Pop quiz: Name the Broadway musical based on a comic in which the actor playing a superhero accidentally fell from his flight through the air. If you answered: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark you’d be wrong. Spider-Man doesn’t fly; he swings. The correct response is It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman, the 1966 musical about the Man of Steel.
It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman boasted an impressive pedigree; it was directed by Hal Prince (who made a name for himself with West Side Story and Cabaret), with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (the team behind Bye Bye Birdy) and the book was written by David Newman and Robert Benton (who, over a decade later, would co-write Superman: The Movie).
In the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, Prince shrewdly cast Bob Holiday, the handsome and square-jawed baritone from the musical Fiorello!. In an era where Batman aired twice weekly on television and superheroes were synonymous with camp, Holiday, bucked the trend by not approaching the part with his tongue in his cheek. Instead, he did his best to honor the spirit and dignity of the character.
Though the show lasted only 129 performances on Broadway, the New York Times critic hailed the show as “easily the best musical of this season.” Holiday later reprised his signature role in two revivals.
In a phone call from his home, Bob Holiday, the Singing Superman, spoke about his fond memories playing the Last Son of Krypton.
Were you a Superman fan when you were cast?
Yes. I used to read the comics when I was a kid, starting when I was about seven years old. [Holiday was born Nov. 12, 1932.] They were a huge part of my life. I loved Superman. That’s why I went in for the casting. Comic books were an important part of children’s lives, and I was honored to become a live action version of Superman. I read comic books all the time as a kid. I think they’re marvelous, absolutely marvelous. Even as a kid, I was excited by them. Reading comics allows a kid change identities from one self into another self.
What was the casting process like, years later, when you auditioned for the part of Superman and Clark Kent?
It was quick. I heard about the play from director Hal Prince’s secretary and went to Hal’s office. As I was walking in, the elevator doors opened and Hal walked out with Charles Strouse and Lee Adams [the composer and lyricist]. Hal said, “Bob Holiday! Bob Holiday! I’ve got something to talk to you about.” Hal knew me from Fiorello!, which he had produced. They auditioned about 50 others, but I got the part. It was my mother gave me the confidence to be Superman. She told me, “You are going to get the role because you’ve always been a Superman fan.”
How did you prepare for the part?
I’m Superman! I knew him and was a big fan from the time I was a kid. So I felt that I understood the character. So understanding the role was rather simple — I’d been connected to Superman from childhood. I loved it, really loved it. To get the show was wonderful. The producers did very little with me; they knew that I could do the part because I’d been doing these things all my life. When I was sitting on stage, doing Clark Kent, I’d do schtick with Jack Cassidy and he couldn’t beat it. And the producers encouraged that. Whenever I was onstage with Jack Cassidy, who played Max Mencken, my job was to upstage him constantly. So even when Max was alone onstage, Superman was never out of the audience’s mind.
What makes Superman tick? What motivates him?
Several things. Lois Lane is number one. The people around him are important to him. Like the song said, his job is “Doing Good!” And then there’s the whole love triangle with Clark loving Lois, Lois loving Superman, and all the mix-ups that come from that.
Who is the “real” character? Superman or Clark Kent?
I thought that Superman was the real character and Clark Kent was just a part he played. There’s a line from one of the songs called “Doing Good” where I say, “Back into the old Clark Kent disguise.” That gave me a big clue.
Given that, did you think of Clark and Superman as two different characters as Christopher Reeve did?
Definitely. You’ve got to play Superman one way and then Clark the other way. You have to separate the two. But here’s the secret: There was always a bond between the audience and me; both of us knew that underneath Clark was Superman, but we couldn’t let anyone else on the stage know.
What was your approach to Superman? To Clark Kent?
One was Jewish. Seriously, if you look at pictures of me as Superman and as Clark Kent, my face looks different. I tried to capture the difference in my whole body.
That makes sense, Bob. Because Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, the creators were Jewish. They saw themselves as Clark Kent but wished they were Superman. You met Joe Shuster. What are your memories of him?
He seemed happy with what we were doing with the show.
Did Schuster give you any insights into the character?
We met when I was prepping for the show. It was so long ago that it’s tough to recall his exact words. He gave me little tips and insights into Superman’s strength and character.
[Toni Collins, Bob’s friend and Webmaster, interjects to say, “In Bob’s autobiography there is a nice New Years card, from Joe Shuster to Bob. So, Shuster must have been pleased that Bob was bringing Superman to life.”]
How did you feel when you first put on the cape?
To actually put on the cape just felt right. I enjoyed. As I’ve said, I knew and identified strongly with the character from the time I was 7 years old. Playing the part was great fun, and I loved it.
Did you ever feel powerful in the suit?
Not at first, because becoming Superman was a matter of acting, not of clothes. We rehearsed for a long time in street clothes, so I got used to being Superman without the suit. It was natural to put it on. [Laughs]. But you’re right. Because once I started to get into the part I felt, “I am Superman.”
You just said, “I am Superman.” How so? Can you elaborate on that?
It’s a feeling. You just get into the role, and it’s all summed up in that statement, “I am Superman.” You can’t say any more, because words just reduce the feeling. But that was my approach as an actor: it was my responsibility to create both parts. I had to capture the spirit of both characters. My goal on stage was to personify both characters, even if I was nothing like either of them in everyday life.
Did you ever feel self-conscious in the suit?
Never. Absolutely not. It was wonderful. Playing Superman was for me a kind of tribute to him — I never did anything didn’t seem in character because as a kid I’d looked up to Superman so much.
There-s a great photo of you on your website from 1966 in the Ladies Home Journal of you as Clark Kent and another as Superman. You look like a dead ringer for both characters.
It’s funny because I’m looking at it right now.
It sounds like you have some Superman memorabilia in your house… even if it’s not items from the show itself. What do you have?
I have lots of photos from the show, and articles and clippings. A fan made me a barbecue apron that looks like Superman’s costume. I have a couple of Superman “S” pillows and other assorted items. But it’s not exactly the theme of my home décor.
I understand you would appear in the suit as personal appearances. What was that like?
After the show, I would stay in costume and greet the audience until every fan left the theater. That’s the way it should be done. It has to be that way. Make it real for them.
[Excitedly, Toni corroborates, “I’ve been a fan for over 40 years. Because I remember going to the theater and I still remember how wonderful Bob was to all those little kids back then. I can tell you as an eleven year old, I felt like I had met Superman.”]
It must be both somewhat surprising and gratifying that a decision you made, to stay in character and meet fans, would be something that fans would be remembered for 40 years.
You’ve got Toni, right there, as an example of that.
[Toni offers: “I hasten to add that it’s not just me. Running Bob’s website, I come across fans all the time who remember him and can’t wait to get in touch with him. All of us remember what a great Superman Bob Holiday was. We all remember what an impact Bob Holiday has on us as Superman.”]
When was the last time you put on the cape and how did it feel?
The last time was for the 1967 St. Louis and Kansas City revivals of the show. The crowds were huge; upwards of 20,000 people saw those shows. They cheered Superman and it felt great.
In the show, when the show’s villain turns the people of Metropolis against him Superman faces a crisis of confidence.
That’s right. That was beautifully explored in a song called “The Strongest Man In The World.” There were some marvelous lyrics: “Why can’t the strongest man in the world be the happiest man in the world? Why does the strongest man in the world have the heaviest heart in the world? Why must I, the man of Steel, feel as helpless as a man of straw… don’t they know the strongest man can cry?”
Finding the right tone for a musical version of Superman must have been tricky.
While it was a show that we hoped would appeal to children, it wasn’t a kid’s show. Unlike the television version that they did years later with David Wilson, our show was not campy at all. The television version was very much in the style of the Batman TV show. Very campy. Mocking the character to some extent.
That was not the case with the Broadway show at all. We took the character very seriously. Hal Prince told me very directly, ‘You will play this character seriously. You will not make fun of him. We are going to treat this character as a real person.’
What’s been the biggest gift that being Superman has given to you.
Talking to fans. To kids. To people like yourself.
The biggest criticism about the show is that there was not enough Superman, that there were too many other characters. What are your thoughts?
You know that became an issue with the billing. Jack Cassidy was the big Broadway name, and Michael O’Sullivan was pretty big too. So Hal Prince asked me how I wanted to be billed, and I said, “Put ‘Bob Holiday as Superman’ at the end!” That way I was featured, but gave credit to well-known actors at the same time. As a cast, we all got along great, and people tell me that even when I wasn’t on stage, Superman was never out of anyone’s mind.
Why don’t you think the show lasted longer?
There were a lot of good Broadway shows at the time. I think with Batman on TV, it took away some of the interest from our show. With Mame, Sweet Charity, Man of La Mancha and more being staged at the same time, there was only so much money that people had only so much money to spend on Broadway tickets. We were the casualty of the abundance of terrific Broadway musicals at the time.
After the Broadway show ended, you donned the tights again for the touring company.
That’s right. I also played Superman in an ad for 1966. For an after-shave called Aqua Velva. It’s a funny commercial with a number of Superman references. I say, “I’m not ready to leap even one tall building until I shower and shave and splash on new Aqua Velva surf.”
[The entire commercial can be found at: http://www.supermanbobholiday.com/Broadway/AquaVelva.htm]
There is a new musical about Spider-Man.
There seems to be some parallels between your show and the new Spider-Man show. Both shows were highly scrutinized. Both went through a similar process of trying to find the correct tone of the show. And like them, you also had a mishap during a flying sequence.
Absolutely. A single wire was suspending me and I was dropped. I was about six feet off the ground. Although at times, I probably “flew” as high as twenty feet. I was in pretty good shape at the time. So after I hit the ground, I immediately, jumped right up. I turned to the audience and said, “That would have hurt any mortal man.” The audience roared.
There are multiple stunt doubles for Spider-Man. Did you have any stunt doubles for the fighting or flying scenes?
No. Didn’t even think about having one.
Do friends and family ever refer to you as Superman?
Are you kidding? All the time!
What’s the best part of the association?
The best is the pride of being Superman and “Doing Good,” to have the interaction and effect on the audience. I’m very proud of what that was. There was no fooling around, no camping it up, in the show. I took Superman seriously.
The worst was when the shackle broke and I dropped six feet. But it was a case of making lemons into lemonade. I was in good shape, my knees went down and when I bounced back up and the audience roared. Other than that, there’s no downside to having played Superman, no down side at all.
Have your feelings about playing Superman changed over time?
I’ve lived a long life. A lot has happened since then. I was asked to play the dad on The Brady Bunch, but the studio overrode that decision. So it’s not like I was typecast as Superman. I eventually found that I loved real estate and building homes, and I had a 30 year career with that. But in 2003, I attended the Metropolis, IL annual Superman Celebration.
That started fans getting in touch with me again and it’s been a great part of my life in retirement.
Are you surprised that fans still track you down after all these years?
Yes, I’m surprised, and I love it. At 78, it’s good to know people still remember me. I love retirement and I love hearing from people. Life is good, and Superman is a part of that.
How has playing the part affected you personally – not publicly or professionally. But personally?
I love it. It’s me. Superman has got a certain feel, and it was good to play the part. I still hear from fans today, and it’s wonderful. Over and over, someone will find me, get in touch, and let me know how much they loved the show (and even me personally). You can’t imagine how much that means to me forty years later!
[Note: This interview would not be possible without the invaluable help of Toni Collins.]