Bringing Back Memories of Birdie
Twenty-one years ago, a preview audience gave the bird to a horrendous Broadway musical sequel.
Had a nice time at the 57th Street studios of Satellite XM, the radio service that has two satellites in the sky, each of which beams out digital-quality entertainment to its subscribers. Most of the 50,000 people signed up use the service while driving, no matter where they're driving. If you start motoring in Maine and continue to California, you'll still get the same perfect sound from whichever of XM's 100 stations you choose, thanks to those powerful satellites up above.
I suspect that you, as I, will be more interested in Channel 28 than any other station--not only because it's one of the 35 that are commercial-free, but also because it's called "On Broadway." Bill Schmalfeldt, who hosts this channel, recently asked me to come on and talk about some "Fabulous Flops," as he called them, whose music he was featuring in an upcoming series. And so I commented on such shows as All-American ("A show that brought bookwriter Mel Brooks considerably less success than the one he did last year") and Darling of the Day ("It was called Married Alive when I caught the tryout in Boston, where it was the worst musical I'd ever seen up to that time--though it's since been eclipsed by hundreds of others").
But it turned out that the show I spoke about at greatest length was Bring Back Birdie, the sequel to Bye Bye Birdie that reunited bookwriter Michael Stewart, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist Lee Adams. I know I'll never forget that first preview at the Martin Beck on January 26, 1981. As I speedily walked down Eighth Avenue--I was that excited!--and turned onto 45th Street, there above the building was the best roof sign on Broadway, stating in bright lights: Donald O'Connor/Chita Rivera/Bring Back Birdie." Underneath the marquee was a dense group of theatergoers. I checked my watch and saw that it was 7:16pm. I knew I was early, but I was impressed that everyone else was, too. (People always do turn up early for a hit: They want to make sure that their tickets are in order, they can't wait to get in, and they're taking no chances on missing even a second of the excitement.)
What I also noticed was that most everyone was in his mid-thirties--around my age at the time--and that made me smile in recognition. For many of us, Bye Bye Birdie was the first show we ever saw. (While it was my third, it was the first touring company I ever caught, at the Shubert in Boston on November 1, 1961.) Those of us who loved the show came out en masse for the movie in 1963. While it's no masterpiece, it did have enough teen-oriented excitement (and Ann-Margret) to keep us coming back for more, and more, and more: From its opening in late June through its leaving the Astor Theater in August, I attended 10 times.
So, in 1981, there I was with hundreds of other early-middle-aged theatergoers who had a Bye Bye Birdie history similar to mine. When the doors opened, we poured in, chatting excitedly about the prospect of revisiting Albert, the English teacher; Rosie, his secretary-turned-wife; and Conrad Birdie, the king of rock 'n' roll (as we called that form of music once upon a time). We also hoped to re-encounter Kim McAfee, the girl chosen to give Birdie one last kiss, and Hugo Peabody, her steady who kept her from doing so.
The intense crowd made it a difficult task to get to my front row mezzanine seat on the extreme right. We were all in the highest of spirits, chattering loudly, when director Joe Layton suddenly bounded onto the stage. He said something about the show not being quite ready, that some machinery wasn't yet working well, that one important cast member had been ill, and words to that effect--which affected us not at all. You could feel the unspoken message from everyone: "Joe! Calm down! You're worrying for nothing! This is the sequel to Bye Bye Birdie, written by the same exact people! It's gonna be great!"
The show began, and the requisite entrance applause that we awarded Chita Rivera and Donald O'Connor was substantially sweetened by nostalgia. The fact that they were breaking into their old office to find a Conrad Birdie contract (in hopes that it still made him beholden to Albert) did seem a bit bizarre, but the opening song, "Twenty Happy Years," was pleasant enough. Not "An English Teacher," mind you, but pleasant enough to take our minds off the fact that they found the contract and a detective soon bounded in--not to arrest them but to say that Conrad was now living in retirement in Arizona.
If that seemed clunky, what was downright disappointing was the realization that Kim and Hugo would not be part of the story. In their stead, we got two new teenagers: the Peterson kids, Jenny and Albert, Jr. Both were thinking of running away from home--she with her boyfriend, which prompted two pop-rock tunes, "Movin' Out" and "Half of a Couple." The songs were nice enough--not as strong as the song that introduced us to the teens in Bye Bye Birdie, "The Telephone Hour," but nice. Next, Rivera's Rosie sang about the joys of being a stay-at-home mom who keeps house; then Albert insisted that she accompany him to Arizona to find Birdie. The kids would stay with relatives, so Rosie took them to a bus terminal where Jenny met and joined not the then-trendy Moonies, but the thinly veiled Sunnies. Meanwhile, Albert, Jr. hooked up with a punk rock band called Filth. Hmmm.
Albert and Rosie arrived in Arizona: She carried the luggage while he sang the ironic "Baby, You Can Count on Me," not nearly as good a song as "Put on a Happy Face." By now, we were starting to believe Joe Layton's disclaimers. The real knockout punch came not when we were introduced to a grossly overweight Conrad but when, a bit later, we saw and heard Albert, Jr. playing with his band. Each musician was sitting on a toilet, singing: "We are Filth. We are Filth. We are Fil-il-il-il-il-il-il-il, We are Filth!" while flushing in rhythm.
End of Act I. Lights up. Silence from the crowd...for a long second, anyway. Then, not applause but, from one theatergoer a low-pitched but loud "Booooooo!" What was astonishing is, that like "The Wave" in sports, it spread from the extreme left of the mezzanine to the center to the right.
A few years earlier, I had seen a movie called Earthquake that boasted not just sound but "Sensurround." Indeed it did, and the earthquakes shook the theater. But it didn't have nearly the surround-sound of this audience response to Bring Back Birdie. I've seen around 6,000 live theatrical events in my time, but I've never seen or heard an audience go from love to hate as quickly as it did in one hour at the first preview of Bring Back Birdie.