THE DAY THEY TOOK BIRDIE AWAY
April 13, 2018: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Tomorrow on April 14th, it will be 58 years since Bye Bye Birdie opened at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld). It’s possible that in 1960 its producer, Edward Padula, worried whether Broadway audiences would cough up the top ticket price of $8.60 to see the show he’d put together. Leading a team of novices, Padula himself had never tried on his “producer’s hat” before, though he had a number of Broadway shows to his credit as stage manager. The librettist, Michael Stewart, had been part of the now legendary writers’ room in the mid-1950s on Caesar’s Hour (Sid, that is), perfecting the art of comedy sketch writing alongside the likes of Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon. And though he had two short-lived Broadway revues to his credit, Birdie would be his first shot at writing a a libretto; the art of which he would go on to perfect with such later hit musicals as Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, I Love My Wife and 42nd Street. The score was composed by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, then making their Broadway debut as a team. They would be responsible for future top notch scores to All American, Golden Boy, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman and Applause. Strouse, of course, would have his greatest triumph with Annie in 1977, though without Adams as lyricist, but with Martin Charnin.
Just a few days past the one-year anniversary of Birdie’s opening, this team all won Tony Awards when they were handed out on April 16, 1961 at the Waldorf Astoria Ballroom. In addition, Gower Champion took home two; one for his direction and one for his choreography. Famously, Chita Rivera did not win for Featured Actress (ridiculously stuck in that category due to her billing below the title, as was her co-star Dick Van Dyke, who won). “Famously,” in that it wasn’t until her fourth nomination (twenty-three years later), that Ms. Rivera finally got her first Tony. That trophy for The Rink gained a mate when she won her second for the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. In the course of her still-going sixty-eight year career, she has been Tony nominated more than any other actress: ten times.
Birdie is perhaps best known for its being the first Broadway musical with even a hint of a rock and roll score. At the time of its premiere in 1960, Elvis Presley had been a superstar for about four years. Basing the plot on the time he was drafted into military service in 1958, the creatives took a real life incident and gave it a full-blown, fictional counterpart in Conrad Birdie. Audiences’s familiarity with Elvis made it easy to imagine how he would impact a small town like the imaginary Sweet Apple, a rock star suddenly thrust into hum-drum middle-American lives. It made perfect sense that grown women might faint and that teenagers would turn against their parents’ admonitions of such a corruptible influence on their virginal youth. The authors took full advantage of this ripe satirical setting and ran with it. In spite of a pan from Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, most reviews parroted what John Chapman wrote in the Daily News: “The funniest, most captivating, and most expert musical comedy one could hope to see in several seasons of showgoing.” Side note: Shortly after Birdie opened, Atkinson retired as the Times chief theatre critic after a thirty-five year run.
According to Charles Strouse in his 2008 memoir, Put On a Happy Face, “The show Ed Padula told me about was then called Let’s Go Steady, and it was indeed about teenagers. Ed wanted it to be a ‘happy teenage musical with a difference’ — the difference being our teenagers would be nothing like the ones portrayed in 1957’s West Side Story. Ed had contracted two book writers named Warren Miller and Raphael Millian, and Lee and I quickly wrote seven songs (three of which would survive to see the stage) to fit their libretto.”
Michael Stewart is credited as adding the Conrad Birdie element to the show when he was brought on board to take over the book writing chores. This came after the hiring of Gower Champion, the result of his dislike of what the team of Miller and Millian had come up with. The whole process was tough, from the difficulty in raising money, to opening night in Philadelphia, where Strouse reports in his book the major worry of a “very empty lobby overseen by bored box office personnel with deep stacks of unsold tickets behind them.” Happily, once the Philly critics weighed in, the next morning had “lines of people curling throughout the lobby and into the street.” From that moment on, Birdie was a hit.
In addition to Van Dyke and Rivera, the show boasted a stellar cast. Kay Medford, who would go on four years later to portray another memorable mother (Mrs. Brice in Funny Girl), played Mae Peterson, one of the most excruciating and overbearing mothers you will ever find in any play or musical. Unfortunately, due to the character not having any songs, the original cast recording provides no evidence of what Medford did in the show. Paul Lynde, first discovered in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952, had his breakout role as Harry MacAfee, frustrated father to teenage Kim. The role was beefed up continually throughout the rehearsal process, due to his uncanny ability to get a laugh on nearly anything he did. In fact, in the great song “Hymn For a Sunday Evening,” his “Ed, I love you!” was an ad lib that the creative team kept in the moment he came up with it during a run-through.
Dick Gautier was Conrad Birdie, and received a Tony nomination (losing to Dick Van Dyke). Gautier later achieved a certain level of fame as Hymie the Robot on Get Smart, the hit late 1960s TV comedy. Kim MacAfee was played by Susan Watson, who was a go-to ingenue through the 1960s and early ’70s, with credits that included Carnival, Ben Franklin in Paris, Celebration and No, No Nanette.
Michael J. Pollard, a future Academy Award nominee for Bonnie and Clyde was her boyfriend, Hugo and, as a member of the chorus (and understudy to Dick Van Dyke), was Charles Nelson Reilly, who only one year later, would win a Tony Award as Bud Frump in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
By the way, the title of this column, The Day They Took Birdie Away, was a one-time working title that was happily changed to Bye Bye Birdie. Michael Stewart had a knack for his first titles not being quite right: the original one for a later musical of his was Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman — without even an exclamation point to top it off.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.