“A Little Song, A Little Dance, How Do You Like My Form-Fitting Pants…?”

5 Stage Shows, Successfully Mounted or Otherwise, That Are Based on a Comic-Book Superhero

1. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (2011)
After conquering comics, radio, film, television, the Billboard charts, and the all-important Halloween-costume industry, there is really only one place for the serious up-and-coming superhero to go next:  live musical theatre! At least, that seems to be the thinking behind this production, one of the odder additions to the superhero canon in recent years. And while the worlds of spandexed supermen and high-kicking chorus members may not seem like a natural fit, that hasn’t stopped this show’s backers from trying to make a buck off the apparently large number of superhero-slash-Rodgers and Hammerstein fans out there. A “rock musical” featuring music by U2’s Bono and the Edge, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark officially opens this week after the longest preview period in Broadway history. Lest anyone start blaming the presence of high-profile creative types as the reason why the musical is insanely expensive — its budget was reported in April 2011 to be in the $70-million range, the highest ever for a Broadway show — much of the costs were due to the highly technical demands of a show in which actors swung from “webs” or staged elaborate aerial combat scenes over the heads of the audience. The costs and long preview period also arose from the many technical complications that left actors hanging in mid-air or falling to the stage below; constant news of accident-related setbacks, including Spider-Man stunt performer Christopher Tierney’s fall of more than 20 feet into the orchestra pit in December 2010, led to comedian Joan Rivers starting her act at that time with a moment of silence for “those Americans risking their lives daily — in Spider-Man the musical.” Reviews that were almost unanimous in their hatred of the show (a New York Times critic said it was “so grievously broken in every respect that it is beyond repair”) led to director Julie Taymor leaving the production amid massive script revisions. Whether that will be enough of an overhaul to ensure a long run remains to be seen, but it’s never a good sign of a show’s long-term success when preview audiences come away disappointed when everything works smoothly and they didn’t get to see an actor fighting for his life.  

2. It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Superman! (1966)
At first glance, the arrival of a Broadway musical that plays up the campier aspects of Superman sounds suspiciously like a crass attempt to cash in on the insanely popular (and uber-campy) Batman TV show, which debuted Jan. 12, 1966. But given the long lead times required to mount a Broadway production, there is simply no way the producers behind It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s… Superman! (which officially opened March 26, 1966) could have gotten the idea from tuning in to the highly rated ABC-Television show.  And as discussed in a 2010 column of Comic Book Legends Revealed, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams (who also wrote the hit musical Bye Bye Birdie) played the musical as straight as they could: “In hindsight, we were ahead of our time,” Strouse said. “We thought it was clever, but people thought we were being ‘clever,’ that we were trying for a trendy cult show – whereas we wanted something for everyone.” The plot itself was fairly standard — mad scientist vows to destroy the world’s greatest symbol for good, while romantic complications abound at The Daily Planet — but the show was a fairly innovative take on the comic-book-as-musical idea, with an elaborate stage construction resembling the panels in a comic book (complete with talking, singing characters in each panel) rolled onstage during one of the musical numbers. Alas, while the show generated mostly positive reviews, it failed to catch on with the theatre-going masses and closed in July after 129 performances. (Postscript: Strouse wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of turning a comic strip into a viable musical, and sure enough the original Broadway run of Annie lasted seven years.)

3-4. Unstaged Batman Project/Batman Live (2011)
“A superstitious, cowardly lot!
They plan and plot, but they always get caught!
Their evil schemes all come to naught!
A superstitious, cowardly lot!”

There’s a great scene in Batman Beyond in which Terry invites his employer and mentor, an older and crankier Bruce Wayne, to see a popular new musical based on Batman’s exploits (Here’s a clip, courtesy of YouTube.) If the Internet can be trusted — and I can’t think of a single reason why it shouldn’t! — the musical-within-a-show in “Out of the Past” was inspired by an actual idea for a Batman musical featuring music and lyrics by Jim Steinman (of Bat out of Hell fame) that, alas, never got off the ground. (Meat Loaf would go on to record songs from the failed project, including “In The Land Of The Pig The Butcher Is King” and “Cry To Heaven.”) Not to worry, though, because Batman’s British fans are about to experience Batman Live, a $20-million arena tour that pits Batman and Robin against the Joker, Penguin, Poison Ivy and other distinctive members of the Dark Knight’s gallery of rogues. Featuring a giant video screen, a Joker hot-air balloon, re-creations of several Gotham City locations, and a Batmobile created by Formula One designer Gordon Murray, the non-musical show premieres July 9 in Manchester and, if all goes well, hits North American shores in August 2012. One online reviewer of the trailer promoting the show said the show’s emphasis appears to be on fun: “this isn’t a dark and brooding Nolan-esque take on the material, with the stage show costumes retaining something of a Joel Schumacher vibe.” Maybe “Joel Schumacher vibe” means something in Britain that isn’t synonymous with “garishly filmed train wreck”…?

5. Untitled Captain America Project 
If you were a fan of Marvel Comics in 1985, then you probably remember seeing this ad in the pages of Rom: Spaceknight or The Get-Along Gang. “Cap’s gonna star in a Broadway show,” readers were told, and girls aged 10 to 14 were invited to audition for the part of Captain America’s “very special friend” (eep). Of course, the addition of a plucky young girl to the Captain America mythos wasn’t the only oddball aspect of this show; according to a write-up in the New York Times, the $4-million show would find Cap battling the most nefarious villain of all: “The superhero will not, in fact, be particularly super when the curtain goes up. The book by Mel Mandel and Norman Sachs (who are also responsible for music and lyrics) has Captain A. going through a mid-life crisis. Fortunately, the action speeds up — his girlfriend, a candidate for President, is captured by terrorists and held hostage at the Lincoln Memorial. That’s enough of the plot — when you invest millions, as are Shari Upbin, James Galton and Marvel Comics and some as yet untapped sources, you’re entitled to a few secrets.” Whoa, hold on there, Breathless-with-Excitement Lad! We’re keeping the Red Skull, A.I.M. and Batroc the Leaper sidelined to tell the thrilling story of Cap’s mid-life crisis? While a musical about an overly patriotic fellow isn’t an impossible dream, it should come as no surprise that nothing ever came of this comic-book cattle call, and Cap missed out on the chance to star in the biggest Broadway bomb of the ’80s. We can only hope that Chris Evans doesn’t try to pay homage to this aborted musical in his upcoming film with a little song-and-dance number.

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