The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Beauty & the Beast

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bye Bye Birdie

April 4, 1963   Columbia   102 minutes
December 3, 1995   ABC   131 minutes
From the moment I first heard the original cast album on Esther Koenig's Magnavox stereo, Bye Bye Birdie put my world into a musical context. As my best friend's mother, Esther was, for me, the emblem of American living and good housekeeping--Canoga Park style. Aside from my own few records, we had the radio on at home to the most Easy Listening of stations--which despite the valium-laced arrangements introduced me to much of the Bway songbook. Pop ditties played in the zeitgeist, but I preferred the more adult selections, the sort I'd first hear in Esther's living room. Birdie was especially seminal. Here was exactly how our suburban Southern California universe (circa early JFK) sounded to these evolving Bway-centric ears. Was there ever a score so sunny? So bouncy, so crisp yet full-bodied; so full of melodic rahadlakhum? Over fifty years Bye Bye Birdie has probably given me more hours of pleasure than any other single musical. No thanks to the film. Which nonetheless, I've seen a dozen times.

The musical had seeped into my veins long before I first saw the movie. Every note from the album connected to some part of my life or ignited my imagination. In one sense, it was a New York musical, or at least it starts out as one--feeding my fantasies of Bway. But if the bulk of the story takes place in "Sweetapple, Ohio," it was all Canoga Park to me. (The film's exteriors, shot not twenty miles away, only reinforced that concept.) The tunes conjure elegiac scenes of childhood (whether real or imagined) and generate that inchoate sense of excitement that rides on the wings of anticipation. It didn't hurt that I came upon the album at 8 or 9, when even the show's teenagers were senior to me. (In fact, the pic's youngest McAfee, Randolph, is played by a kid born exactly one week before me.) Then, of course, Birdie is about youth.

It began as a sort of riposte to West Side Story; a look on the lighter side of juveniles. Stage manager Ed Padula wanted to become a producer and he put together the (mostly) untested elements that made the show, beginning with composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams. Strouse, who came from a serious music background had limited knowledge of pop, but would find a quick felicity for stage music--bringing perhaps the best mix of pop sensibility into the R&H mold. It was the most startling Bway composing debut since Adler & Ross burst forth with Pajama Game. When Padula failed to interest either Fred Astaire or Morton DaCosta in directing his musical, Gower Champion took a shine to it. But Champion hated the script, so five more librettists (including, briefly, Mike Nichols & Elaine May) were recruited before Michael Stewart, a Catskills camp acquaintance of Strouse & Adams, finally found the key: the drafting of Elvis Presley into the army. What first had been a story about a teenage girl trying to lose her virginity and kids trying to keep their parents from divorcing, became instead a peek behind the curtain of teenage fandom. And tho the show is about Youth, it is written--as was virtually everything on Bway in those days--for Adults. Coming on the heels of Gypsy, The Sound of Music and Fiorello!, Birdie was one of those out-of-nowhere smash hits, with mostly novice talent; the kind of show that breeds hope in the hearts of the young and ambitious. And proof that musical comedy could be just as smart and creative as the latest musical plays.

It's tempting to retell the musical's history, but Strouse has done so himself with such detail and delight in his recent Bway memoir, that further interest should be directed there. He also hated the title, (which to me connotes nothing but joy) but it sure beats the original, Let's Go Steady. Or a later one: Love & Kisses. The Elvis role (first named Conway Twitty--until they discovered a real one existed) was initially offered to Dick Shawn, who did a great Presley imitation in his standup act. But the role was looking miniscule at that point, and he quickly bowed out. For the show's lead, Albert Peterson, they wanted Jack Lemmon, but took a chance on Dick Van Dyke; a minor TV actor, who had scored a blip of attention in a revue with Bert Lahr & Nancy Walker called The Boys Against the Girls, that ran all of two weeks in November '59. Van Dyke was a lanky comedian with a squeeze of Lemmon and a pinch of Stan Laurel, suiting  a character afraid of ingesting a whole aspirin. Birdie's  female lead, Rose, was first written to be Polish (and subjected to endless Polish insults from Albert's mother, Mae). Carol Haney, who hadn't performed since Pajama Game, was first on board; rehearsed for weeks with Strouse, and then choked in audition. Eydie Gorme was approached, but got pregnant; then Shirley MacLaine (too busy in Hlwd), Helen Gallagher (too Irish), till someone suggested something completely out of the box: Chita Rivera. The Latin bombshell? True, she was perfect--aside from the Polish; so now it was Spanish (code for Puerto Rican) Rose, and Mae's barbs took on a edgier, more racial sting--dangerously so for a musical comedy. But it worked; and amazingly still does today. Of course Rose is only of Spanish extraction, which let Rivera move out of stereotypical roles, and allowed subsequent replacements, such as Gretchen Wyler on Bway and Janet Leigh on film, to pass--tho they were no more Spanish than Rivera was Polish. In great measure because of Birdie, Chita Rivera, along with Gwen Verdon, were my favorite Bway stars. And as I hadn't (yet) really seen them perform, this was based almost entirely on their recorded vocals--which revealed such vivid personalities. Chita has a true musical comedy voice, a sultry belt, with deep rich velvety tones, and diction of crystal clarity. And I hear she can dance too. Tho top-billed, both Rivera and Van Dyke would be Tony-nominated in the "featured or supporting" category because of an arcane rule (long since abandoned) that only those billed above the title were considered "leading" actors. Van Dyke won his Tony. Rivera lost to the similarly misplaced Tammy Grimes billed below the title, yet playing the titular Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Widely regarded as the first Bway musical to use rock 'n' roll; Birdie's score, in fact, doesn't signal a new musical era as much as herald the culmination of the R&H revolution. Take the first song, "An English Teacher," a concise summation of Rose & Albert's relationship and its current dillemmas; pure exposition, really, but amusingly told against a galloping tune; not what you'd call a "song," per se, but a full-fledged character aria. Hlwd considered it expendable, but it's indicative of the sophistication thruout the score. Strouse's melodic sense is fresh and sprightly, and Adams' lyrics funny and clever. The few rock tunes were written as parody but easily pass as genuine pop hits of the era. Catchy as they are, they pale next to the rest. There isn't a dud in the score. A few hits emerged: "Put on a Happy Face" (which later became the theme of the Hollywood Palace TV variety show and whose commercial use continues to this day); "A Lot of Livin' to Do," an anthem for Birdie and the teens, but not in the parody idiom of Birdie's songs, but a genuine, showstopping theatre song. "Kids" had a long post-show life, mostly in advertising; but I can't honestly say if "One Boy" was widely known at the time, or was it just a frequent ear-worm to me?--It's a very seductive melody. And then let's not forget, the show was for many years the most produced musical in the country--a natural for schools and amateur groups; utilizing a large, varied cast, with plenty of bit roles and parts for kids. The celebrated  teen opening chorale, "The Telephone Hour," famous for its Mondrian-cube set and Gower Champion's staging, also introduced Strouse's playful and creative use of meter--suggestive of rock 'n' roll, but wholly Bway. The score was immeasurably bolstered by Robert Ginzler's orchestrations; the first show after Gypsy to announce the new '60s Bway sound; large, pre-electronic orchestras, with bigger brass sections staffed with extraordinary musicians. In confluence with Columbia Records latest stereo mixing, an unmatched (for the time) purity of sound, the album positively sparkles, reveling in lush strings set against a quartet of flutes; sax and horns and a thumping bass. It sounds fresh even today.

The Elvis angle was lucky in more ways than a story hook. Presley was released from the army a month before the show opened on Bway and rushed back into the recording studio. During the musical's Bway run he released 11 singles (four of which went to #1). Elvis quickly resumed his film career as well, and by 1962 his were virtually the only original film musicals being made. (The Frankie & Annette tuners hadn't started yet) The rest--and the ones given care, respect, and money--were from Bway. Combining the two, in tone if not fact, made Bye Bye Birdie a natural for Hlwd. What a shame Columbia got the rights. If Hlwd was now respecting Bway's template, Columbia was the last to get the memo. Producer Fred Kohlmar, who shaped Call Me Mister, My Sister Eileen and Pal Joey into unrecognizable transgressions of their stage originals, was likewise given his way with Birdie. Naturally Presley was offered the role, but as usual was vetoed by Col. Parker, who refused to let The King parody himself. There was no shortage of other teen idols (Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson, Fabian) but Kohlmar put his focus on another angle; one that came in the shape of Ann-Margret. Not only did this shift the focus of the story, but made her the center of all the film's publicity. Bway ingenue, Susan Watson, played 15-year-old Kim McAfee, with a slightly old-fashioned soprano. 20-year-old Ann-Margret was another species, more Playboy Playmate than high school virgin (in concession her Kim is 16--what a difference a year makes!) With her role beefed up, with added tunes, this Birdie was stacked in another direction.

Still Albert & Rosie are ostensibly the leads. Perhaps now they could get Jack Lemmon (Kohlmar had just produced, at Columbia, Lemmon's last picture), and he would've been fine. But Van Dyke was not the unknown comic he was on Bway. He had just wrapped his first season on TV in Carl Reiner's new sitcom--playing a similar back-office show biz role--and was now a household name. (The sitcom's ratings and Emmys were still to come.) As for Chita. . . no such TVQ boosted her resume. You'd think her Latina Hlwd counterpart would be the obvious answer. Rita Moreno had just won an Oscar, for Chrissake, and for a musical to boot. But the "...ita" factor favored neither Chita nor Rita, but instead went Velveeta: in the guise of sunny blonde Janet Leigh--suffering an unconvincing black wig. The "Spanish" was whittled down to a few pointless mentions--none with any racial tinge. (She says "Ole!" at one point.) But it's telling that of the five cut songs--including the eleven o'clock number, "Spanish Rose"--four of them were Rose's. Despite the miscasting, Leigh is an appealing performer and ultimately she does the film no harm. Nor does she help it soar.
Gower Champion was regarded instrumental to the show's initial success, so he was naturally considered for the film's direction. But instead the mantle fell to George Sidney  --no stranger to movie musicals (Annie Get Your Gun, the '51 Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate, Pal Joey) if not exactly an up-and-comer, or an innovator. His main contribution here is to mold the show to highlight Ann-Margret. If  only he'd put as much attention to the script. Michael Stewart's Bway book was a model of comic economy; a quirky original story with a motley crew of characters--albeit white, middle-class and decidedly suburban. Is there another musical where everyone is trying to get out of Show Business? But Columbia, refuting the trend over at Warners, thought nothing of tinkering with Stewart's libretto, and went the old Hlwd route of wholesale rewrites. Curiously, the assignment went to Irving Brecher, who wrote Meet Me in St. Louis and several other musicals for MGM in the '40s, but virtually nothing else for over a decade. His defections from Stewart's libretto are many and often poorly motivated. Albert, who was somehow instrumental in Conrad's career on Bway (tho never quite clear enuf to me), is here a failed songwriter hoping to sell one song to Birdie.  So who is this Rose to pitch the superstar to Sullivan? Doesn't he have his own management overseeing his affairs? And who are they to drag him to Sweetapple and put him up at the McAfees? The film pushes Birdie's Sullivan appearance to the story's climax, which in theory is a good way to sustain the tension leading up to the big night. But on top of this was added an entirely superfluous obstacle involving the "Moscow Ballet" that is every bit as tedious as it is intrusive. (They had to add Russians to this mix--being the height of the Cold War). Brecher rewrites Albert's bourgeois dream of teaching English to being a bio-chemist, merely to justify the egregious sub-sub plot of his "invention" of speed in pill form (how naive we all were then!) tested first on a tortoise, then slipped to the Russian conductor who complies with a ballet on fast-forward (so fake it makes you groan). All this to provide false suspense to whether Sullivan has time to give Birdie his berth to buss Kim and sing "One Last Kiss." What?? Haven't we spent the whole first part of the film hearing how big the news of Birdie's draft is? Why would Sullivan have only 4 minutes to donate to the country's biggest media moment? And if that doesn't defy common sense, surely a last minute cut to a 30 second spot for Birdie (when those damn Russians switch to a longer ballet) is positively ludicrous. Who could believe Ed wouldn't cut The Ray Bloch Orchestra, or small-time acrobats, "Frank, Dean & Sammy" (both actually shown as Sullivan's guests for that evening)--to showcase the biggest pop star in America about to go into the Army? Equally headscratching is the switch of reactions to Hugo's slugging Birdie on live TV. On Bway, Kim is enraged, and Albert ruined as the first act closes. In the movie's climax the very same action makes Hugo a hero to Kim, and Albert a pharmaceutical genius; washing his hands of show biz to partner with McAfee in the manufacturing of amphetemines. Welcome to the '60s.

In other changes songs were relocated or put in different context; five eliminated entirely, if not wisely. Clearly, this wasn't your Bway or high school Birdie. No, this was to be an Ann-Margret musical, in the mold of an Elvis musical (a franchise George Sidney would continue--with Elvis, no less--in their next picture: Viva Las Vegas.) He makes that clear at the top, with the now lionized clip of A-M on treadmill against blue-screen singing a new title tune. (Charles Strouse writes about the whole saga of his paid trip to Hlwd for the assignment that sounds like a page out of Mad Men--which used that very clip as springboard for an ad campaign.) Indeed her numbers are the film's highlights; the reverse striptease of "How Lovely to Be a Woman," the pastoral lullaby that's "One Boy," the saucy title tune that bookends the movie; but most of all the production dance-off that's "A Lot of Livin' the Do"--which is trashy fun, despite an absurd reimagining as some sort of footwork duel. But what kind of place is this? By all appearances a nightclub--called the Rendezvous--but one that caters to underage teens? Were there ever such venues? And in small-town Ohio? It's one thing to have a rowdy roadhouse, "Maude's" that figures in later shenanigans for the adults, but this place is sheer fantasy. At any rate, Birdie mingles casually with the natives, (Pearson strutting about in white boots like a graceless seal), while Kim and Hugo play out their jealousies. Choreographer Onna White, scratching all of Gower Champion's imprint, puts the cast thru her own paces, but her moves aren't remotely reflective of the time's dance grooves, but a fake "chicken wing" shuffle that's a good deal less convincing than her robust ensemble numbers in Music Man. 
Still, A-M, in pink stretch pants and a ruffled midriff-bearing blouse (and Rydell in ubiquitos sweater/sneakers) get to thrash with abandon in feverish form--the signature "Ann-Margret" style. (Pearson's too old to get that jiggy.) The other teen numbers are likewise enjoyable if not fully realized. "The Telephone Hour" takes advantage of the multiple locations that could only be hinted at on Bway's cubed set--tho taking artistic license with absurdly ubiquitos telephone lines decades before the cordless. (The song has a great build, but one defect: they never could find a button--the perfect ending that pleases the ear. Here it turns to into a collage that melts--audibly as well as a visually--which, admittedly is better than the drawn out "Ohhhh, yeahhh!" usually heard.) Birdie's "Honestly Sincere" works, despite Pearson's lackluster presence, because of the scale of the ensemble. It appears to take place on the same town square where "Trouble" was shot for The Music Man. (Both shows, incidentally, concerned with alarming trends of youth--both so innocent in light of the real changes soon to come.)

You'd think "Put on a Happy Face" would be a surefire charm song however it's done, but it was originally a problem spot, until Marge Champion suggested moving it from the second act opener to a spot in the first where Albert cheers up a couple of moping teens at Penn Station. The film dispenses with this sequence entirely (thereby cutting the delightful "Healthy, Normal American Boy" as well) and gives the song to Albert and Rose--perhaps in consolation for cutting so many of her numbers. It illustrates, anew, the inexact science of song placement--working off the song's familiarity, but losing all the inherent charm. Anticipating this, they add some cheesy bits of animation and a double-exposure ghost effect for Leigh to tart the sequence up. It ends up severely diminshed. With "Spanish Rose" removed, there's greater emphasis on "The Shiner's Ballet" as Rose's shining hour. A justifiable showcase for Chita Rivera, it's less essential for Leigh--tho it must be said her dancing is preferable to her singing, which is remarkably flat thru-out. In truth, I've never much liked the Shriner's Ballet--not for it's labored under-the-table choreography; but even less for its musical composition; strictly unrelated dance music by John Morris that uses no motifs from Strouse--a most curious choice. And that leaves the finale: "Rosie." On stage, an audacious, gentle fade of an ending with a tune that sends the audience out on a cloud. Here a quick wrap-up, ignoring any and all consequences of the Sullivan debacle, and a purported completion of a song Albert had previously been unable to finish. (Mae, aghast: "You wrote her a song?" Albert: "Just the first eight bars.") But the final notes are barely played before we're rushed back to the blue screen and A-M, singing off Birdie--reminding us again just whose movie this really is. (Why else would Sidney include an extraneous scene where Kim dyes her hair to her parents outrage--except as an excuse to give us two flavors of A-M; scarlet-tressed and honey blonde--take your pick.)

Columbia released the film on April 3, 1963 at Radio City Music Hall and nationwide, just in time for Spring Break. (Just as West Side Story was ending its 77 week Roadshow run at the Rivoli.) Commerically, if not artistically, Bye Bye Birdie was a smash; bigger than any Elvis flick, rounding up $6,000,000 in rentals and taking 9th place for the year--one heavy with top-grossing, Roadshow epics (How the West Was Won; Cleopatra The Longest Day, Lawrence of Arabia, Mutiny on the Bounty). My parents were going to movies less and less, and as I was in fourth grade I wouldn't get to see the film for several more years--in re-release at our nearby (biking distance) Fallbrook theater. By then I knew the album intimately, and had even seen--and loved--the musical live on stage at our local Valley Music Fair (starring Jerry Van Dyke and Rose Marie--topped-billed as Mae, not Rosie). At the cinema, I couldn't help but get into the spirit, but disappointment lingered as well. It seemed dumbed-down, more teen-centric, which given my own age should've been an asset. But I knew, and loved the more adult aspects of the show, and missed them in the movie. Still, twinkly Friday night lighting and cozy suburban sets like the McAfee house and garden were a comforting template for adult living--at least as depicted in that final spring of American innocence before the turbulent turn of the sixties.

Perfectly capturing both style and spirit of a halcyon time made Bye Bye Birdie a musical beloved by kids and elders alike. So the idea of a sequel wasn't a bad idea in itself, but the execution--even with the participation of Strouse & Adams, Michael Stewart, and Chita Rivera  --was unfortunate. Bring Back Birdie was thoroughly trashed and closed after 3 nights in March of '81. Thus it took thirty years for the original musical to get a serious professional revival. Tommy Tune, together with Ann Reinking staged a brisk, fresh version with several new songs by Strouse & Adams. Michael Stewart's book was given a quick polish, and Tune--coming off triumphs and Tonys for Nine, My One & Only, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies--put new sparkle into the staging. But he refused to bring the show to New York--claiming he'd never stage a revival on Bway (a vow he'd break two years later with Grease--his last show on Bway to date). Birdie toured the country instead, where I gleefully ran to it in Long Beach. Tune is a strange performer--rarely credible as a characater other than himself, and his Albert was no exception. But as a director/choreographer he was the last of his line (the Robbins-Kidd-Fosse-Champion-Bennett generation) and his work here was typically masterful. Reinking reinstated the Rivera workout, and the show put Kim back into secondary focus. Tune's production didn't take the country by storm, but it did lead to ABC deciding on Birdie as a follow up to CBS' TV ratings-hit, Gypsy. For one thing, Birdie's motion picture veered much further from its Bway origins then did Gypsy--which alone would justify a do-over. But also, the passage of time turned a contemporaneous show into a period piece. A period many still fondly remember.

To direct, ABC hired Gene Saks, whose seven previous films were of Neil Simon plays or Bway comedies (plus Mame--which we will get to in good time). But whoever cast this movie gets top kudos. Vanessa Williams had recently succeeded Chita Rivera (still dancing on Bway, three decades on) in Kiss of the Spider Woman, which made her something of an heir to the mantle. If she wasn't (as many a Rose wasn't) exactly Spanish, she was at least a woman of color--to say nothing of beautiful and talented. Physically, Jason Alexander is the opposite of Van Dyke or Tune, but his major fame as a comic actor obscures his chops as a musical performer, capable of charm and grace, and possessed of a velvety voice. He's in fine form here. George Wendt (from TV's Cheers) was a smart choice for McAfee--avoiding any comparison with Paul Lynde's sarcasm & delivery. Stage and cabaret actress, Sally Mayes pumps some real character into Mrs. McAfee; and Jason Gaffney gives Hugo a goofy vulnerablity. The one misstep is Chynna Phillip's Kim, who at 27 is seven years older than A-M was in the role, and more supermodel than playmate. (And here's a thought: why is Kim always the prettiest one? Why couldn't she as easily be the fat or plain one, the Kathy Griffin; and Ursula be the knockout? Just wondering.) As part of the singing group Wilson/Phillips (and progeny of half the Mama's & Papa's; John & Michelle Phillips) Chynna has a pleasant pop voice, but little personality (much like her mother), and she's the weak link here. Good as most of the others are, three in particular gave indelible, definitive performances. First off: Brigitta Dau's Ursula. Yes, Kim's best friend, that barely-there role: Ursula. She is age perfect, but also so deeply sincere in her idol worship that you wish there was much more of her. She gets a new scene, all her own to command--a welcome inclusion of the title tune, incorporated from the movie but now inserted in the narrative. Strouse & Adams wrote a long new bridge for the song, and the five-part harmony for Ursula and her posse takes the song back from Ann-Margret, and makes it a real joy to behold. (Indefensibly, it's missing from the Soundtrack album) This scene makes such dramaturgical sense, and is so delightful it should be mandatory in every stage revival from now on. For many years I couldn't stomach Tyne Daly--she struck me as grating and unpleasant. I couldn't bear her Rose in Gypsy. Then I saw her Mae Peterson where she's so artfully grating and unpleasant, and found her simply brilliant. She milks every ounce from the role, shirking none of the unabashed racism or suffocating martyrdom she inflicts on her infantalized "Sonny Boy." She gets a new song in the bargain: a near-vaudeville turn, called, "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore." She's eerily memorable, emerging from a pond, soaking wet in mink, to negotiate with Rose, and then fainting back into the water as the scene's punchline. You gotta love her willingness to push the envelope. But top honors go to Marc Kudisch--who perfected Conrad in Tune's stage tour--and is by far the best Biride I've ever seen. Square jawed and almost lewdly handsome, he moves and sings like nobody's business, justifying the teenage hysteria Birdie generates. His "Honestly Sincere" is genuinely exciting--the hypnotic fever he releases is so palpable it's entirely convincing. (And how great, and true, that boys as well as girls are in his thrall--unlike the first film, which suggests only femmes could be fans; males only jealous haters.) Unlike Pearson, Kudisch makes his presence felt every moment he's on screen. Makes you wonder how Elvis might've been, spoofing his own charisma, opposite Ann-Margret.
There is so much that's good about the '95 Birdie that it's tempting to overrate it. For starters the script is the original blueprint, with some funny additions in the margins. Sleeping arrangements are explored in two instances: one with Randolph McAfee sharing his parents' bed--and nearly crushed in the bargain; another with Albert suffering a night in bunks with Mae curdling a lullaby. Or how about a despondent Hugo picking out a low-key "Honestly Sincere" on his own guitar. The full McAfee clan are introduced while the TV announces the (parallel) "Father Knows Best" family; Harry watching stonefaced at the "comedy." Beyond these bits, all five songs cut by Columbia are restored--and then some: reprises and four additions on top of that. The aforementioned title tune, and Mae's solo both work well, but a new song for Rose in place of her coda to "One Boy," is a real misstep. The problem with "Let's Settle Down," (for which Strouse & Adams would win an Emmy) is that it sounds like a song from another era (the late '70s at least) and feels unlike anything else in score. It's even needlessly reprised in the second half. Albert's declaration of independence, "A Giant Step" (written for Tommy Tune in his production), is musically appropriate, but a drag on the running time. But with "Put on a Happy Face" back where it belongs, and with Jason partnered with an adorable teen girl and set in a polished Penn Station set  the number is every bit the charmer it's supposed to be. On its heels, "A Healthy, Normal American Boy," is equally optimal (introducing Birdie for the first time, showing his comic timing even in a song he hasn't a single note to sing). And even without Paul Lynde, "Ed Sullivan" (or "Hymn for a Sunday Evening" if you want to get picky) is far improved here, too. Instead of the blue-screen and choir-robe treatment from '63, we get an artfully staged neighborhood communion. (For the first time I realized that Sullivan is never mentioned in the play before this scene, whereas Janet Leigh is pitching the idea to Ed at the very start of the movie.) "The Telephone Hour" uses quick cuts and mutiple locations nicely (and only fails--again--as it reaches for an ending.)  The restored songs, "What Did I Ever See in Him" (with a new reprise for Albert); "Baby, Talk to Me," and "Spanish Rose" are all fine--the last especially fun in the flirtations of four barflys indulging Rose's "rant." But what should be a high point of the second act, "A Lot of Livin' to Do" is symptomatic of a steady sputtering toward the end. The song starts out well with Conrad, then Kim, setting out to pursue the night's adventures, but doesn't build to where it should--it looks, embarrassingly, as if they ran out of money during filming. As it was, the film was lensed in Canada to keep costs down; but then British Columbia is a closer match to the topography of Ohio than Southern California.

Given a three-hour berth on ABC, the second half, in particular, feels padded. The film was obviously edited for commercial breaks, but unfortunately never cleaned up for DVD release--a relatively simple task that would have immeasureably shaped and improved the film's aesthetic value. With all the extra numbers, the night stretches to a breaking point. Yes, "Spanish Rose" is delightful, but the Shriner's Ballet serves the same purpose (I just don't get this dance: why do the men all freeze in fear and pretend she isn't there? It's tedious--all that business under tables!) Similarly, does Albert really need "Baby, Talk to Me" and "A Giant Step"? Add to that the sloppy narrative and editing of outraged elders searching for their missing teens, and you long for a pair of scissors. Fortunately, good pacing is restored in the final scene--set in welcome daylight after a very long night--at the Sweetapple train depot. Albert shuttles Conrad and Mae back to New York, and the show's finale, "Rosie" is back to its modest, yet satisfying conclusion--if fuzzy fadeout; a victim of indifferent TV editing.

After Gypsy's unexpected smash ratings on CBS, hopes were high for Birdie's broadcast on December 3, 1995. Despite a TVQ-friendly cast and heavy promotion, the show was a big disappointment for ABC. But from this corner the remake was a worthy corrective, and a frequent delight. After ten viewings I still find much to enjoy. If they came up short in "A Lot of Livin' to Do," and "One Boy" and "The Telephone Hour," they did justice to the rest, and some numbers--"Honestly Sincere," "Put on a Happy Face," "Ed Sullivan," "Healthy Normal, American Boy," "Bye Bye Birdie," (in a wonderful new scene); "Spanish Rose," "Rosie"--are so fully realized it's hard to imagine them any better. Sadly, I can't gauge if this remake has any traction in the 21st Century--an artifact from a decade mainly indifferent to the musical. But the show lives on. In 2004 Encores! put on a thoroughly polished concert production, with a lackluster, if competent, cast lead by Karen Ziemba and Daniel Jenkins (talk about low voltage) with Doris Roberts as Mae. The score, at least, was magnificently played. I missed the first actual Bway revival in 2009, but by all accounts it was a complete misfire in casting (John Stamos, Gina Gershon, and Bill Irwin--putting his clowning resume to horrifying affect--as McAfee) and in concept (by director Robert Longbottom). The show will survive this slip, and someday a dazzling new revival will light up Bway, I've no doubt.  Whether I'll be around to see it is another matter. But Bye Bye Biride has a permanent place in my DNA. If initially it gave my world a soundtrack, it likewise put music to my yearnings; for life, for New York, for fame, fortune and adventure. Fifty years later I find what I've really been chasing all this time is the comfort and serenity of home--my own Sweetapple of the mind, as it were: the American Dream as even my parents might have imagined it--an oasis from the chaos and turbulence of an ever-changing world. Now, whether I'm at my mid-century desert retreat or city apartment (both childhood fantasies realized) any clear, clement Friday evening will conjure up that certain feeling of summertime contentment that has always been the heart and soul, to me, of Bye Bye Birdie. Three silly words that forever make me smile.

Next Up: Irma La Douce

Report Card:    Bye Bye Birdie   1963
Overall Film:    B-
Bway Fidelity:  C  
Musical Numbers from Bway: 10  
Musical Numbers Cut from Bway:  5
New Songs:  1:  "Bye Bye Birdie"
Worst Omissions: "Normal American Boy"
    "Spanish Rose" "Baby, Talk to Me" 
Standout Numbers:  "A Lot of Livin' to Do"
  “How Lovely to Be a Woman" Opening Titles         
Casting:  Schizophrenic
Standout Cast:  Ann-Margret, Paul Lynde
Sorethumb Cast:  Jesse Pearson
Cast from Bway:  Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde
Cast from Mars:  Maureen Stapleton
Direction:  Old School
Choreography: Onna White inda black 
Ballet:  D  The Shriners Ballet
Scenic Design:  Backlot Suburbia
Costumes:  Cartoonish (esp. Birdie's)
Standout Sets: McAfee house and garden
Titles:  Musically rousing, expositionary--tracing national reaction to Conrad's drafting
Oscar Noms:  2, musical scoring, sound
Camp Hall of Fame: "A Lot of Livin' to Do"
   (for all the teen dances no one ever did)
Report Card:    Bye Bye Birdie   1995
Overall Film:    B+
Bway Fidelity:  A-  
Musical Numbers from Bway: 15  
Musical Numbers Cut from Bway:  0     
New Songs:  3; plus "Bye Bye Birdie"
Standout Numbers:  "Put on a Happy Face"
     “Healthy, Normal American Boy"         
      "Honestly Sincere" "Spanish Rose"
      "Hymn for a Sunday Evening"
      "Bye Bye Birdie" "Rosie"
Casting: Excellent, well-considered
Standout Cast:  Marc Kudisch, Tyne Daly, 
      Vanessa Williams, Brigitta Dau
Sorethumb Cast:  Chynna Phillips
Direction:  Sharp but undercut by editing
Choreography:  Lively Ann Reinking
Ballet:  C  The Shriners Ballet
Scenic Design:  Low key, low budget
Costumes: Simple, attractive, period perfect
Standout Set: Pennsylvania Station
Titles:  Period footage of screaming girls-dull
Emmy Noms:  3; Hair, Scoring, Song:
 (Strouse & Adams won for "Let's Settle Down")

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