Theatre yesterday and today



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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.

Opening night at the Martin Beck Theatre, April 14, 1960.

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.

Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke dancing "Rosie" in Bye Bye Birdie (1960).

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.

Gower Champion's staging on Robert Randolph's set design for "The Telephone Hour" (1960).

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.