Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Steven Spielberg wanted to direct the first Superman film and do it as a musical.
In 1966, just a few short months after the Batman TV series debuted, legendary Broadway composer Charles Strouse (a three-time Tony Award winner for Best Score, including another musical based on a comic, Annie) opened a brand-new musical called It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman (with lyrics by Lee Adams). Looking back, the musical is often lumped in as one of the many projects launched in the late 1960s designed to cash in on the Bat-Mania that the Batman TV series caused. However, as I noted in an old Comic Book Legends Revealed, there likely was no such connection. Strouse did not write It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman as camp, but with the same straightforward approach he later did with Annie – the end result just happened to be a campy musical.
While the initial musical was a financial flop, the show was well-regarded enough that in 1975, ABC aired a TV special version of the show. I bring this up to note that the idea of Superman as a musical was not unprecedented during the mid-70s and in fact had just been prominently displayed on television. So keep that in mind when we address today’s legend, sent in by reader Charlie L., who wanted to know if it is true that famed director Steven Spielberg not only wanted to direct the first Superman movie, but wanted to do the film as a musical?
Read on to find out!
In the Summer of 1974, hot off of the success of 1973’s The Three Musketeers and the highly anticipated sequel, The Four Musketeers), father and son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind (along with their producing partner Pierre Spengler), acquired the film rights to Superman. Their intent was to follow their unique production formula for the Musketeers films, where they filmed both films at the same time and then just released them a year apart. That technique saved a lot of money on the production side of things (Peter Jackson later famously did the same thing with his Lord of the Rings trilogy – Robert Zemeckis also filmed both Back to the Future sequels at the same time).
Few films have had quite as legendary of a production process as the first Superman film. After securing the rights in mid-1974, the movie did not begin shooting until nearly three years later, with the Salkinds finding it extremely difficult to find either a director or an actor to play Superman (they famously even auditioned Ilya Salkind’s dentist!). At various points in time, pretty much every hot director in the business was approached to direct the film, from Francis Ford Coppola to, William Friedkin (just coming off of The Exorcist) to Richard Lester (who had directed the Musketeers films) to Sam Peckinpah.
One director who was very interested in the film was a young man who had just made his mainstream movie directing debut in 1974 with The Sugarland Express. Steven Spielberg was finishing up work on his next film, Jaws, and was very interested in directing Superman. Ilya Salkind recalled the situation to Barry Freiman in an excellent interview at Barry’s website, The Superman Homepage, noting that Spielberg’s agent was pushing his client hard to the Salkinds and Spengler.
Spengler and Ilya Salkind looked at Spielberg’s work and saw what many others saw, a very talented filmmaker. They were interested, but Alexander Salkind was less enthused. At the time, Spielberg was famously over-budget on Jaws (which had its own legendary production problems). The older Salkind told his son, “let’s wait until the big fish opens.”
In the Summer of 1975, the “big fish” movie opened and it was one of the biggest blockbusters in film history and Alexander Salkind was now very interested in Spielberg for Superman. As Ilya Salkind recalls, though, now that Spielberg was a star, he not only could do whatever project he wanted to do next, but it was likely that he was holding a bit of a grudge over being dismissed by Alexander Salkind in the first place.
Ilya Salkind told Freiman:
I said ‘look, he’s never going to do it’ now that “Jaws” is so huge. Salkind contacted Spielberg’s agent but their window of opportunity had closed. “I called [Spielberg’s] agent and the agent said… [he wanted] to do Superman singing and dancing, which was really a very polite way of saying [no]. And I understood it immediately.”
And that, there, would be the origin of “Spielberg wanted to do a Superman musical.”
I think that we can trust Ilya Salkind’s take on the situation – if he feels that that suggestion was made in jest, then I think it is only fair to take it that way. So with that in mind, I’m willing to with the legend as…
Thanks to Barry Freiman and Ilya Salkind for the information! And thanks to Charlie for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.