Under Appreciated - The Broadway Musical That Is Taken for Granted
There are musicals that are so wonderfully constructed, and that have been done so often, that we take for granted their fine craftsmanship and vibrant musicality. These stalwarts of days gone by, produced by every high school, usually once every generation or so, are often dismissed. It's easy to poo-poo these titles because they have become staples of the stage. They serve their function by introducing young audiences to musical theatre. It is easy to forget that these musicals were once brand new, innovative, sometimes cutting edge, and big audience pleasers. I am talking about the Guys & Dolls, The Music Mans, and the South Pacifics of our Broadway musical heritage. Even among these titles, there is one musical that is seldom given its due for just how musically inspired and carefully constructed it is: Bye, Bye, Birdie.
I know that many of you just rolled your eyes after reading that, but I assert that Bye, Bye, Birdie is one of the most perfectly assembled musical comedies Broadway has ever seen. It is due to its tight plot, zany characters, tendency toward situation comedy, and the pure joy of its music that it continues to be one of the most produced musicals in high schools. Yes, the musical is attractive to drama teachers due to its easy-to-fudge 1960s period costumes, its simple-to-suggest locales, and its generally kid-friendly premise. What we tend to forget is, Bye, Bye, Birdie, when it first opened in 1960, was not only cutting edge and timely, but it was also prescient in its foreshadowing of the influence rock & roll and television would have on the decade to come. This may seem trivial to us now, but in 1960, a generation gap of epic proportions was beginning to develop that separated the post-World War II suburbanites from their more socially-conscious offspring. This generation gap became a launching pad for the hippie movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement that would find generational and socioeconomic ideologies juxtaposed in conflict and misunderstanding. Exacerbated (or perhaps underscored) by evolving trends in entertainment and fashion, the younger generation had very little in common with their parents. Bye, Bye, Birdie was one of the few musicals to really explore simultaneously where America had been and where it was going.
In 1960, rock & roll was really starting to take off. Though the score of Bye, Bye, Birdie is predominantly composed in the traditional sense, the influence of rock & roll is clearly there. Three of the songs ("Honestly Sincere", "One Last Kiss", and "Lot of Livin' to Do") are blatant satires of the Elvis Presley style, which makes sense since Bye, Bye, Birdie's plot is inspired by Presley's draft into the Army. In it's introduction to, and incorporation of, rock & roll into its score, the musical paves the way (or perhaps opens doors) for musicals like Hair that would embrace rock & roll as the language for telling entire musical stories. The rest of Birdie's score, however, should not be dismissed as hackneyed or mundane. There is a complexity to composer Charles Strouse's music, not to mention Lee Adams's sly lyrics. "An English Teacher" is one of the most informative and entertaining, expository opening numbers in Broadway history. We learn a great deal about songwriter Albert Peterson and his ever-suffering secretary and love interest Rosie. The economy with which their situation is set up in this piece is a testament to the skills of this gifted composing team. Every song is perfectly placed, and grows organically out of Michael Stewart's intricately designed plot of complications and over the top situations. The most surprising number is the gentle breath of exquisite subtlety found the Act II gem "Baby, Talk to Me." Set in a bar and sung into a telephone, the number starts as a soft plea for forgiveness from Albert to Rosie for his transgressions. Soon, three drunks and a bartender are joining in with a haunting four-part harmony that illuminates the desperation of the moment.
Where Bye, Bye, Birdie particularly succeeds is in its tightly-crafted book. Michael Stewarts builds on the basic themes of the aforementioned generation gap, rock & roll hysteria, teen idols, and the power of television, managing to devise an original story with unforgettable characters, and a plot (like it or not) that moves, satirizes, and that believably resolves itself by musical comedy terms. Yes, the situations are absurd, but so are those of Hello, Dolly!, Guys & Dolls, and, dare I say, even Carousel. What matters is that the construction supports a situation that spins wildly out of control, and then, with arch humor and a carefully planned situations akin to a comedy of errors , manages to steady the wheel and find story/character resolution. We have been embracing situation comedy for centuries, and Bye, Bye, Birdie demonstrates it in fine form, each moment in the story a falling domino that incites the next deliciously funny complication.
I know that Bye, Bye, Birdie is not everyone's cup of tea, and that the somewhat recent revival of the piece on Broadway (a few years back) did little to instill faith in the piece or help its legacy. There are reasons, however, that this musical continues to be performed and it has little to do with how easy it is to throw together a production of it. There is, at its base, a real understanding of the musical comedy form. It employs these ingredients with panache and cleverness. It is, in fact, so well-constructed that messieurs Strouse, Adams and Stewart make it look too easy to be quality. Perhaps this is why we take it for granted? For simplicity and economy to register so well onstage, a great deal of smarts and talent need to be at the foundation of any piece of effective musical theatre. Bye, Bye, Birdie excels at making it look easy.
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