Theatre yesterday and today



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Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke singing and dancing “Rosie”

in Bye Bye Birdie (1960).

The original Broadway production of Bye Bye Birdie is sixty-one today. Brash and youthful, it’s hard to imagine what its impact was back in 1960; the first musical to incorporate elements of rock and roll into a traditional Broadway score. In lieu of a time machine, here’s a look back at how it even got to Broadway in this edition of “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Producer Edward Padula was worried. He liked the show he was working hard to raise money for, but he was taking a big risk on whether Broadway audiences would cough up the top ticket price of $8.60 to see it. The head of a team of novices all new to the theatre, Padula himself had never tried on a producer’s hat before, though he had a number of shows to his credit as stage manager and was the oddly credited “Book Director” for the first Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe collaboration, the short-lived The Day Before Spring in 1945. The librettist was Michael Stewart, who had recently 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 which he contributed, Birdie would be his first shot at writing a full book, the art of which he would go on to sharpen with such long running hits 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, with Strouse’s greatest triumph, Annie, in tandem with Martin Charnin as lyricist. And Birdie’s director/choreographer was Gower Champion, who though renowned as a famous dancer on stage and screen, had recently turned to directing and choreographing a number of revues. Bye Bye Birdiewould mark his first staging of a book musical, the beginning of a remarkable run of hits and Tony Awards.

Opening night at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld), April 14, 1960.

Little could this team have realized that only a few days past the one-year anniversary of Birdie’s opening night, they would win the lion’s share of Tony Awards 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 as Featured Actor. Ridiculous). I say, “famously,” as it wasn’t until Rivera’s fourth nomination (twenty-three years later) that she finally got her first Tony. That trophy for The Rink gained a mate nine years later when she won another for the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman. In the course of her still-going seventy-year career (!), she has been Tony nominated more than any other actor or actress: ten times.

When it premiered in 1960, Elvis Presley had been a superstar for about four years. Basing Birdie’s plot on when 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’ familiarity with Elvis made it easy to imagine how he would impact a small town like the imaginary Sweet Apple, Ohio — 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 Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times (he didn’t get it), most reviews echoed 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 (his closing line of his review was “Bye Bye Birdie is neither fish nor fowl nor good musical comedy. It needs work”). Perhaps all the other raves gave him reason to think his time had come and gone.

Al Hirschfeld’s drawn farewell to his friend

and fellow New York Times colleague, Brooks Atkinson