Quote of the Day: "Bye Bye Birdie" Edition

I don’t know what it is about a bomb that really brings out the creativity in journalists and critics. While there are a plethora of gems that I could cite from the universal evisceration received by Roundabout’s dead-on-arrival revival of Bye Bye Birdie, I’ll let you enjoy finding those on your own. But reading Harry Haun’s account of the opening night festivities on Playbill.com, I encountered this insightful passage with director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. Here the auteur-in-training talks about some of the touches that make this revival unique:

‘Longbottom has made quite a few alterations in the original text. “The first act wasn’t touched, not a word of it,” he quickly pointed out. “The second act—I wasn’t crazy about the way one thing flowed to the next. Nor were Charles and Lee, so we all put our heads together and looked for ways to make it a little more cinematic. “We found a better place to put ‘Kids,’ and I got rid of the Shriner’s Ballet, which I had no interest in doing. It was [the original director] Gower Champion’s number. It had nothing to do with the plot. It forwarded the plot nowhere. I didn’t really want my leading lady on her knees underneath a table, actually. Which is exactly what that was. I didn’t quite get that. I’m sure it was fabulous, but it wasn’t for me.”‘

Just sayin’…


I’ve long anticipated a Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie. The 1960 show, which took on the national frenzy over Elvis Presley’s drafting, was a sleeper hit and won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Its success made Broadway stalwarts of director-choreographer Gower Champion, composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Lee Adams and librettist Michael Stewart. The show brought Dick Van Dyke to the attention of Hollywood and made a bona fide Broadway star out of Chita Rivera. The musical has its share of detractors and granted it’s a well-worn property, but I’ve always found it pleasant. The score is quite memorable, in its mix of character songs and rock and roll parodies. The book has a great deal of charm and warmth, and in spite of some creaking it can still work. It’s never failed to entertain me. That is until now.

Bye Bye Birdie has been brought back to Broadway by way of the Roundabout Theatre Company in what is one of the most charmless, miscast and misdirected revivals of a musical I have ever seen. There was considerable hype surrounding this revival as it’s the first time the show has been on Broadway since the original closed in 1961. It is also the inaugural production of the new Henry Miller’s Theatre on 43rd Street. One can only hope that the theatre’s next tenant isn’t as colossal a disappointment.

There was excitement as the house lights went down and the orchestra struck up that familiar overture. That was short-lived. After a clever tableau establishing the MacAfee family behind a scrim came an unnecessary montage of video projections showing screaming fans and the revival’s Birdie, Nolan Gerard Funk, gyrating in period costume. For some reason, my heart started to sink. The broad, cartoonish nature of this prologue hinted that the powers that be didn’t trust the material. It turned out to be much worse.

TV star John Stamos is headlining as Albert Peterson, the nerdy mama’s boy composer and would-be English teacher. Stamos has tackled the Broadway musical in the revivals of How to Succeed, Cabaret and Nine, and his singing is somewhat pleasant, but too inconsistent. His acting consists of two-dimensional facial expressions and constant mugging. The show’s breakout hit song, “Put on a Happy Face” showcases Mr. Stamos in what looks to be an homage to Dick Van Dyke – if Dick Van Dyke suffered from St. Vitus’ Dance. The rest of the show he spends meandering around the stage pouting. Perhaps twenty years ago he might have made an appropriate Conrad, but he completely misses the mark as Albert.

Gina Gershon, who also showed up in Cabaret and scored good notices for her work in the very funny Boeing Boeing last season, is entirely out of her element. She cannot sing. She cannot dance. And she is entirely lost at sea performing musical comedy material. Instead of hitting the notes, she scoops, spins and rattles around the music with an unpleasant vibrato. On the rare occasions she’s actually on pitch, it’s still nothing to cheer about. She recently told reporters that the “Shriner’s Ballet” was cut because it was too “gang-rapey.” After several tepid high kicks and awkward spins, it became quite obvious that she just couldn’t have handled it. She also somehow manages to make Rose, for whom the audience should cheer, unnecessarily cold and unlikable. To her credit, Gershon was the hardest working of the leads, clearly trying to make sense of her character but ultimately falling remarkably short.

The role of Rose Alvarez was originally written to be Polish for Carol Haney. After Haney got sick, they signed Chita Rivera and made necessary rewrites. Rose is a Puerto-Rican American (by way of Allentown, PA) who is written without a single cultural stereotype, and in fact spoofs them in “Spanish Rose” late in the second act. Of all the talented actresses in New York City, there wasn’t one musical theatre actress of Hispanic descent that could have played the part? It would have been an ideal vehicle for Andrea Burns or Karen Olivo, et al.

Jayne Houdyshell, who gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in Well, is merely adequate as Albert’s overbearing, racist mother Mae. She scores a few laughs but seeming somewhat uncomfortable in the part. The immensely talented Dee Hoty is entirely wasted in the non-role of Mrs. MacAfee. While always a welcome presence, Ms. Hoty deserves a better part in another musical. Allie Trimm, of last season’s 13, plays the ingenue Kim MacAfee. She gets off to a winning start in “How Lovely to be a Woman,” but is the victim of the monotony going on around her. Matt Doyle mostly blends into the scenery as Hugo while Nolan Gerard Funk plays Conrad Birdie like Ricky Nelson on a bad day.

The most egregious casting is Bill Irwin as Harry MacAfee. The role was originated by Paul Lynde, who put a definitive stamp on the part of Kim’s irascible, put-upon father. Irwin hasn’t a clue what he’s supposed to be doing with the character or with musical comedy, and compensates with bizarre, unintelligible line readings. (Not to mention the gothic horror that is his singing voice). The only way I can think to describe his performance is as an unsettling hybrid of William Shatner on crystal meth and Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Mr Irwin was nothing short of brilliant with his Tony-winning triumph in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and fascinating in last season’s overrated Waiting for Godot. But his performance here is an epic fail for an otherwise stellar presence in New York theatre. The audience seemed to eat up his shameless, inappropriate shtick, but it also seemed that they were laughing at the show, not with it.

If there is anyone to blame for this mess, it is director-choreographer Robert Longbottom. For two and a half hours he has actors onstage singing and dancing without giving them any reason to do so. There is such incongruity and incompatibility that the principals seem more suited for a road company of Lifeboat. There is no chemistry between anyone and ultimately no reason the audience should care. The show is a heartfelt, gentle send up of late 50s culture and calls for someone like Gower Champion to guide it with a light touch and a stroke of genius. Longbottom’s presentation of period satire is akin to a child hammering a rectangular block into a circular hole. The show should be effervescent and fun. Instead it feels forced, contrived and joyless.

The dancing is bland and unoriginal, and some of the production numbers are distractingly unpolished. In the middle of the second act, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” comes out of nowhere and goes back there almost instantly. This particular number goes on far too long and lands with a dull thud, which applies to practically everything in this maelstrom. The powers that be pointlessly switched “Kids” and its reprise. “Spanish Rose” comes off as spiteful afterthought. By this point, no one cares. And just when you thought it was safe to leave the theatre, the show curtain flies up for a tacked-on rendition of the film’s insanely catchy title song leading into the curtain call.

The costumes by Gregg Barnes hammer home when the show is set, but instead of designing for character he has designed for cleverness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the migraine-inducing sea of color-coordinated pastels worn by the ensemble, who look like rejects from a flimsy Universal-International feature. Not helping matters at all is the hideous set by Andrew Jackness, which is made up of unsightly sliding panels and traveling set pieces. The iconic “Telephone Hour” is ruined by cluttered, busy phone booths that overwhelm the teenagers. Whether or not it was their intention, their work outwardly mocks the show and the period in which it’s set. While we’re talking design, the unflattering fright wig Ms. Gershon wears at the top of the show gives her an uncanny resemblance to Amy Winehouse.

Not everything was a total loss. It was nice to see teenagers playing teenagers and they sure give it their best. The ensemble boasts some folks I’ve enjoyed in other shows: namely Jim Walton (virtually unrecognizable as the bartender), John Treacy Egan and the always delicious Patty Goble. And then there was the precocious Jake Evan Schwencke as Randolph MacAfee, who was the only one with lines who seemed to have a grasp on what he was supposed to be doing.

In a big surprise, the orchestra sounds extraordinary with new charts by Jonathan Tunick that emulate Robert Ginzler’s originals. (Tunick was a protege of Ginzler, and the so-called “Ginzler flutes” in “Put on a Happy Face” are homaged in Tunick’s orchestration of “Waiting for the Girls Upstairs” from Follies). There are a whopping sixteen musicians listed in the Playbill. An orchestra this large is an unusual change of pace for Roundabout, who are notorious for skimping on the music.

Don’t be fooled by the cutesy advertising – the show is a bomb from the world go. If you’re looking to revisit this classic musical, you’d be better off waiting for your local high school or community production. Or if you need a quick fix, I suggest getting your hands on the superlative original cast album and having a listen at home. It’s worlds better than wasting your time and hard-earned money on the egg being laid by this Birdie at the Henry Miller.

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”:

Yet Another Remake of "Bye Bye Birdie"

It was announced today that Adam Shankman, the man who helmed the 2007 film adaptation of the Hairspray musical will present another remake of the classic Strouse & Adams Best Musical winner Bye Bye Birdie.

According to the playbill article, there have been plans for this remake for some time, including the possibility of updating it to the hip-hop era (which leads me to wonder, how would they work the whole drafting plot point, a major one at that). The original 1963 film featured Tony-winning original Dick Van Dyke repeated his stage success opposite Janet Leigh, Ann-Margret, Maureen Stapleton and fellow original company member Paul Lynde. A second made-for-TV remake in 1995 starred George Wendt, Vanessa Williams and Tyne Daly. While the latter is more faithful to the original stage show, neither can beat the original musical comedy as it plays onstage. Which leads me to my query, why is it that there will be three film versions and not a single Broadway revival of this delightful period satire?

Given that Hairspray was a huge success, I can understand the hiring of Shankman to direct and choreograph. However, factoring in Hairspray and its impending film sequel (as well as Bob: the Musical), I think Shankman might consider other musical properties to film or remake. (Whatever happened to that film version of Urinetown?). I say leave Bye Bye Birdie to the stage for right now, and let Shankman work on more original projects.

To Revive, or Not to Revive

South Pacific opened on Broadway in 1949, swept the theatre world by storm winning every award in sight (including the Pulitzer) and when it closed in 1954 wasn’t seen in an official Broadway revival until this year, where it rinsed and repeated the original, currently remaining one of the hottest tickets in town in spite of the other shows dropping like flies around town. This leads me to think on this boring night about the olderTony-winning Best Musicals that have yet to receive a revival on the Great White Way. (For intense purposes, I’ve left out those shows from Evita onward)

Applause. It received a failed revisal at the PaperMill Playhouse in 1996. It was also presented in its original form at Encores! which, in spite of a game if ailing Christine Ebersole, only highlighted the many flaws in the project. It’s presentation at Encores! was exactly the sort of return the show can muster – a full scale revival seems highly unlikely.

Bye Bye Birdie. Instead of a revival, Broadway was treated to the four performance bomb Bring Back Birdie in 1981, which brought back Chita Rivera (which proved that she was an ultimate pro who could still deliver a superlative star turn regardless of the vehicle) and fast-forwarded the story of Albert and Rosie by twenty years, with them approaching middle age and dealing with their teenage children. The original musical is a period satire of the national craze over Elvis Presley’s drafting. The score, by Strouse and Adams, is a mix of superlative character numbers and spot-on parodies of period rock and roll. The show has been seen in every high school in the country, was presented at Encores in 2004 and even had a television remake in the mid-90s. But no Rialto berth… hmm. There lies only one problem that I can think of: who could possibly fill Chita Rivera’s admittedly daunting shoes?

Fiorello! This charming biomusical about NY’s favorite Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was a big success in 1959, tying for the Best Musical Tony with The Sound of Music and picking up a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, a rarity for a musical. The score was Bock and Harnick’s second Broadway entry after The Body Beautiful and put them on the map as a composing team of deft skill, craftmanship and an extraordinary ability to integrate song and scene and character (Fiddler on the Roof and especially She Loves Me further illustrate this point). This was hte first Encores! concert back in 1994, and would seem unlikely for a full-scale commercial revival; however it might prove a great entry from Roundabout (so long as they don’t reduce the orchestra or overhaul the book).

Hallelujah, Baby! Leslie Uggams starred in this concept musical about 200 years of African American history in the 1967. This Best Musical winner holds the distinction of being the show that got Jule Styne is one and only Tony award. Comden and Green did the lyrics; Arthur Laurents wrote the book and directed. The show is the second shortest running Best Musical (the winner of that dubious honor is Sondheim’s Passion), and most of the issues with the show have to do with its libretto (a time honored complaint). However it could soar with some considerable work from David Ives at Encores! with Anika Noni Rose.

A Little Night Music. One of the most enchanting Sondheim musicals, it is inexplicably the only one of his ground-breaking 70s works to not have a full-scale Broadway revival. Even Roundabout has plans to bring Merrily We Roll Along back within the next season or two. There is a London revival that is transferring to the West End for an extended run, but perhaps (and this is my hope) New York producers are waiting for the right time, the right star and all other stars to align for this show to come back. For years, there was talk of Glenn Close starring in a revival, though from what I understand that is no longer an option.

Redhead. Okay, this is one of the more obscure Best Musical winners. Many haven’t heard of it, but it was a decent-sized hit winning 8 Tonys in 1959, including two for stars Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley. The musical, which was also Bob Fosse’s Broadway directorial debut, is a murder mystery musical about a Jack-the-Ripper type stalking ladies in and around the London waxworks museum. Even from the liner notes it’s apparent that the plot is a bit convoluted and the book not exactly up to par. Even if the book isn’t up to snuff, the score is pleasant if not top tier. This show is the definition of why we have the Encores! series. Perhaps one of these days, if they can find the right personality (Mara Davi? Charlotte d’Amboise? The ‘It’ Girl?), we can see this at the City Center.

Two Gentlemen of Verona. Probably better known as the show that won Best Musical over Follies, one of those decisions that still incites passionate reactions in the most emblazoned Follies enthusiasts. The show, a rock opera adaptation of the Shakespeare play, was a transfer from the Delacorte, written by Galt McDermott. It had a hit summer revival a couple years ago in the Park, but it doesn’t seem likely for a Broadway return. Perhaps the outdoor environment suits it best?

The Shriner Ballet

Chita Rivera recreates the original Gower Champion choreography for Bye Bye Birdie for “The Shriner’s Ballet” with the American Dance Machine for a special called “That’s Singing, The Best of Broadway.” Rivera was Tony-nominated for her performance in the original production, in the featured actress category, but lost to Tammy Grimes who was “featured” in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Wasn’t that above the title billing nonsense a bit ridiculous?