This post has been corrected. See below for details.
Pop quiz: Name the Broadway musical based on a comic book in which an actor playing a superhero fell from his safety harness while flying 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. The show 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 Birdie”) and the book was written by David Newman and Robert Benton (who, more than a decade later, would co-write Richard Donner’s “Superman: The Movie“).
For the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, Prince shrewdly cast Bob Holiday, the handsome, square-jawed baritone from “Fiorello!” In the era when “Batman” aired twice weekly on television, Holiday bucked the trend by not approaching the part with his tongue in cheek.
While “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” broke records for the number of tickets sold in a single week, “Superman” did not fare quite as well. The show shuttered after 129 performances. Since you can’t keep a good superhero down, the following year Holiday suited up again for revivals in St. Louis and Kansas City. In a phone call from his home, Holiday, the singing Superman, spoke about his fond memories playing the Last Son of Krypton.
HC: Were you a Superman fan when you were cast?
BH: Yes. I used to read the comics when I was a kid. As early as around 7 years old. 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 that. Reading comics let a kid change from one self into another self.
HC: Years later, you auditioned for the part of Superman and Clark Kent. What was the casting process like?
BH: 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. But it was my mother who 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.”
HC: How did you prepare for the part?
BH: I’m Superman! I knew him from the time I was a kid; loved the comics since I was a kid. I was a big fan. Understanding the role was rather simple. It was a part of my childhood. I loved it, I 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 shtick 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.
HC: What makes Superman tick? What motivates him?
BH: Several things. Lois Lane is No. 1. The people around him are important to him. Like the song [in the musical] 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.
HC: Who is the “real” character? Superman or Clark Kent?
BH: 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.
HC: Given that, did you think of Clark and Superman as two different characters as Christopher Reeve did?
BH: 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.
HC: What was your approach to Superman? To Clark Kent?
BH: 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.
HC: That makes sense, Bob. Because Jerry Siegel 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?
BH: He seemed happy with what we were doing with the show.
HC: Did Shuster give you any insights into the character?
BH: 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 — Mr. Holiday’s friend, webmaster and arguably his biggest fan — interjects to say, “In Bob’s autobiography there is a nice New Year’s card, from Joe Shuster to Bob. So Shuster must have appreciated Bob’s performance.”]
HC: How did you feel when you first put on the cape?
BH: To actually put on the cape just felt right. I enjoyed it. 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.
HC: Did you ever feel powerful in the suit?
BH: 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.”
HC: You just said, “I am Superman.” How so? Can you elaborate on that?
BH: 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’s just my approach as an actor. As an actor who had to create both parts, I had to capture the spirit of both characters. But it doesn’t mean that I’m actually like either of these characters. But in everyday life, Bob Holiday and what he’s like has nothing to do with either one.
HC: Did you ever feel self-conscious in the suit?
BH: Never. Absolutely not. It was wonderful. Playing Superman was for me a kind of tribute to him. I never did anything that didn’t seem in character because as a kid I’d looked up to Superman so much.
HC: There’s a great photo of you on your website from 1996 in the Ladies Home Journal of you as Clark Kent and another as Superman. You look like a dead ringer for both characters.
BH: It’s funny because I’m looking at it right now.
HC: 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?
BH: I have lots of photos from the show, and articles and clippings. A fan made me a BBQ 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.
HC: I understand you would appear in the suit as personal appearances. What was that like?
BH: 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.
[Collins says, “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 11-year-old, I felt like I had met Superman.”]
HC: It must be both somewhat surprising and gratifying that a decision you made, to stay in character and meet fans, would be something that would be remembered for 40 years.
You’ve got Toni right there as an example of that.
[Collins adds: “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 had on us as Superman.”]
HC: When was the last time you put on the cape, and how did it feel?
BH: 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. I did a lot of publicity appearances to promote the show. The most meaningful was when I visited a children’s hospital, in costume, and got to interact with the children there. It was marvelous.
HC: In the show, when the villain turns the people of Metropolis against him, Superman faces a crisis of confidence.
BH: 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?”
HC: Finding the right tone for a musical version of Superman must have been tricky.
BH: 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.”
HC: What’s been the biggest gift that being Superman has given to you?
BH: Talking to fans. To kids. To people like yourself.
HC: The biggest criticism about the show is that there was not enough Superman and that too much stage time was devoted to other characters. What are your thoughts?
BH: 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.
HC: Why don’t you think the show lasted longer?
BH: 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 could be spent on Broadway tickets. We were the casualty of the abundance of terrific Broadway musicals at the time.
HC: After the Broadway show ended, you donned the tights again for the touring company.
BH: 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.”
HC: There seem to be some parallels between your show and the new Spider-Man musical. 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.
BH: Absolutely. A single wire was suspending me and I was dropped. I was about 6 feet off the ground. Although at times, I probably “flew” as high as 20 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.
HC: There are multiple stunt doubles for “Spider-Man.” Did you have any stunt doubles for the fighting or flying scenes?
BH: No. Didn’t even think about having one.
HC: Because no one taped the show, much of your performance hasn’t been properly documented. So new Superman fans can’t watch your show (although they can listen to the cast recording). Is that somewhat disappointing? How do you think you’d be remembered in the legacy of Superman if your show were properly recorded and documented?
BH: The show made it into the book,”The Best Plays of 1965-1966,” so it will be remembered. A lot of the show got captured by that book. And then, on my website, you can watch a couple of clips of me as Superman. One’s an Aqua Velva commercial, so it has a little bit of an edge to it, but the other is a part of a “documentary” that was actually shown on stage. That one shows exactly the way I played the character. So there’s a little bit of a legacy there. There it is. Somewhere along the way, someone will say, “Bob Holiday did this.” And that’s nice.
HC: How has the part changed your life?
BH: Bob Holiday will always have the honor of being Superman. I still answer, “Up, up and away” when anyone calls me. Seriously though, I used a Superman-like character for the logo of my home building business. I’m proud to have been a part of the Superman legacy. Christopher Reeve once wrote that in every decade, a new man carries the legacy of Superman, and I’m proud to have done so in the 1960s. I got to build a live-action Superman on Broadway, calling out, “Up, up and away,” with people actually looking up at me. That was an important and unique aspect to my Superman. They actually saw me fly, it wasn’t movie magic.
HC: Do friends and family ever refer to you as Superman?
BH: Are you kidding? All the time!
HC: What’s the best part of the association?
BH: 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 playing and no fooling around in the whole of the show. I took Superman seriously.
HC: The worst?
BH: The worst was when the shackle broke and I dropped 6 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 the audience roared. Other than that, there’s no downside to having played Superman, no downside at all.
HC: I take it you don’t believe in the so-called “Superman Curse”?
BH: No, I don’t. In fact, I think the idea of a “Superman Curse” is silly. Look at me, I’m still here. I love life. I’m 79 years old – and my hair is still brown! I have had nothing but good come from me playing Superman. Life is good, and I’m having a ball.
HC: Have your feelings about playing Superman changed over time?
BH: 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, Ill., annual Superman Celebration. That started fans getting in touch with me again and it’s been a great part of my life in retirement.
HC: Are you surprised that fans still track you down after all these years?
BH: Yes, I’m surprised, and I love it. 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.
HC: What are your thoughts on the other actors who’ve played Superman?
BH: First, I call us “brothers.” I think that we understand Superman the way no one else can. It really hit me when I read Christopher Reeve’s book “Still Me.” He said that there is a passing of the baton from one actor who plays Superman to the next, from one decade to the next. It is an honor that I got to hold that baton in the ’60s.
HC: Let’s talk a bit about your “brothers.”
BH: Well, as a kid, I watched the Kirk Alyn serials. [Alyn was the first actor to play Superman onscreen, first in the 1948 film serial “Superman,” and then in its 1950 sequel “Atom Man Vs. Superman.”] Ah, I loved those. It’s part of what made me such a huge Superman fan. It was a big thing for me.
HC: George Reeves?
BH: He was a great Superman. I actually watched reruns of his show to prepare for my role on Broadway. I loved seeing Noel Neill as Lois Lane again. And I will tell you that in my heart, I don’t believe that George Reeves could have killed himself. I just can’t square that with someone who was Superman like he was.
HC: Then you were the next Superman.
BH: Yes, I had a very different approach to Clark Kent. George’s was strong and straightforward. I really took to the “mild-mannered” side of Clark, stooped a little, definitely shy. You can even see in some of my old photos that my glasses sat crooked.
HC: Christopher Reeve?
BH: He was another great Superman. With all he faced, he really was “The Strongest Man in the World.” I was stunned when he died.
HC: Have you seen any other Supermen?
BH: Well, I caught Dean Cain a few times in “Lois and Clark.” He was a lot of fun to watch. And oh, did I love watching Brandon Routh in “Superman Returns.” I’d been to the Metropolis Superman Celebration just a couple of years before that movie came out, so Superman was becoming a big part of my life again.
HC: How has playing the part affected you personally – not publicly or professionally. But personally?
BH: 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 40 years later!
[For the record, 10:13 a.m. April 16: An earlier version of this post referred to the musical as a Nixon-era show. Lyndon Baines Johnson, not Richard Nixon, was president while “It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman” enjoyed its Broadway run.]
— Mark Edlitz
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