Take off that gloomy mask of tragedy. Wipe off that full-of-doubt look. I know what you're thinking. Bye Bye Birdie at Encores!? A show that we've all seen 100 times and one that we've all done a dozen times in high schools and community theaters? Who wants to see again the story of composer Albert Peterson whose meal ticket, teen idol Conrad Birdie, is about to be drafted -- and the plan drafted by Rosie Alvarzez, Albert's secretary and true love, to have Kim McAfee give Conrad one last kiss before he heads off, much to the consternation of Kim's steady, Hugo Peabody.
I understand that Birdie doesn't fit the organization's original mission of performing neglected works that need to be rediscovered. But I predict that after performances of Birdie on West 55th Street, each audience member will have put on a happy face, even if he didn't expect to when he walked in.
Well, actually, that depends on the audience. If it's full of us baby-boomers, I daresay that an evening with Bye Bye Birdie will turn us into laughing, singing, dancing, grinning morons. The show was, for many of us, our first introduction to the theater -- back when we were skinny children of 14, wired with braces from ear to ear, with voices that squeaked like Harvey Johnson's. (The national company with Gretchen Wyler and Dick Patterson was the first show I ever saw in Boston.)
Even those whose parents didn't take them to Birdie on Broadway or on tour became fans of the property thanks to the 1963 movie version, in which Dick Van Dyke reprised his role of Albert and Ann-Margret was Kim. Said the film critic for Time, "She doesn't convincingly play a 15-year-old. But she doesn't even try." And A-M was so mesmerizing that many a fine, upstanding, patriotic, healthy, normal American boy didn't care.
Screenwriter Irving Brecher played fast and loose with Michael Stewart's plot, turning Albert from a would-be English teacher to a biochemist who has invented a super-amphetamine that can make a turtle speed across a room. Well, give Brecher credit for making the film cinematic: Albert's drug results in a Russian ballet troupe's dancing much too fast, allowing Birdie and Kim more time on The Ed Sullivan Show. Silly? Sure. But Brecher did what he set out to do in making the show teen-friendly, which is why it became 1963's 12th-highest-grossing film. The summer hit gave us adolescents a last bit of all-American carefree innocence before our world crashed down upon us with the assassination of John F. Kennedy a few months later.
And, oh, that infectious title song, dazzlingly delivered by Ann-Margret at the beginning and end of the picture! Sure, some of the lyrics are wonderfully foolish -- I wouldn't think that "class" could be described as "super-duper" -- but I vote that this title tune should be interpolated into the presentation at Encores!
Despite baby-boomers' affection for Birdie, I daresay it's been a while since we played our original cast LPs, encased in that double-fold album with the logo of the girl waving a handkerchief on its cover. Some didn't bother to replace it with the CD transfer, so after all these years, hearing the nifty score in a first-class presentation -- let's hope it'll be one -- will revive it for us in every sense of the word. We'll sit there fondly remembering those high school and/or community theater productions, recalling our old castmates and the good times we had with them. And given that amateur musicians are traditionally the weakest link of non-pro productions, won't it be fun to hear that lush, 30-piece orchestra when the strings swirl up as Rosie sings, "A man who's got his masters is really someone," not to mention the snazzy trumpet work in "Honestly Sincere?"
We'll also get a good laugh out of "Kids," now that life has aged us into a different perspective. Back in the '60s, when our parents agreed with Mr. McAfee -- "Why can't they be like we were, perfect in ev'ry way?" -- we rolled out eyes and didn't believe it for a second. But now that many of us have had our own children who have been tattooed and body-pierced, we do feel that, comparatively speaking, we were perfect. The more things change...
Of course, the main objection I've heard to Birdie's selection for Encores! is that the organization is supposed to choose shows that aren't likely for a Broadway revival. Well, maybe Birdie fits that criterion. Figures don't lie: It hasn't played the Main Stem since it closed in 1961, and a 42-year drought is one of the longest in this revival-packed era. Of the eight Tony-winning moneymakers that opened in the '60s -- Hallelujah, Baby! was a financial flop and doesn't count -- Birdie is the only one that hasn't been revived anywhere between 41st and 54th Streets. Seven Tony losers from the same decade have also revisited Broadway, and Little Me has reappeared twice. The closest Birdie came was in 1991, when a Tommy Tune tour skirted the city. (That production was done on the cheap; something's wrong when the actress playing the sedate Mrs. McAfee must double as vixen Gloria Rasputin.) Or maybe the closest brush we've had with the musical was the 1981 sequel Bring Back Birdie, about which I wrote 19 months ago. Yeah, it was a bomb, but you should have seen the excitement on the baby-boomers' faces as they walked in. (Not when they walked out.)
That excitement will be back in place when they get the real thing, what with 23 more years of nostalgia under their belts. And maybe, we will see a full-fledged revival if the show does well enough at Encores! So bring back the real Birdie and -- to paraphrase Brooks Atkinson's famous line from his 1960 Times review -- the audience will once again be beside itself with pleasure. And how about Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera doing cameos as the mayor and his wife? (No, wait a minute. That means Chita would have to fall down, and we don't want her to risk hurting herself. On the other hand, after that automobile accident in which two dozen pins were put in her leg and she recovered brilliantly, nothing can apparently keep this lady down.)
Whomever they get, let's all see Birdie the way it was before we're subjected to the proposed movie version that will update it to the world of hip-hop. The idea that, someday, that version may be presented on stage is what really worries me.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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