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Charles the Great

Filichia pays tribute to Charles Strouse, the composer of Bye Bye Birdie, Annie, and other shows. logo
Charles Strouse
Who has done the most to get young people interested in musical theater? Jonathan Larson, who wrote Rent? Well, I see your point. Rodgers and Hammerstein? Granted, they did write many a show that became quite a few kids' very first musical. And how about Stephen Schwartz, with Godspell, Pippin, and now Wicked to his credit?

Good answers all, but I say that Charles Strouse takes the crown by virtue of having composed Bye Bye Birdie and Annie. Strouse's music -- combined with Lee Adams' lyrics and Michael Stewart's book -- made Bye Bye Birdie a seminal event for the generation of baby-boomers. It opened on April 14, 1960, just as many of us were entering our teenage years. Up till then, when most of our parents went to the theater, they ordered baby-sitters for us. Sure, there was the occasional Music Man or Sound of Music, but the action of those shows takes place long before we were born and so they didn't speak to us the way that Birdie did.

Strouse and his collaborators created a work that acknowledged our concerns: Going steady, talking on the telephone (to our parents' consternation), making a pop icon out of a singer whom our folks couldn't stand, and fighting to be thought old enough to make our own decisions. But a grand part of the show's appeal was Strouse's unapologetic rock 'n' roll songs for Elvis Presley stand-in Conrad Birdie. They were simply unlike any others that we'd heard on our rare trips to Broadway; suddenly, going to a musical was exciting and contemporary and cool.

Those of us who didn't see the show on Broadway or on tour were assuaged by the 1963 movie version or the endless community theater and high school productions in which so many of us played Kim or Hugo, Rosie or Albert, Mr. McAfee or Mae. How many performers must acknowledge that Birdie was a substantial building block of their careers? Susan Watson, Michael J. Pollard, Susan Egan, Belle Calaway, and Marc Kudisch are just a few who come to mind. (The show didn't do so badly for adults, either. Chita Rivera, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, and Charles Nelson Reilly are just some of those who profited from appearing in Bye Bye Birdie.)

In 1977, Strouse had an even bigger hit than Birdie, this time with book writer Thomas Meehan and lyricist Martin Charnin. If the previous show was the favorite of young people, Annie would be the favorite of even younger ones. How many little girls attended this show about the small but brave orphan named Annie and just had to get up there and play her? (For that matter, how many little boys did, too? Next week, a new musical on just such a subject is getting its first reading.) Andrea McArdle, Sarah Jessica Parker, and plenty of others made entertainment inroads because of Annie and, once again, adults were served as well. The show was certainly the highlight of Dorothy Loudon's career and many a supporting player finally got a starring role as the evil Miss Hannigan.

Now, a respective 44 and 27 years after the premieres of these musicals, not only will the sun come out tomorrow, but so will new productions of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie somewhere in the world. Many more young, first-time theatergoers will fall in love with the art form thanks to these shows, and don't forget that the only thing they have in common is Charles Strouse. No one else who worked on Birdie also worked on Annie. Strouse is the only link between the two.

As if these two shows aren't enough to make him the person who has hooked more young people on Broadway than any other, let me throw in one of his lesser-known musicals. For over the years, when I've asked people to tell me the name of the first show they saw, dozen of times I've heard, "It's a Bird...It's a Plane...It's Superman." So let's add that musical to the mix.

Needless to say, I was delighted when Strouse was honored by the Friars Club on Monday night. This had to be the sixth tribute to Strouse that I've attended, and I'd say we're getting close to the number this man deserves. For it isn't just his musical talent that's extraordinary. In fact, it may even be eclipsed by his niceness. Over the years, I've seen more than 100 people approach him out of the blue and begin talking; without fail, he's always been lovely and gracious.

Tribute producer Randie Levine Miller said that Strouse was "Broadway's past, present, and future." She and musical director Michael Lavine didn't just get the troops to perform Strouse's ace trumps but also had them acknowledge his many wonderful songs that should have received greater acclaim. So while Eric Comstock offered top-notch renditions of "A Lot of Living to Do" and "Once upon a Time," and Peter Howard caressed the ivories in "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile," there was Anna Bergman singing "Blame It on the Summer Night" -- which has to be one of the most beautiful show songs of all time. How nice that Jason Graae did the de rigeuer title song from Applause but also did a song dropped from that score: "'Smashing!' -- New York Times." Len Cariou sang the title song from Dance a Little Closer, then was joined by Penny Fuller for "One of a Kind" (which meant that Eve Harrington once again supplanted Margo Channing). After Cariou left the stage, Fuller did her 11 o'clock number from Applause, "One Halloween." She performed it with such fury and brio that she got one of the largest huzzahs of the night.

Barbara Carroll did the lovely "It Would Have Been Wonderful" from Annie Warbucks and the equally effective "Is There Anything Better Than Dancing?" from Nick & Nora. Norm Lewis, who was in Golden Boy at Encores!, did that score's "This Is the Life." And, in a nod to what's yet to come, Christianne Tisdale performed "It Could Happen," Clara's song from Marty in which the character is excited about her upcoming date with a doctor. (She's unaware that she'll soon be foisted onto a butcher.)

Not even emcee Rex Reed's not-so-hot jokes (and one extraordinarily tasteless one) could spoil the show. And I've yet to mention that Andrea McArdle and Martin Charnin (who quite correctly called McArdle "the first and only Annie") got the next-to-closing spot in which to perform Charnin's new lyrics to "I Don't Need Anything but You." They wittily concluded, "And who spent decades with four kids and just one spouse? It can't be anyone but Strouse!"

Andrea McArdle
After McArdle sang "Tomorrow" -- with, I daresay, more pitch, power, and soul than ever before -- Strouse took to the stage and reminisced about his many collaborators. "I've had intimate relations with so many men -- though I'm still straight," he quipped. Among his memories: that when he worked with Sammy Cahn on the unproduced Bojangles, he'd only have to play an arpeggio and Cahn was already setting lyrics to it; that Martin Charnin showed up with lyrics so beautifully typed and presented ("Marty's a graphic artist"), Strouse couldn't bring himself to criticize them; that when he worked with Don Black on a show that yet may surface ("We've had six librettists"), they had such fun that the demo tape they made is filled with laughter. Finally, he mentioned the time he forgot his wallet at home and had to borrow $40 from Alan Jay Lerner, only to have Lerner later claim he'd loaned him $90.

Then, after he sat at the piano and performed two of his standards that hadn't yet been covered -- "Those Were the Days," the song from TV's All in the Family that everyone in the nation knew in the '70s, and "Put on a Happy Face" -- we gave Charles Strouse a standing ovation along with the sound that says love: applause, applause, applause.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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