” The Washington Post wrote that “on its appointed level of simple-minded casualness it works quite nicely.” The New York papers were more generous, with the Morning Telegram labeling it “a musical show loaded with entertainment” and the World-Telegram and Sun saying, “You leave the theater smiling, and the smile lasts all the way home.” The biggest rave came from the highest-minded paper, the New York Times, where critic Stanley Kauffmann pronounced the play “easily the best musical so far this season, but, because that is so damp a compliment, I add at once that it would be enjoyable in any season.”

Prince was convinced he had a smash hit until he called the box office. “They said, ‘My God, we haven’t sold a single new seat.’” He, like nearly everyone involved with the production, felt like a kid again doing the show and they assumed the audience would grow to love it. The timing seemed perfect: Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were at the height of their popularity and nobody better defined that pop art craze than the Man of Steel. But the wave had already crested and the crowds at the Alvin started shrinking two months in. Despite an unprecedented four matinees a week and a flurry of ads in the comic books, the curtain fell for the last time on July 17, after just three-and-a-half months and 129 performances.

Everyone had a theory on what went wrong. “It should have had a little more muscle, and some teeth politically. We should have made it about the times,” Prince says looking back to the era when America was shipping massive numbers of its young men to fight in Southeast Asia and record numbers of draft dodgers were fleeing to Canada. To Strouse, the trouble was a combination of summer camp and “Capelash.” Some kids were away swimming and boating when the show was playing, while others were watching a superhero for free in Adam West’s new TV show Batman, which was such a hit it aired twice a week. To Benton, the difficulty was about the very nature of his Superman story and who it appealed to: “It was not a children’s show and not an adult show. It sort of fell between the two.”

Prince went on to produce and direct nearly sixty plays and win a record-setting twenty-one Tony Awards. Strouse wrote the music for twenty-two plays and six movies, including Bonnie and Clyde. Benton would make his name with films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Twilight. While It’s a Bird was a mere footnote in their careers, for Holiday it was the highlight, the same as it had been for Kirk Alyn and George Reeves. It had taken him onto the TV show I’ve Got a Secret, where he got to joke with Steve Allen and flirt with Miss America. He was a guest on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and got to reprieve his Superman role in stage performances in St. Louis and Kansas City. And it had brought him to Broadway, which was a memory that kept him going as he became a home builder in the Pocono Mountains. “I don’t think that the supposed ‘Superman curse’ hit me at all,” he says. “It’s still a kick to let people know that I was the Man of Steel. My doctor even hangs a picture of me in his office so that all his patients know he fixed Superman right up.”

As for Superman himself, he escaped largely unscathed. The critics blamed not him but his handlers. The handlers learned valuable lessons that they would apply repeatedly. The first was that when people had to pay to see Superman, the target audience should be adults who hopefully would bring along the kids. It also made sense, for a wildly popular character like the Man of Steel, to showcase him in mass media rather than a rarefied venue like a Broadway theater. Strouse and Prince say they wish they’d had a chance to put those lessons to the test. Benton and Newman did. A dozen years after It’s a Bird closed, their names were listed in the writing credits for the first major superhero feature film: Superman: The Movie.

Music came back into Superman’s life in the 1978 Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve. The scene was more a Shakespearean drama – think Romeo and Juliet – than a comic-book spoof, which is the high tone director Richard Donner asked for in the music as well. “Superman was the perfect hero to be musicalized in quasi-operatic or balletic fashion,” says John Williams, who composed the score and conducted the London Symphony’s performance of it. There was a rousing “Superman March” for the opening and closing credits, a mysterious “Krypton crystal” motif to introduce the doomed planet, an all-American melody for Smallville, and a playful “March of the Villains” for Lex and his henchman Otis. “My challenge and opportunity,” Williams says, “was to capture musically Superman’s optimism and invincibility and athletics and heroism. The perfect fifth and the perfect octave are heroic intervals that have a strength and a core power to suggest just those qualities of heroism and heroics.”

Music is a touchstone in any culture, and Superman’s omnipresence in the American songbook underlined the chord he had struck. The Crash Test Dummies despaired that “the world will never see another man like him.” Donovan boasted that “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got-a-nothin’ on me.” The Kinks wished they “could fly like Superman,” while Hank Williams said his “friends all call me Superman.” Herbie Mann professed his love and ours for the hero. Bluesmen sang about him as wistfully as country boys, rockers, balladeers, and big bands. Rappers, too, although they were less sentimental. “you surely can just let me quit my boyfriend called Superman,” the Sugarhill Gang recited in "Rapper’s Delight," the first hip-hop single to crack the Top 40 Hits. “i said he’s a fairy i do suppose flyin through the air in pantyhose he may be very sexy or even cute but he looks like a sucker in a blue and red suit.”

Larry Tye and Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Boston Globe review
CNBC review
Comic Book Bin review
Denver Post review
Kirkus Reviews review
Miami Herald review
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel review
San Francisco Chronicle review

Comic Shoppe interview with the author
Conversations with David Lewis interview with the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
Huffington Post essays by the author
Superman Super Site interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
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weekly music & DVD release lists

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