“Edward Padula put over a sleeper in the Broadway sweepstakes and it’s going to pay off in big figures to its backers.” That’s Robert Coleman in the April 15, 1960, Daily Mirror, expressing the widespread amazement that such a polished, delightful evening as Bye Bye Birdie could emerge from so many unseasoned hands. Producer Padula was making his Broadway debut, as were Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music), and Lee Adams (lyrics). Director-choreographer Gower Champion had worked on two Broadway musicals many seasons ago, neither a success. Leading man Dick Van Dyke had been a featured player in one flop revue, The Boys against the Girls, the prior year. Chita Rivera had performed in West Side Story to considerable acclaim, but had never been a leading lady.
Yet the musical comedy opened to near-unanimous raves. The story swirls around the eponymous rock ‘n’ roll star’s promotional visit to a small Ohio town where Birdie’s going to give a lucky teen contest winner a last kiss before he’s due to enlist in the Army. The show’s satire—on rock ‘n’ roll, television, the generation gap, celebrity worship—was genuinely funny and never malicious. Its score, one of the first to feature electric guitars in the pit, had bubblegum rock for the kids and fresh, melodious character songs for the grownups. Champion’s staging was ingenious, with two comic ballets and a memorably understated finale. In short, the Martin Beck (now Al Hirschfeld) Theatre, not known for long runs, had one of its biggest hits. During Birdie’s 607-performance stay it transferred to 54th Street and then the Shubert, spawned a fast-selling cast album on Columbia, and had long sequences—even book scenes—broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Sullivan, whom Stewart’s book poked fun at, loved the show. He even played himself in the 1963 film adaptation. The movie retained Van Dyke as Albert Peterson and Paul Lynde as Mr. MacAfee from the Broadway cast but was otherwise far from faithful—excising five songs, rewriting the script to inject some heavy Cold War satire, and building up Ann-Margret’s role as Kim to star billing (leaving millions of schoolboys wondering why there were no girls like her in their high schools). “They’re turning it into The Ann-Margret Show!” complained Van Dyke. Some of the other casting was flat-out strange: Maureen Stapleton, though the same age as Van Dyke, clomped about in heavy shoes and furs as his mother. Nevertheless, the screen Birdie made a mint for Columbia Pictures.
Birdie was also profitable on the 1960s summer-tent circuit, featuring Van Johnson, and has always been a favorite of high schools. Tommy Tune toured in it in the early 1990s, in a production that aimed for but never quite reached Broadway. A 1995 TV-movie remake, starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams, showed more fidelity than the earlier film, even restoring some of Robert Ginzler’s killer Broadway orchestrations, but there were gripes about casting and pacing. The show’s uneven history makes Roundabout’s Birdie, the musical’s first full Broadway revival, one of the most anticipated productions of this fall season.
Related Categories: 2009-2010 Season
, Bye Bye Birdie
, Front & Center