With Further Ado #124: Leading Man and Superman, Superheroes on Stage

Last week I turned With Further Ado over to one of my students, Anthony Hernandez, as the winner of the first annual Ithaca College Guest Columnist contest.  At the Ithaca College School of Business, I teach entrepreneurism, including classes on planning and managing trade shows – like comic conventions.  This semester, we’ve examined the many changing issues of this unique segment of entertainment business.  I invited the students to submit potential With Further Ado columns for Pop Culture Squad, and I was very impressed with their thoughts and writing.

Because it was hard to select just one, here’s the “runner-up”, Ithaca College student Tyler Jennes. I think you’ll like what he has to say too!

Leading Man and Superman: Superheroes on Stage

by Tyler Jennes

When you’re someone who harbors a deep love of superheroes as well as theater, you don’t tend to see a lot of crossover between those two interests. So, imagine my surprise when 2019 produced two substantial contributions to that middle Venn Diagram portion – that being the Marvel Spotlight series of superhero plays commissioned by Samuel French, and the Tom Kitt musical Superhero. But not all stories end happily, for the Marvel Spotlight plays don’t show any indication of being produced on a scale larger than local theater, and Superhero was, well, not great. But I’m used to disappointment as a superhero/theater fan.

Keep in mind – as I type this, I’m sitting right across from a wall adorned with a Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark poster that I got after a Broadway performance back in 2010. To go into depth about why that show failed would require an entire separate piece, so instead I’ll recommend the book Song of Spider-Man by Glen Berger, the show’s co-writer. Needless to say, up until now, we’ve only had two mainstream Broadway musicals that have even somewhat left an impact in the annals of musical theater – the aforementioned Spider-Man as well as It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman.

It’s a Bird… has always fascinated me simply because the songs it produced are genuinely fun to listen to. Composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams have collaborated on shows that achieved far more mainstream success, like Applause and especially with Annie and Bye Bye Birdie, but the fact that they at one point chose to pen a soundtrack about the Man of Steel is still something of an oddity. But even more odd was the story, which had Superman fighting, among others, an acrobatic troupe of Chinese ne’er-do-wells called the Flying Lings.

“Art isn’t easy. Every minor detail Is a major decision. Have to keep things in scale, Have to hold to your vision”

Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George
As you can imagine, the show didn’t go on to dominate the Tony Awards that year. However, one element of the show managed to truly stand out – a solo number by a supporting female character called “You’ve Got Possibilities. You might have even heard that song before without ever associating it with a Superman musical. Curious how the song that has no lines directly referring to super heroics managed to become a standard. Now, although I more than anyone would’ve loved performers like Mandy Patinkin to instead fill their concert setlists with songs like “Pow! Bam! Zonk!, I can acknowledge that it takes something extra to become a classic number. For more on this show, check out Laurence Maslon’s terrific podcast Broadway to Main Street, which covered the show in detail.

With all this being said, can superheroes work on stage? Well I’m of the opinion that any subject can make for a good stage play in the right hands. I mean the most successful musical of the last decade was about the Secretary of the Treasury, so anything’s possible at this point. But furthermore, I do think that the superhero as a concept is incredibly difficult to get right. The difference that comes with other mediums like the comic book and film is that you have the former being a relatively small group of people working on each title in an illustrated format, and the latter has a massive amount of talent behind it working to make every shot as good as possible before finalizing the project. Theatre as an art form is one that fundamentally always changes. Whether it’s how the performers walk on a particular day or how hard the sousaphone player blows into their instrument, every show is going to be a little bit different. So unlike in film where they have the luxury of doing multiple takes – what you get on stage eights shows a week is what you get.

Superheroes are essentially people who have the power to more readily define their own destinies that the average citizen – the Übermenschen that we watch valiantly fight the forces of evil, or if you want to get all Garth Ennis about it, the ones who could seize total control over us inferior Average Joes. What I’m saying is that when you see this concept applied to a stage form and all you’re left to witness is a guy in a harness punching a plywood monster, your suspension of disbelief takes a pretty big hit. The producers of a potential superhero play or musical must walk such an astronomically thin line to make that concept work that I’m honestly not shocked it’s never been successful up until this point. In fact, one the few examples I can think of that made this work was Warp!, a 1970s stage production set in space that fellow contributor Mike Gold had a vital role in developing. As far as I know, that show worked because it went all in on telling a larger-than-life story without sacrificing the level of heart that made superheroism work in the first place. That’s why it disappointed me so thoroughly that shows like Superhero, which could have potentially told an interesting story that uses heroes as a literal form of escapism for its main characters, was sandbagged by unmemorable music.

Here’s my theory – rather than focus so much on whether to go full camp or ultra-serious with displaying superheroes in action, playwrights should instead be putting their energy into telling basic human stories featuring developed characters that happen to be superheroes. Or hell, take the indirect approach and focus on the people behind the art. I’d pay full price to watch a Stan Lee musical that handled its subject with the same care that someone like Georges Seurat was given in the 80s. Until then, I’ll have to settle for my camcorder footage of the Green Goblin telling me to “get my freak on”.

Special thanks to Johnny Parry


Thanks again and congratulations, Tyler. It’s been a wild semester and I appreciate all your efforts.