Bye Bye Birdie! – Original Broadway Cast 1960
As historic dates go, it doesn’t rank with Magna Carta or D-Day, but on April 14, 1960 – thanks to Bye Bye Birdie – Broadway discovered teenagers, and the world trembled. This new, terrifying subspecies of Homo sapiens had been detected more than five years earlier by the anthropologist Alan Freed, but Broadway, entranced by Eliza Doolittle and Harold Hill, hadn’t much noticed. (West Side Story? Those kids sang like Caruso, danced like Nureyev, and seemed, well, foreign.) But this surprise, comic, tuneful hit by Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Michael Stewart – and let’s put the producer, Edward Padula, in there, too – brought us real American teens; parents groping across the Generation Gap; songs that spoofed the dread rock ‘n’ roll; and, towering above them like some goofy, lusty redwood, a satiric vision of the Rock God himself, Elvis Presley. Before they were done – 607 performances on Broadway and a hit movie, plus amateur productions that will go on forever – they had crystallized a watershed moment in our history: the dawn of youth culture, before Innocence got jilted by experience. Bye Bye Birdie‘s is the best kind of Broadway story: a show from nowhere, created by unknowns, sneaking into town – “We had something like $200 in advance sales,” Adams recalls – and knocking ’em dead. Songs no one had ever heard before – “Put On a Happy Face,” “A Lot of Livin’ To Do,” “Kids” – became instant standards. Who knew? Ed Padula did, anyway. A Broadway stage manager who wanted to produce, Padula thought the teen thing had Broadway potential as early as 1957, when he approached Adams and Strouse – “newcomers, to put it mildly,” as Strouse says – who had kicked around summer stock and Off-Broadway revues (oh, for the days!), had no rock ‘n’ roll background, but were game for anything. Jumping into the research, Strouse – conservatory-trained, articulate, soft-spoken – made like Margaret Mead out in the jungle, parting the weeds and glimpsing a strange tribal culture. The first, non-Birdie result of this field work was an actual pop hit, “Born Too Late,” which immortalized the teen-queen Poni-Tails in the summer of 1958. Birdie, meanwhile, had the usual growing pains, going through directors (Fred Astaire!) and writers (Mike Nichols and Elaine May!), while evolving from the story of a teenage girl’s quest to lose her virginity, into a vehicle, briefly, for the Elvis-spoofing comedian Dick Shawn. Shawn split, but Elvis lingered. Again in search of a writer, Strouse and Adams brought Padula a colleague from stock, Michael Stewart. No sooner had he signed on than the real-life Elvis saga took a dramatic turn. In early 1958, Presley was drafted into the U.S. Army, undamming torrents of teen anguish; on September 22, he boarded a troop ship for eighteen months in Germany. The attendant media circus at the Brooklyn, N.Y., Army Terminal, included a stagey “one last kiss” for Elvis from a specially selected WAC named Mary Davies. Stewart took note, and our Birdie was born. Still, “the world was monumentally uninterested” in the new musical, Strouse says. “People would come to backers’ auditions and walk out.” Broadway’s talent pool did not include rock singers. Misreading the title on the casting call, “actors came in and sang ‘Bye Bye Blackbird.’” Somehow, though, they got a meeting with Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, who told Strouse and Adams, “You are very talented young men,” and gave them enough money to get started. Then, the story goes, Padula turned up “a pigeon from Texas,” an oilman named L. Slade Brown, much shrewder than he first appeared. Strouse played him “Happy Face,” and Brown wrote them a check on the spot–drawn on his own bank. Their only “name” was Chita Rivera, the fiery dancer-actress who had won acclaim as Anita in West Side Story‘s Broadway and London casts. Their director, notably, was the choreographer Gower Champion, making his first try at directing a “book” musical. Champion insisted on using real teens – crucial to the tone of the show – and his staging of “The Telephone Hour” may be Birdie‘s most memorable moment. If there was a turning point during the Philadelphia tryout, it was Champion’s decision to enliven “Happy Face” with a tap solo by Dick Van Dyke, taking advantage of his great skills as a physical comedian, and arguably making his career in one coup. They played to an enthusiastic opening night, adjourned full of hope to their cast party – and got slammed in the first review they saw, from Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times – “probably the only bad review we’ve received in forty years,” Adams says. “Neither fish, fowl, nor good musical comedy,” Atkinson, nearing retirement, harrumphed. But there were, in those long-ago days, six other New York dailies, plus wire services, magazines, and broadcast reviewers, nearly all of whom loved the show. “The funniest, most captivating and most expert musical comedy one could hope to see in several seasons of showgoing,” said John Chapman of the Daily News. “Do you know something? The teenagers of America may be attractive after all,” allowed Walter Kerr in the Herald Tribune. Richard Watts, Jr., of the Post was the first of many to be taken with the show’s ending: “Rare intelligence and taste were shown by closing the show, not on an elaborate chorus number, but on a simple and romantic song [“Rosie”] sung by Van Dyke and Rivera.” On and on it went, for a year and a half, then on tour. Strouse and Adams went on to write more songs for the 1963 George Sidney film, including, finally, the title song that introduced Ann-Margret and indelibly scorched the mind of at least one eleven-year-old boy. A 1995 TV adaptation with Vanessa Williams and Jason Alexander earned top ratings. And on and on it goes. Well, no one thought Elvis would last, either. Type the title into your Internet search engine today, and you’ll be treated to websites for flocks of Birdies. We still love you, Conrad. Digesting the plot of Bye Bye Birdie – the show, not the movie – requires a leap back to what was, remember, a simpler time. When Stewart wrote this, the rock ‘n’ roll phenomenon was only a few years old, and bound to fade, right? (The creators were in fact scared that, by taking so long in development, they’d missed the boat; Elvis was home from the army before Birdie opened.) The nation’s mood can be summed up in Champion’s pre-opening comments that he “loathes rock ‘n’ roll” and has “avoided all teenagers up to now.” But as Adams says, “There’s an old rule in satire, you have to love what you’re satirizing or it gets ugly. These kids are fun, people like Elvis are fun–we just wanted to poke fun at it, in a gentle way.” Thus we are presented with one Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke), 33, who dropped out of NYU to manage and write songs for the rock icon Conrad Birdie. But his long-suffering secretary and not-quite-fiancée, Rosie Alvarez (Chita Rivera), dreams he’ll get out of this and become – “An English Teacher.” (Dated, sure, but how can you not love a song with the lyric, “A man who’s got his Masters is really someone!”) The obstacles are Albert’s cracked, clinging, bigoted mother, Mae (Kay Medford), and the fact that Albert somehow owes Birdie fifty grand (don’t ask, it keeps the plot going) and so can’t quit. And now Birdie’s been drafted, removing Albert’s chance to make the money he needs. But Rosie has an idea: Albert will write a song called “One Last Kiss,” which will be sung by Birdie to a specially selected fan club member–with actual kiss–before he leaves for the army. Albert will collect his royalties, and they’ll be free of Birdie, free to marry. The lucky girl is Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio, who has just been “pinned” by her boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, as we learn from her friends in “The Telephone Hour.” Now we meet Kim (Susan Watson). newly 15, who soliloquizes, “How Lovely To Be a Woman” – until Rosie’s phone call sends her back into childish frenzy. Albert, Rosie, and the Birdie entourage arrive at the Sweet Apple train station, where Albert finds a girl of thirteen, sad because by the time Birdie gets out of the army, she’ll be too old for him. Albert tries to cheer her up with a song and tap dance – “Put On a Happy Face.” Birdie (Dick Gautier) finally appears, and the media pack descends. All those things people say about him aren’t true, Albert and Rosie insist; he’s just a Normal American Boy. The press conference ends and Birdie goes, leaving Kim with Hugo (Michael J. Pollard), who’s not happy about his steady kissing some rock star. But Kim, with some help from Rosie, reassures him: all she wants is “One Boy.” Cut to the steps of the Sweet Apple courthouse, where the town’s mayor is trying to present Birdie the key to the city. All the crowd wants, though, is to hear Conrad sing, and he obliges: “Honestly Sincere,” which lays waste to the town’s female population. From here our tale detours into Man Who Came to Dinner-land: for some reason, Birdie is not only going to kiss Kim, he’s bunking at the MacAfees’s house, along with Albert and Rosie. Kim’s father (Paul Lynde), already at a low boil, is ready to throw them all out, until Albert comes downstairs with the news that the ceremonial kiss – and the entire MacAfee family – will be on the Ed Sullivan Show – “Hymn for a Sunday Evening.” The great moment arrives, the Sullivan show cuts away to the Sweet Apple theater, where Conrad sings “One Last Kiss” to more swooning and repeated efforts by Kim’s dad to hog the camera. But just when those legendary lips are about to be applied – “Okay, brace yourself, chick!” – Birdie is knocked down by Hugo, who (stay with me here) has been sneaked on stage by Rosie, to get back at Albert for flirting with another woman. Live on national TV, Rosie walks out on Albert, as the first-act curtain comes down. Act II opens in Kim’s bedroom, where she and Rosie, fed up with Hugo and Albert respectively, ask themselves, “What Did I Ever See in Him?” and declare themselves free, single, and out to have some fun. Downstairs, Birdie’s feeling the same way – “A Lot of Livin’ To Do.” They all head out on the town, leaving Mr. MacAfee fuming again, and completely fed up with “Kids.” Down at Maude’s Roadside Retreat – a “low dive” – many of our characters now converge. Hugo wants to drown his sorrows, but the bartender won’t serve him. Rosie comes in wanting the same. Albert finds himself, by phone, in a quartet with the bartender and some customers, begging, “Baby, Talk to Me.” Rosie won’t have it, though, and runs off to dance with some Shriners (Rivera’s big moment in the show but not preserved here). This gives Albert the nerve to tell off his mother, and to plan his break from Birdie; he’s on his way to appease Rosie when various parents surround him (“Kids” – reprise) with the news that Conrad has run off with Kim. Off they’ve gone, but just to a local trysting place called the Ice House; Kim gets no further than sharing a (tobacco) cigarette with Conrad before other teens arrive, followed by their parents and the police. Albert finds Rosie, and tells her that he loves her. But his mother shows up, too, needling Rosie again about her Spanish name, and Rosie is left to her own soliloquy (“Spanish Rose”) about the joys of being treated like a foreigner even though “I come from Allentown, PA.” We end back at the Sweet Apple train station, where Conrad is departing for New York and the army. He tells Albert he’s forgiving the debt, and hands him a blank contract, inviting Albert to dictate the terms. Then the MacAfees arrive, with the startling news that Kim and Hugo aren’t just back together, they’re engaged! (She’s still fifteen, folks.) When Albert’s mother shows up, too, he puts her on the train with Birdie, and the train pulls out. . . . . . without Albert, who tears up Conrad’s contract. Rosie enters to learn that 1) Albert has plotted to have them both miss the train; 2) they’re moving to Pumpkin Falls, Iowa, to teach junior high; and 3) they’re engaged. Alone at last, they conclude the show together – “Rosie.” If walking away from a rock ‘n’ roll gold mine to teach junior high English in Iowa isn’t your idea of a happy ending, keep in mind that the movie’s answer is to turn Albert into a chemist who invents, yes, speed. Innocence and high-mindedness may have left town, butBye Bye Birdie lets us visit whenever we want.
– Marc Kirkeby
Albert Peterson: Dick Van Dyke Rose Grant: Chita Rivera The Teenagers: Helen: Karin Wolfe Nancy: Marissa Mason Alice: Sharon Lerit Margie Ann: Louise Quick Penelope Ann: Lada Edmund Deborah Sue: Jessica Albright Suzie: Lynn Bowin Linda: Judy Keirn Carol: Penny Ann Green Martha Louise: Vicki Belmonte Harold: Michael Vita Karl: Jerry Dodge Harvey: Dean Stolber Henry: Ed Kresley Arthur: Bob Spencer Freddie: Tracy Everitt Peyton: Gary Howe Ursula Merkle: Barbara Doherty Kim MacAfee: Susan Watson Mrs. MacAfee: Marijane Maricle Mr. MacAfee: Paul Lynde Teen Trio: Louise Quick, Jessica Albright, Vicki Belmonte Sad Girl: Sharon Lerit Another Sad Girl: Karin Wolfe Mae Peterson: Kay Medford Reporters: Lee Howard, Jim Sisco, Don Farnworth, John Coyle Conrad Birdie: Dick Gautier Guitar Man: Kenny Burrell Conductor: Kasimir Kokich Cheerleaders: Judy Keirn, Lynn Bowin Mayor: Allen Knowles Mayor’s Wife: Amelia Haas Hugo Peabody: Michael J. Pollard Randolph MacAfee: Johnny Borden Mrs. Merkle: Pat McEnnis Old Woman: Dori Davis Neighbors: Amelia Haas, Jeannine Masterson, Ed Becker, Oran Osburn, George Blackwell, Lee Howard Mr. Henkel: Charles Nelson Reilly Gloria Rasputin: Norma Richardson Ed Sullivan’s Voice: Will Jordan TV Stage Manager: Tony Mordente Charles F. Maude: George Blackwell Shriners: Allen Knowles, John Coyle, Dick Crowley, Don Farnworth, Bud Fleming, Kasimir Kokich, Jim Sisco