Of the three musical revivals that Encores! presents each season, the second is usually the one with the fustiest book or spottiest score or dimmest commercial prospects. Since 2009, this middle position has been filled by Music in the Air, Fanny, Lost in the Stars, and Pipe Dream, titles far less known or likely to be seen elsewhere than first- or third-position offerings like Finian’s Rainbow, Bells Are Ringing, and On the Town — let alone Chicago, which transferred to Broadway in 1996 and is still running.
In a way, that makes the middle show the one that comes closest to the heart of the Encores! mission of exposing underexposed works; by the same token, it’s usually the one most at odds with the need to entertain a contemporary audience. Whether the series is best appreciated as an encyclopedic research archive of whatever strange musical theater works our culture has disgorged over the past century or as a living museum of only the finest examples of that output is a matter of frequent debate among theater mavens. The sensible answer Encores! offers has often been: Why not both?
This year’s second show — It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman — clearly fits the middle-show pattern. Completely silly and intentionally camp, it makes few claims to anything grander than spoof, even though it was originally directed by Harold Prince, who would soon earn the epithet Prince of Darkness. (Eight months after Superman arrived on Broadway in March 1966, Prince’s Cabaret opened, changing everything.) But Superman is candy bright, as befits its comic-book source.
Indeed, the show’s book, by David Newman and Robert Benton, isn’t much more than a series of thick square frames to prevent the characters from escaping. If you must know: Having lost the Nobel prize ten times, mad scientist Abner Sedgwick aims to destroy society’s most potent symbol of good. But since Superman is physically indestructible, Dr. Sedgwick takes a psychological tack by undermining his childish need to be appreciated. Meanwhile, at the offices of the Daily Planet, Lois Lane is in love with the Man of Steel, while Clark Kent, whom she ignores, pines for her. These simple conflicts and motivations are even more exposed than they would have been originally, thanks to the Encores! pruning, which is perhaps more aggressive than usual. As such, Superman comes off as a cartoon of a cartoon, albeit one with a wonderful soundtrack.
That it’s fluff doesn’t mean it’s useless as musical theater or cultural history; in fact, as a work designed to be disposable popular entertainment, it may have more to say about its times than the classic musicals, being evergreen, have to say about theirs. Superman glides smoothly on currents of then-contemporary anxiety about everything from psychoanalysis to nuclear proliferation. It offers quick relief in the form of bluff humor from post-Camelot doubt about American exceptionalism — our ability to project good into the world or at least protect ourselves from evil. More overtly, it stands up for a traditional expression of American manhood that newfangled women were beginning to find passé. As the saucy secretary played by Alli Mauzey sings to Clark Kent in the show’s catchiest tune, a bossa nova called “You’ve Got Possibilities”:
Haircut, simply terrible,
Necktie — the worst.
Bearing, just unbearable,
What to tackle first?
Still you’ve got possibilities,
Though you’re horribly square,
I see possibilities,
Underneath, there’s something there!
Of course, he’s Superman, so the square is the one who ultimately saves the day.
If the songs, by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, are the second-drawer work of a second-drawer team (Bye Bye Birdie, in 1960, was their pinnacle), that’s still a very high standard. Strouse works endless breezy variations on popular song styles, even incorporating a little white-bread rock and roll as needed. And Adams, though deserving a demerit for rhyming terrible and bearable, generally keeps the wit quotient high. (The pairing of possibilities and ill at ease in the same song is pretty nifty.) What raises the whole endeavor to a level beyond mere historical curio is the thing we go to Encores! for: the sound as it sounded then. And, as usual, under Rob Berman’s musical direction, that’s glorious. The original brass-dominated orchestrations by Eddie Sauter, a former big-band arranger, immediately invoke the confident optimism that shows like Superman subliminally hoped to preserve.
That this production, directed by John Rando, is sloppier and choppier than most (no Encores! show gets enough rehearsal) barely matters. It has a solid leading man in Edward Watts, and as Lois Lane, the terrific Jenny Powers rocking a series of color-block minidresses and giving great Michele Lee. But David Pittu as Dr. Sedgwick and Will Swenson as a Daily Planet douchebag (he’s like something from a Mad Men blooper reel) steal the show. In the second-act number “You’ve Got What I Need,” they perform a demented duo routine that, for all of Superman’s insignificance, foresees the conflation of entertainment and evil that was just around the corner. How nice to laugh, one last time, at the bad guys triumphing over the good.
It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman is at City Center through March 24.