Bye Bye Birdie Live! Why This Is an EXCELLENT Idea!

Bye Bye Birdie Live! Why This Is an EXCELLENT Idea!

We’ve had exciting news this week with the announcement that NBC’s 2017 live musical offering will be Bye Bye Birdie, starring Jennifer Lopez in the role of Rosie. Lopez actually approached the network and pitched the idea and I think that it is exciting that a powerhouse talent wants to get behind this musical comedy classic. Sadly, a barrage of naysayers have already begun to rain on the parade, arguing that we “never asked for” and “didn’t need a” remake of Bye Bye Birdie. Individual rights to opinions aside, I will have to disagree with these sourpusses. A remake of Bye Bye Birdie is exactly what the doctor ordered and the perfect idea for the next live television musical. Here’s why.

Chita Rivera performs "The Shriner's Ballet" in Bye Bye Birdie.

Chita Rivera performs "The Shriner's Ballet" in Bye Bye Birdie.

Bye Bye Birdie opened on Broadway in 1960, a time when musical theatre began to move in new, more daring, directions. Bye Bye Birdie proved to be an innovative musical that introduced the idea of rock & roll music to Broadway audiences. Yes, the Charles Strouse (music) / Lee Adams (lyrics) score is mostly traditional musical theatre, but it did include three songs that were a pastiche of Elvis Presley-like numbers. Michael Stewart’s book is one of the most finely-crafted original stories ever to be shaped for Broadway: colorful characters, a compelling situation, a touch of ridiculous farce, romance, and a happy-ever-after ending. People often underappreciate how solid the story is because it seems so simple and easy, but the cause/effect relationship between characters and their actions is extremely complicated and well-justified. Marry this complexity of storytelling to a tuneful, often witty score, and Bye Bye Birdie really needs to be acknowledged for the fine piece of musical theatre that it is.

The original production of Bye Bye Birdie was a delightful musical comedy that envisioned what could happen to an innocent, Midwestern town when a hip-shaking, rock & roll phenomenon named Conrad Birdie came to their wholesome hamlet for a publicity stunt and influenced the behavior of the hormonal teenagers who worship him. Throw in a romance between the star’s manager and his put-upon secretary whose happiness depends entirely on their success of making this visit profitable, and you have a musical that makes some pointed commentary on the generation gap, celebrity hysteria, and the ever-changing trends of what appeals to audiences. These are all topics that are as relevant today as they were back in 1960.  

So why do we need a new Bye Bye Birdie experience? Well, the film version starring Ann-Margaret, Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke is such a deviation from the original, one that excises major plot points and important songs for no explicable reason, that a better preservation of the show is essential. In the film, the story is almost incoherent and the naïve cluelessness of the main teenager is replaced with a slutty kittenishness that totally erases any effect Birdie has on her. She comes across as more scandalous than he does, and that just doesn’t work. The film is such a misfire that feels both exhausting and messy. A new TV version would afford us the opportunity to go back to the original script and tone, something that is essential in creating a successful Bye Bye Birdie for posterity.

Ann-Margaret leads "A Lot of Livin'" in the film.

Ann-Margaret leads "A Lot of Livin'" in the film.

A made-for-TV Birdie was tried in 1995 and, though it did adhere more closely to the original, the directing was both hectic and uninspired. A ho-hum batch of new songs were written for the project, one in particular that replaced great book dialogue to give a non-singing character a chance to sing. It doesn’t work and it entirely killed the one-liners that made her character so much fun. The cast, on paper, seemed right: Jason Alexander, Vanessa Williams, Tyne Daly, George Wendt are all gifted performers, but somehow they all became hard to watch in this inception of Bye Bye Birdie.

Bye Bye Birdie isn’t broken, and I cannot figure out why everyone feels compelled to try to “fix” it. There is a reason that it has been performed successfully by just about every theatre group in America. It’s full of fun, humor, song and dance, and it’s a well-known musical. That should bode well for its ability to attract family audiences. Also – almost every theatre person has done the show at one time or another, every Kim MacAfee, Harvey Johnson, and Hugo Peabody of theatre past, will tune-in to see how this production is handled while reliving their memories with this classic. Here is a chance for us to FINALLY preserve it correctly. Let’s hope the powers that be see its inherent value and don’t tweak what is already musical theatre perfection. 

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