When it seems that superhero movies keep mainstream Hollywood from heading into the red each year, it shouldn’t be surprising then why Broadway had a synapse in thinking musicals about superheroes could potentially work on the stage. After all, with Broadway heading close to going into the tank recently due to America’s faltering economy, they needed to try something different and perhaps overly familiar to get an audience. Or was it really that left-field of a choice to bring legendary “Lion King” puppeteer/director extraordinaire Julie Taymor back to Broadway with her musical take on the story of Spiderman? With the basic story structure behind the world’s greatest superhero characters, it’s not much different than the plot structure to any of Broadway’s greatest plays and musicals.
Broadway’s earliest musicals in the 1920’s utilizing popular song may have been written by the likes of Gershwin, Porter and Kern–but they always featured one aspect to their tales: The troubled protagonist who’s out to save the world and dealing with romantic complications with their significant other who may or may not become their fiancée. While you didn’t see those plots get to complex levels until Rodgers and Hart took it to higher terrain with their masterful integration of complex storytelling and song starting in the 1940’s, the male protagonist always wanted to be a superhero, even if it was through allegorical means.
It’s a wonder then that Broadway didn’t take on the direct superhero idea sooner when the true classic age of Broadway was going concurrently with the golden age of superhero comic books. The question has never been asked why Broadway waited until Superman was arguably at his least popular to do a musical about the Kryptonite-challenged superhero. A Superman musical in the 1940’s or 50’s would have likely been a smash.
Well, it had to wait until 1966 when legendary Broadway composer/lyricists Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote a score for a Superman musical called “It’s a Bird…it’s a Plane…It’s Superman!” By the time it debuted, there wasn’t a single show about Superman on TV (including the animated version later)–plus the irony of the daily Superman comic strip ending right when the Broadway show was opening. 1966 just wasn’t a good year to open a musical about Superman when there was a counterculture revolution beginning and despite people looking for an American hero in real life.
The likely reason this musical received a green light was because of the scenario above and the musical playing up the theme of society needing a hero when there wasn’t one. In post-JFK time, everybody wanted a hero, yet also rejected any that came along out of knee-jerk cynicism. In a song from “It’s Superman” called “We Need Him!”–we see the adamancy behind the message of the musical.
While the Superman musical only played a few months before closing down, it’s had several minor revivals over the decades (including a strange adaptation for TV in 1975) as proof its theme still resonates. Nevertheless, Broadway kept the core structure behind the superhero in all subsequent hit Broadway shows post-1966…
Rather than trying again with a musical of a superhero during the 70’s 80’s or 90’s, Broadway just provided veiled characters that could pass for a mysterious figure trying to uphold order…while also being distracted with romantic complications. “Man of La Mancha” was the perfect superhero role through the guise of Miguel de Cervantes himself who’s more or less a Clark Kent to his concoction of quixotic superhero Don Quixote to prove Cervantes’ innocence during a trial.
Certainly Andrew Lloyd Webber took the idyllic, quasi superhero (or superheroine) and placed them through the same conflicts of both the romantic and populist variety. “Evita” was about the ultimate female superhero in the guise of a leader in Argentina. Eva Peron was the quintessential example of a populace leaning heavily on a more powerful person to look out for them–then that person ultimately feeling conflicted and doomed by it all as every other well-known superhero had to endure.
Later, of course, Webber took the dark and conflicted superhero in the Batman mold to Broadway with “Phantom of the Opera.” Here you had a classic literary character as the metaphor for Batman, The Shadow or The Spirit who lives in the shadows while weeding out anyone or anything that gets in their way of what they want. As you can see, a lot of that additional conflict is over a woman. With the Spiderman musical soon approaching on Broadway, we realize that Peter Parker’s relationship with Mary Jane Watson is just as important as his desire to fight crime under disguise.
Those connective strings may not be the only reason why having a Spiderman musical on Broadway soon will make sense. Because most superheroes are generally older than Spiderman’s 18-21 age range, the chances of a lead that’s near 40 may not go over well–even on Broadway. Yes, that means that Broadway is also tilting more toward musicals with younger casts that can pull in younger crowds. More recent shows such as “Rent”, “Spring Awakening” and “In the Heights” all have casts within the 18-34 demographic that TV network suits continue to salivate over. While perhaps unfortunate to some, Broadway has had to become more corporate the last ten years and mirroring the actions of TV networks in order to survive lately.
There lies the real reasoning behind Spiderman getting his spider-sense in the spotlight on a musical stage this year. With U2 (or let’s just say Bono at this point) writing a rock score for it, you have Broadway becoming young and hip and perhaps fully capable of a rebirth with a new generation. Or, they may be as surprised as network execs and get sellouts with ages 34-on up.
Should Broadway eventually become a dizzying, electrical array of marquees advertising musicals about superheroes, then at least the connections to Broadway’s past story structure will still be there. It really doesn’t matter what the angst is in the plot; the classic structure should continue to work no matter if you’re in a period costume or superhero tights.