Friday, 13 June 2008

Well Well - Do tell!

Ten or so years ago the country, well most of the western world, was in shock. The dreaded event had happened. Yes, Take That had split up! This was by no means the first time that the world was “shaken” by events in the pop industry however. For that we have to look back around fifty years ago to the seismic shock that was felt at the news that Elvis Presley was going to do his national service! As you can imagine everyone was all shook up by this turn of events!

These days the rock and roll era is often featured in stage musicals – we only have to look at current west end hits “Grease” and “Hairspray” to realise that. Back in the late fifties though this was far from the case and it was the afore-mentioned seismic event that was to inspire one of the first musicals to feature “rock and roll”. As early as 1957 producer Ed Padula felt that it was time for rock and roll and indeed “the teenager” to take to the Broadway stage and he signed up composer Charles Strouse (“Annie”) and his collaborator Lee Adams. The writers had only ever written for a handful of revues and were certainly not familiar with writing rock songs but in the course of their “research” Strouse actually managed to write a bona fide pop hit with “Born To Late” for girl group The Poni-Tails in 1958. With the legendary Gower Champion coming on board for his directing debut along with Michael Stewart as book writer by 1960 work on the musical was complete and “Bye Bye Birdie” opened at the Martin Beck Theater for a successful run of over 600 performances.

The show tells the story of Albert Peterson the debt ridden manager of rock’n’roll star Conrad Birdie. Albert’s fiancĂ©, and secretary, Rosie is determined that Albert give up showbiz and become “An English Teacher” so hatches a plan for Conrad to have “One Last Kiss” with a girl, chosen at random, before he joins the army. All being well this will make Albert enough money to pay off his debts. The lucky girl is Kim McAfee so Albert, Rosie and Conrad – with Albert’s cantankerous mother Mae not far behind, head off to Sweet Apple, Ohio - Kim’s hometown - to put their plan into action. From the moment the show begins we know that we are going to get a happy ending but that doesn’t mean to say that there won’t be a few problems before that happens and believe it or not this is more or less all that happens in this slight yet delightful story.

With a mix of (then) contemporary Broadway type songs alongside a handful of tunes with a real rock and roll spin the score of “Bye Bye Birdie” is a joy from start to finish. Ed Padula’s idea of putting teenagers on the Broadway stage happens almost at the beginning, when the “Sweet Apple Teens” take over the stage in the classic gossipy “The Telephone Hour”. The infectious “Put On A Happy Face” is possibly the shows best known song but there are many others such as “One Boy”, “Rosie”, “One Last Kiss” and “How Lovely To Be A Woman”” which continue to have a life beyond the show and, if nothing else, put a big smile on your face. Amongst this cavalcade of catchy tunes I think my own favourite has to be the raucous “Lot Of Livin’ To Do” sung by Conrad and Kim.

As well as becoming a big hit it was “Bye Bye Birdie” that made a star of two of the biggest names in musicals. Chita Rivera had made her mark previously in “West Side Story” where she played the supporting role of Anita to great acclaim, but it was playing Rosie that made her a star. When the show came to London (Her Majesty’s ) Rivera made the trip across the Atlantic with it and of course since then she has become one of Broadways biggest names and has come over to London several times. The big discovery of the show was, without a doubt, Dick Van Dyke. It wasn’t long before he was starring on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” on TV and movie roles were not far behind. Dick returned to the role of Albert Petersen for the movie version (Opposite Janet Leigh as Rosie) which starred Ann-Margret as, a more prominent, Kim. Then “Mary Poppins” happened and the rest is history.

“Bye Bye Birdie” was a big hit in it’s day, and despite it rarely being produced on these shores, remains one of the worlds most performed musicals. With it’s American high school setting and young, largely female, cast it’s the ideal show for regional and school productions in the States. It’s for this reason that in 1995 ABCTV decided that they would make a new television version of the show with Jason Alexander (of “Seinfeld”) starring opposite soul diva Vanessa Williams (who having taken over from Rivera in “The Kiss Of The Spider Woman” seemed quite a good choice) as Albert and Rosie. This new version stayed closer to the stage show than the previous film (which had Albert becoming a chemist who invents speed) although it did introduce a few new songs. Williams was given the lovely “Let’s Settle Down” and as Tyne Daly (“Cagney And Lacey”) was cast as Alberts mother it was only right that she get her own song too with “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Anymore”. With a supporting cast drawn from televison (“Cheers” George Wendt), Pop (Chynna Phillips of Wilson Phillips) and broadway (Sally Mayes and Marc Kudisch) it’s this energetic and entertaining version that I am most familiar with and it’s definitely a lot of fun.

“Bye Bye Birdie” may well be the product of a more innocent age, but if you enjoyed “Hairspray” it may well be worth seeking out this 1960 show and joining in a chorus of “I love you Conrad, oh yes I do” , as you wait for him to have that “One Last Kiss”

At least four versions have been recorded with the original Broadway Cast Recording being easily available. It is definitely worth a listen to hear an early Chita Rivera showing the star quality that has made her a Broadway legend, and indeed the London cast recording also starring Chita is available too. I would miss out the original soundtrack as it’s not great and the film itself isn’t particularly inspiring. The 1995 TV movie is available quite cheaply through Amazon and (although it does wane a little at the end) is a lovely way to spend an afternoon, I believe that particular soundtrack has been deleted but if you can get it then do, as it’s fantastic!

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