Looking Back on "Bye Bye Birdie"

When the Roundabout revival of Bye Bye Birdie opens this Thursday, it will mark the first time the show has been seen on Broadway since the original production closed in 1961. That first production starred Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke, with Paul Lynde, Kay Medford, Dick Gautier and Susan Watson filling out the rest of the principal roles. For director-choreographer Gower Champion, it was the beginning of his second career as a Broadway auteur. Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the score, an engaging mix of character numbers and gauche parodies of period rock and roll music.

I first saw the musical when I was in elementary school and a family friend was playing Rosie in her high school production. Only a few weeks later I found the original cast album in the store, on audio cassette no less. It marked my first purchase of an Original Broadway Cast Recording. Well, I began to listen to it ad nauseam. From its jubilant overture to affectionate finale I have always been endeared by its charm and effervescence.

Dick Van Dyke’s triumph brought him the Tony and the attention of Hollywood. After playing the role in New York for a year, he went to Hollywood to start work on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Champion won for his direction and choreography and the show itself won Best Musical, besting Do Re Mi and Irma La Douce (there was some scandal that Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot wasn’t even placed in nomination).

Tangent: That year Richard Burton in Camelot and Elisabeth Seal in Irma La Douce won as leading actors (she over Julie Andrews, Carol Channing and Nancy Walker, no less!) Van Dyke and Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (besting Chita) won for Best Featured Actor and Actress in a Musical. All four roles are considered leads in their respective shows and in the case of Grimes, it’s a star vehicle. But back then the rules were very rigid: above the title you were a lead and below the title you were featured or supporting. It’s not very fair for those who are genuinely offering a memorable supporting or featured turn to compete with their leads. Interestingly enough, Tammy Grimes’ name was moved above the title after winning the award.

Van Dyke was already in California when the awards were handed out. Back then there was no major telecast, only a small dinner ceremony in NY. Unceremoniously, Van Dyke was the only one home when he found a telegram under his doormat congratulating him on his win.

But I digress. The show was a decent hit in NY, running for 607 performances. The original London engagement with Rivera and Peter Marshall played for 268 performances. Then of course, there’s the film. Yes, it’s got Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde recreating their roles. Ann-Margret played the innocent Kim as a knowing vamp, with a memorable delivery of the title song over the opening credits (which was written specifically for the movie). Janet Leigh and Maureen Stapleton were on board as well. However, it just doesn’t work. Too much of the original story was altered, and as a whole it’s lacking. There was an early 90s national tour starring Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking; a 1995 made for TV movie starring Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams tried but failed to capture to the spirit of the original. The title even found itself as part of the City Center Encores! lineup in 2004.

Now, coming full circle, it will open at the refurbished Henry Miller’s Theatre this week. But before it does, I offer this glimpse back to the original cast performing selections on Ed Sullivan in November, 1960…

Dick Van Dyke tries to cheer up some of Conrad Birdie’s fans in a train station with “Put on a Happy Face”:

Paul Lynde performs the scene leading up to and including “Hymn To Ed Sullivan,” in which his character vents the frustrations at being inconvenienced by Conrad Birdie (an appropriately crass Dick Gautier):

Rosie, who’s waited eight years for Albert to give up the music industry to get married, vents her frustrations toward Albert’s mother, who is constantly berating Rose for her Spanish heritage. Fed up, she offers “Spanish Rose”: