When musical theatre pundits discuss 'Bye Bye Birdie', two notions tend to recur; One is that the 1960 show introduced rock 'n' roll and the sounds of contemporary music to the Broadway musical. The other is that it was the "sleeper," or unexpected hit, of its day. The first statement is misleading, the second accurate.
'Bye Bye Birdie' was an original, up-to-the-minute musical, a youthful piece bursting with new talent, a show of firsts. It was produced by novice Edward Padula, who hired for the score of what was then known as 'Lets Go Steady' the team of composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams; Strouse and Adams had collaborated on material for the off-Broadway 'Shoestring Revues' and an Adirondack resort called 'Green Mansions' but, like Birdie's producer and book writer, they would be making Broadway debuts.
When Padula became unhappy with the librettists (Warren Miller and Raphael Millian) hired, the songwriters suggested Michael Stewart, also from 'Green Mansions' and the 'Shoestrings'. Stewart abandoned the plot of 'Let's Go Steady' (something about a couple contemplating divorce but persuaded against it by their children) but retained several of the songs already composed for what was now being called Love and Kisses.
If Strouse, Adams, and Stewart were all new to Broadway, the man hired to stage the new musical, Gower Champion, was a well-known dance star (with wife Marge) on stage, screen, and in nightclubs. Champion had choreographed one book musical (the unsuccessful 'Make a Wish', for which he had devised an acclaimed department store ballet) and the revue 'Small Wonder' and had staged the revues 'Lend an Ear' and 'Three for Tonight', the latter featuring Marge and Gower. But Birdie marked the first time Champion was in total charge of a book musical.
The textbook rise of actress-singer-dancer Chita Rivera is virtually unheard of in today's musical theatre. Rivera danced in the ensembles of early 50's hits like 'Call Me Madam', 'Guys and Dolls', and 'Can-Can'. She got to sing and do sketches in 'Shoestring Revue', had a featured role in the Broadway flop 'Seventh Heaven', then a far more noticeable featured part in the more successful Sammy Davis, Jr., vehicle 'Mr. Wonderful'. (Her Seventh Heaven and Mr. Wonderful performances were both captured on Decca cast recordings.)
In 1957, after a brief stint standing by for Eartha Kitt in 'Shinbone Alley', Rivera was cast in 'West Side Story'. If the part of Anita wasn't the female lead, It was Rivera's first central role, and while the show was the last word on the integration of all musical theatre elements, it provided this distinctive performer with just the showcase she needed. Rivera demonstrated that she was a sensational dancer who sang better than star dancers usually did, as well as an actress of considerable conviction.
Rivera's perfectly calibrated rise culminated in being hired for her first leading lady, top-billed role, Rose in 'Bye Bye Birdie'. Like West Side Story, it was a show about contemporary youth, but one with a very different perspective from the '57 masterwork. Signed as Rivera's leading man was Dick Van Dyke, a new TV comic and personality who had just won attention in the short-lived 1959 Broadway revue 'The Girls Against the Boys' starring Bert Lahr and Nancy Walker. Padula didn't have a great deal of difficulty raising the $300,000 necessary to mount Birdie, most of it provided by wealthy Texan L. Slade Brown. But because the show had no star names above or below the title, it opened on April 14, 1960 at the Martin Beck Theatre with little fanfare and virtually no advance sale.
With the exception of Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times (who was near the end of his highly respected critical tenure and later admitted that he may have been tired by season's end), the reviews were enthusiastic. Birdie took an impressive six 1961 Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical, Van Dyke, Stewart, and Padula, with Champion earning them for both direction and choreography. Like Van Dyke, Rivera was nominated in the featured category because of below-the-title billing; she lost to Tammy Grimes, who was even more inappropriately plated in the featured slot for her marathon role in 'The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
As for its putative introduction to Broadway of contemporary music, it's necessary to note that, because Birdie spoofed an Elvis Presley-type pop star, the performance numbers created for the character of Conrad Birdie ("Honestly Sincere," "One Last Kiss") were, quite appropriately, parodies of the Elvis style. While "A Lot of Livin' to Do" also had a certain contemporary kick, the score is, with the exception of Conrad's two big numbers, pure and extremely choice '60's Broadway.
In a period when hit musicals weren't out to run forever, Birdie closed October 7, 1961 after 607 performances. A national tour was headed by Bill Hayes, Elaine Dunn, and Joan Blondell.
Beginning with 'Oklahoma!' and 'Annie Get Your Gun' in the '40s and continuing with 'My Fair Lady' and 'West Side Story' in the '60s, London couldn't wait to welcome the scintillating, new-style U.S. musicals that England seemed incapable of producing. Critics there were especially impressed with the kind of staging a Jerome Robbins or Gower Champion could provide, so Birdie naturally followed 'West Side Story' to London.
While Broadway royalty like Ethel Merman and Gwen Verdon never performed any of their stage roles in London, Rivera got to repeat in the West End her first two major ones. She garnered huge acclaim in the wildly lauded West End premiere of 'West Side Story' at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1958. The London 'West Side Story', which ran longer than the New York edition, was followed at Her Majesty's by 'Birdie', which opened June 15, 1961.
It was common in those days to send over Americans to play Americans in U.S. musicals, and hired to star opposite Rivera in London was Peter Marshall, whose career had already included Broadway, movies, TV, and nightclubs. Marshall would later take the male lead in Broadway's 'Skyscraper' and play Georges in the touring and Broadway versions of 'La Cage aux Folles', but he's best known for hosting the TV game-show Hollywood Squares. (With Rivera in London, the Broadway Birdie, which shifted to the Shubert Theatre, welcomed as replacements Gretchen Wyler opposite Gene Rayburn; like Marshall, Rayburn was later best known as a TV game-show host.)
Unlike New York's Conrad Birdie, Dick Gautier, the West End production featured Marty Wilde, who was the real thing; a popular rock 'n' roll star in his own right. Tony Mordente, Champion's Broadway assistant, recreated Champion's musical staging and choreography for London; Mordente had been in the original cast of 'West Side Story' with Rivera, had played a small role and understudied Gautier in the Broadway Birdie, and was now Rivera's husband. Stewart himself recreated the direction of his book.
Listening to the London cast recording, you will notice some lyric alterations (references to "Phi Beta Kappa" and "NYU" curtailed) to accommodate English audiences. But there was no way of avoiding the show's celebration of 'The Ed Sullivan Show', and it may have been the ultra-American-ness of the piece that resulted in a less strong reception in the West End. Then too, London had already seen a musical, the acclaimed, far grittier 1958 'Expresso Bongo', about a young rock 'n' roll singer and his agent. So the London Birdie lasted only 268 performances, even if Rivera and Champion's staging were again acclaimed.
In 1963, the Columbia film version retained Van Dyke and Paul Lynde from the Broadway cast, but radically altered the stage show's plot, dialogue, and score, the property refashioned to emphasize newcomer Ann-Margret. In 1981, there was a disastrous Broadway sequel, 'Bring Back Birdie', picking up the action of the original 20 years later; with the original writers repeating and Rivera back (again at the Martin Beck) as Rosie opposite Donald O'Connor, this mistake of a show, which concluded with a curtain-call rendition of "Rosie" from the first Birdie, was mercifully laid to rest after four showings.
After 'Bye Bye Birdie', librettist Stewart went on to four more collaborations with Champion, all for producer David Merrick, 'Carnival', 'Hello, Dolly!', 'Mack and Mabel', and '42nd Street'. The work of Strouse and Adams was heard again in London with the importation of their 'Golden Boy' and 'Applause', and their West End original 'I and Albert'; Strouse's 'Annie' was a huge London success as well. Rivera would return to London for the pre-Broadway run of 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and to play Roxie Hart in the revival of 'Chicago'.
Since its premiere, 'Bye Bye Birdie' has been among the most frequently performed musicals in the stock and amateur fields. It may very well be the most popular and beloved post-war musical hit never to have been revived on Broadway, but there are reasons for that. In 1991, a major new production was sent Out on a national tour, produced by Barry and Fran Weissler, directed by Gene Saks, and starring Tommy Tune opposite Ann Reinking (then Lenora Nemetz), and introducing Susan Egan and Marc Kudisch. Tune got a new song-and-dance called "A Giant Step," while "He's Mine," a duet for Rose and Mae, replaced "Spanish Rose" after initial engagements.
This Birdie was a critical and box-office success, but Tune didn't wish to return to Broadway in a revival, so the production did not continue on to New York. In 1995, Birdie got a three-hour ABC-TV film remake, directed by Saks, choreographed by Reinking, and starring Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams (who had replaced Rivera in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman'), Tyne Daly, George Wendt, and Kudisch repeating as Conrad. All of the original songs as well as "A Giant Step" were retained, with Williams and Daly getting additional new numbers. While the TV film was miles closer than the '63 movie to the original Broadway text, it was not a ratings success.
But with the current revival in interest in traditional musical comedy, Birdie will surely make it back to Broadway. With the riotous, high-powered vaudeville show known as 'The Producers' the musical comedy of the moment, it's worth noting how different it is from Birdie, a model of musical comedy as it was 40 years ago. Charming, sweet, simple, and innocent, Birdie boasts an appealing central relationship, a wholly delightful score, and an adept, topical, funny libretto. And its trump card was the breakout staging by one of Broadway's finest. Even in this non-innovative piece, Champion was already moving beyond the traditional with cinematic transitions and other inventive devices.
And then there's Rivera, who has proven to be every bit as indestructible as her early hit vehicles. Few if any women who played leading roles in Broadway musicals in 1960 are still at it. But Rivera has never stopped, with recent mountings of 'Chicago' and 'Anything Goes', and the world premiere of 'The Visit by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Terrence McNally'. Nor has she forgotten her first leading role. At last year's City Center gala 'My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs', she was seen performing "An English Teacher" and "Rosie" from Bye Bye Birdie.