It's a bird! It's a plane! It's – Superman dancing and singing in a Broadway musical?
No, the Man of Steel isn't following Spider-Man to the world of musical theater – he's already beaten him there, actually. In 1966, Superman starred in "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," a Broadway musical adaptation of the beloved superhero icon that was, unsurprisingly, decimated by theatergoers and critics alike.
But even in light of the Last Son of Krypton's Broadway beat-down, playwright David Bar Katz still believes a man can fly on stage. Katz has penned "The History of Invulnerability," a new (non-musical) play about Superman and his co-creator Jerry Siegel. The drama focuses on Siegel's "tumultuous relationship with his legendary comic-book character" juxtaposed against Superman's impact on our planet in the 1940s. Across the globe, a little boy in a concentration camp discovers a copy of "Action Comics" and begins to believe that Superman is on his way to liberate the camp. As the story unfolds, both Siegel and the audience begin to realize that even Superman has limitations when it comes to our tragic world.
"It's almost a stream-of-consciousness of Jerry's life," Katz told CBR News of the play's format. "We see his childhood through to his death. It also focuses heavily on the Holocaust, that being the context in which this superhero was created – the psychological impact of that being a generative force for [the creation of] superheroes. There's a sense of helplessness about the Holocaust and Superman rises out of that."
Just as factual horror inspired Siegel to give birth to an invincible hero, so too does "The History of Invulnerability" blur the line between reality and fantasy. "Some episodes of Jerry's life are going to be drawn in comic book form and projected onto the stage," Katz described. "It's a play on the idea of what is fact and what is fiction. Actors will act out some things, and then some events will be portrayed in comic book form on stage." While no artist has been hired for the play, Katz's first choice would be "Kingdom Come" artist Alex Ross.
Katz pushes the boundaries of realism further by having Superman appear as an actual character within the play. "There's a whole depiction of Superman coming to Germany," said the playwright. "He goes to Germany and literally fights Nazis." But don't hold your breath if you're expecting Kal-El to fly circles around the globe and rewrite the Holocaust. From the sound of it, Superman's tête-à-tête against Nazi soldiers is a young child's fantasy after discovering the superhero comic book in a concentration camp.
"You think about what was going on in America at the same time as the Holocaust and it's just sort of mind-blowing," said Katz. "[Superman] is sweeping America and all of these American kids are reading it, and then you think of all the kids [in concentration camps]. What would it be like if one of them got a hold of a Superman comic and he allowed himself to imagine and believe that it was true? How would that play out in his imagination if there was this force that would be so much more powerful than the Nazis or any of the other people destroying his world?"
If the plot sounds a bit confusing – focusing on Jerry Siegel's life while simultaneously addressing the horrors of the Holocaust – that's because Katz intentionally created a jumbled effect where even the narrative is effected by questions of reality. "There's an element where everything you're seeing is true to life, but it's also a projection of what's going on in Jerry's head – fantasies and fears about what's going on in his life," the writer says. "In a way, everything that you're seeing in this play is a dramatization or projection of something in his head, whether it's actually true or figurative."
Even one of the more unpleasant moments of Jerry's life – the controversial death of his father – is addressed in this fever dream manner. "That's one of the moments that's in comic book form," Katz described. "You [the audience] see a projection of comic book images of that moment as Jerry watches what supposedly happened to his father, drawn in comic book form. It's an interpretation of Jerry's mind and how he was looking at [the tragedy]."
As a lifelong comic book fan, Katz himself admits that the pairing of theater and comic books isn't quite as natural as peanut butter and jelly, pointing out his own fears about the upcoming "Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark" musical. "I love the theater, but it's not the most organic accompaniment to comic books," Katz acknowledged, though the combination is not necessarily irreconcilable. "One thing about the theater that could appeal to a comic book reader is the sense of immediacy. I think there's an immediacy on stage that no other medium has, and when done correctly, I think that would appeal to a comic book reader."
That was not the case with "It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman," despite having all the right ingredients for a successful production. "The Superman musical had a really impressive creative team – Harold Prince directed it, and he's arguably the greatest theater director of the 20th century," said Katz. "It was a top-notch Broadway production, but it flopped. Like the [1960s] 'Batman' television show, it had an element of kitsch. They took more of a tongue-in-cheek approach, which I don't think is funny. I take my superheroes very seriously. I would love to make a Superman musical, but it would be serious as hell."
"The History of Invulnerability" will be a far cry from the goofy '60s-era musical when Katz's theatrical version of Superman debuts. Rather than poking fun at the American icon, Katz will celebrate both the Man of Tomorrow and the Man of Yesterday – namely, Jerry Siegel.
"My play is about extolling Jerry," Katz declared. "It's certainly a warts-and-all depiction, but it's really about honoring him. In a way, it is a eulogy for Jerry Siegel."
David Bar Katz's "The History of Invulnerability" will run at the Tony Award winning Cincinnati Playhouse from April 3, 2010 to May 2, 2010.