"Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able
to leap tall buildings at a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's
a plane! It's SUPERMAN!"
When we think of mythology, we tend to recall tales of ancient Greece - Zeus
and the gods of Olympus, for example - or, moving forward to the Middle Ages, the
legends of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table. Gods and heroes of
stature and power.
In truth, every culture and time has its own mythology. And in the 20th century,
one myth stands above the rest: Superman. Not just a comic-book character,
he has endured for more than six decades in print, radio, television and movies. The
familiar red, blue, and yellow costume; the stylized "S"
emblazoned upon his chest; the dashing superhero and his alter ego, mild mannered
reporter Clark Kent, are known the world over.
Artist Jim Steranko, in his otherwise definitive History of Comics, says
"Superman's origin must be as familiar to every American boy as Washington's
stand at Valley Forge." We would suggest that the average American kid
knows a good deal more about the exploding planet Krypton and the rocketing to Earth
of its sole survivor than anything about General Washington and his role in the Revolutionary
Superman was the brainchild of two teenage Ohio science-fiction fans: writer
Jerry Siegel and artist
Joe Shuster. They
first dreamed him in 1933
and spent years trying to sell the concept as a newspaper
comic strip. The Man of Steel, as he would come to be known, finally made
his public debut
in Action Comics No. 1, dated June 1938. Within a year,
his popularity would win him his own comic book; within a decade, he would be,
as Steranko correctly states, "the most popular and powerful folk hero in American
National Periodical Publications (later known as DC Comics) parlayed its flying, nearly
invincible hero into an empire.
First came the radio show,
beginning in February 1940, with Bud Collyer as the voice of Superman. Max and Dave Fleischer
followed in September 1941 with the first
Superman cartoon - exciting and
sophisticated Technicolor storytelling that Leonard Maltin, in his animation
history Of Mice and Magic, calls "among the best fantasy cartoons ever produced."
Kirk Alyn played Superman, and Noel Neill was tart-tongued Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane,
in Columbia's 15-chapter
serial in 1948; they reprised their roles in the sequel
Atom Man vs. Superman two years later.
Low-budget studio Lippert released the first Superman feature in 1951: Superman
and the Mole Men starring George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, which effectively served as the
pilot for the long-running syndicated
television series that went on the air in early 1953. Reeves became the best known
of the several actors to play Superman and was a hero to every youngster and young-at-heart
who sat transfixed before their TV set.
The last son of Krypton made an unlikely but surprisingly successful transition
to Broadway in the musical It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, which opened
March 29, 1966 and ran for 129 performances. Bob Holiday had the dual role, with
Patricia Marand as Lois Lane, Linda Lavin (later TV's "Alice") as Sydney
and the redoubtable Jack Cassidy as opportunistic Daily Planet gossip columnist
By the mid-1970s, media conglomerate Warner Bros. had acquired DC and joined forces
with European moguls Alexander and Ilya Salkind to make the biggest, splashiest
Superman of all: the 1978 blockbuster
that reinvigorated the legend and made
a super-star of Christopher Reeve - even though Marlon Brando (as Kryptonian
scientist Jor-El) and Gene Hackman (as villain Lex Luthor) got higher billing. Reeve
reprised the role in three sequels. Helen Slater joined the franchise as his cousin
Supergirl in 1984.
Almost from the beginning, the adventures of Superman and friends have demanded
music. Sammy Timberg composed the first Superman theme; as musical director
for the Fleischer animation studios, he also supplied songs for Popeye and
Betty Boop on a regular basis. His music for the "strange visitor
from another planet" opened with a three-note fanfare that has served as the
model many times over.
Mischa Bakaleinikoff, musical director for the Columbia cliffhangers of the 1940s,
supplied a dark-hued march designed to suggest the menace that faced the Man of
Steel on a weekly basis. Composer Leon Klatzkin combined elements of both --
the heraldic fanfare and strong martial rhythms - in his Superman television
theme, one of the earliest and most enduring original compositions for the small
For the Broadway show, veteran songwriters Charles Strouse and Lee Adams
(Bye Bye Birdie and Applause for the stage, Bonnie and
Clyde for the movies) created an entire song score around the exploits
of Clark and Lois. A very 1960s vibe infused these tunes, as the show fell
neatly into the campy, comic-strip mode that was making TV's Batman
a hit at the same time. Librettists David Newman and Robert Benton
(the latter, the director of Kramer vs. Kramer and other films)
would take their treatment to the movies a decade later and be
co-credited with the screenplay.
John Williams - coming off such successes as Jaws and
Star Wars - had just become the hottest composer in Hollywood when
he wrote the Superman film score, a 1978 Oscar nominee. His
theatrical fanfare and soaring main title music, his beautiful
love theme ("Can You Read My Mind", with it's clever
Leslie Bricusse lyric)
and his comic march for the villains are among his most memorable works in a
career filled with outstanding musical accomplishments.
Williams was unavailable to score the sequels, but his music was already
such an integral part of Superman that British composer Ken Thorne was brought
aboard to adapt Williams' themes and supply additional original music
for Superman II (1980) and Superman III (1983). Another Hollywood
legend, veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith, composed a stirring march for the
adventures of Supergirl in 1984.
Here, then, are musical highlights from half a century in the annals of the
greatest mythical figure of our time: Superman.
- Jon Burlingame