Celebrating a new release of the Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack is certainly delightful. Some, however, may moan when they realize the occasion is the fiftieth anniversary of the original release.
On March 29, 1963, RCA Victor issued the long-playing record that offered nine songs from the Tony-winning Broadway musical – and one distinctively new one. Now it’s back, in the first of many soundtrack releases that Masterworks Broadway is planning.
Although the stage show didn’t have a title song, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams wrote one to both open and close the film. At the top, Kim McAfee, a teenager in Sweet Apple, Ohio, mourned the fact that her favorite singer, one Conrad Birdie, was being drafted in the army (just as real-life teenagers had moaned when Elvis Presley had been drafted in 1958).
At the end, Kim had come to terms with his going to serve the nation.
In the film, the song is dazzlingly delivered by Ann-Margret, who lauds Conrad’s “super-duper class” – a hilarious lyric, given that that adjective is not usually paired with that noun. Now in the 2013 reissue of the soundtrack album, we also get the 45 rpm pop single of “Bye Bye Birdie” that the star had made at the time; ditto what had been on the record’s flip side: her equally poppish rendition of “How Lovely to Be a Woman.”
In fact, a woman is what Ann-Margret was when she landed the role as Sweet Apple’s most prominent teenager. She was already 22, so in order to help a bit, Adams upped her age by a year. On Broadway, Susan Watson recalled being “a skinny child of fourteen” before “hallelujah … fifteen!” But Ann-Margret had “fifteen” and “sixteen” in those lines.
But she still seems more sophisticated than your average sixteen year-old. When Ann-Margret sings of her “figure that’s round instead of flat,” she gives that last word palpable contempt. Later, when she croons of “One Boy” to “have Coke with,” the semi-erotic way she sings the word “Coke” suggests that she isn’t referring to the soft drink.
Joining her in “One Boy” is Janet Leigh, playing Rosie DeLeon, the administrative assistant to Albert Peterson; she had the idea of finding a teenager to give Conrad Birdie one last kiss before he heads off to the army. The reason: her struggling songwriter beau Albert Peterson would write “One Last Kiss” for him – and the resulting sales would give them enough money to marry.
Leigh, best known as the shower victim in Psycho, took some heat because she wasn’t first and foremost a singer. She does manage to harmonize nicely, however, in “Rosie,” the song that Albert writes in her honor. Albert, of course, is Dick Van Dyke, just as he was on Broadway. In delivering “Put on a Happy Face,” he’s as disarming and charming as he was on the original cast album.
Fans of “One Last Kiss” will find a bonanza here of three separate takes. All are sung by Jesse Pearson, who starts each with a slow and deliberate “Oh” that suggests he’s about to deliver one of the greatest songs in the history of mankind.
The irony is that the song isn’t heard nearly as much in the movie as it is on this CD. At one point in the film, Conrad is seen rehearsing some of it; later, when he performs it on The Ed Sullivan Show, he’s interrupted by Kim’s boyfriend Hugo Peabody. He doesn’t want Conrad to kiss his girl – and sucker-punches him to prove it.
The first Birdie soundtrack CD issued in 1996 offered the “One Last Kiss” that had always been on the LP: a studio recording with teenage girls offering some “Yeah, yeah, yeahs” almost a year before the Beatles would sing them on that same Ed Sullivan Show. The second CD issue in 2003 added the quick rehearsal cut from the film. Now this 2013 reissue adds the 45 single that Pearson had made for pop consumption.
Pearson also provides some delicious touches to his other two cuts. When he sings that he’s “Honestly Sincere,” he doesn’t quite sing “eye” and “try” but croons “ah” and “trah” instead. Similarly, in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” he pronounces “everything” as “evvathing.” All convey the feeling of a post-modern lounge lizard.
The soundtrack boasts two pieces of dance music that aren’t on the original cast album. “The Sultans’ Ballet” shows Rosie after she’s dumped Albert and will now look for his replacement at a convention of randy Shriners. Not long after she’s wearing their many fezzes on her head, she finds she’s now over her head with them. The 3:37-minute cut includes the “ughs” and “oomphs” that she exudes as they rigorously toss her around.
Then there’s the suave, flute-heavy dance music in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” What had been a 2:53-minute cut on the original cast album becomes a six-minute extravaganza here. Kim and Hugo have more to sing, too. Playing him is Bobby Rydell, who in real life was a minor-league Conrad Birdie with a few pop hits to his credit. (And yes, the former Robert Ridarelli was the inspiration for the name of the mythical high school in Grease.) Rydell was too old for his role, too: 21, which made Ann-Margret one of the world’s youngest cougars.
In addition to his own section in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” Rydell gets a piece of “The Telephone Hour,” in which the Sweet Apple teens discuss his steady relationship with Kim, and “Rosie,” which has some new lyrics for both him and Kim. In the latter, when Rydell reaches the lyric “We will be so cozy,” he’s as smooth as Mel Torme in making “so” into “so-hoh.”
The original cast album doesn’t allow us to hear from Hugo or from Mrs. Peterson, Albert’s domineering mother. But she too gets to sing on the soundtrack, which is a bit of a surprise, for she’s played by Maureen Stapleton. True, Stapleton had already won a Tony and would later win an Oscar, but they were respectively for The Rose Tattoo and Reds – neither of which asked her to sing.
And yet, here is Stapelton on “Kids,” which, believe it or not, is a more compelling song here than on the original cast album. On Broadway, Paul Lynde, playing Kim’s father, merely ranted about the other generation. Here, it revolves around Stapleton, who complains that Albert doesn’t care enough about her; by song’s end, he’s pledged his eternal devotion to her. So for all the talk of how the Bye Bye Birdie film was sophomoric compared to the more sophisticated stage musical, only in the film does “Kids” do what the great musical theater songs are supposed to do: it advances the action.
Admittedly, the Birdie film dropped several good songs. One might say, “Well, they had to cut ‘An English Teacher,’ because screenwriter Irving Brecher had changed Albert’s would-be occupation to biochemist.” But “biochemist” scans perfectly with “English teacher,” doesn’t it?
Yes, but “An English Teacher” is a patter song better suited to adult sensibilities, and every effort was made to make Birdie a teen-friendly film. It was a summertime release, which was fitting, for its spirit is not far from Frankie-and-Annette beach movies. So you must head to the original cast album to hear “An English Teacher” as well as “Normal American Boy” (Sweet Apple’s first interaction with Conrad), “Spanish Rose” (in which Rosie celebrates her heritage), “What Did I Ever See in Him?” (Rosie and Kim’s lament on the men they’ve chosen) and Albert’s plaintive “Baby, Talk to Me” to Rosie.
On the original cast album, “Baby, Talk to Me” is the first song showcased in the overture; thus, when I first heard it as a teen, I’d wondered if this placement suggested that Strouse and Adams thought that it was their best chance for a hit song. When I met Strouse, it was the first question I asked him; he told me that he indeed thought that this was his real shot at the Top 40. Strouse didn’t anticipate that “Put on a Happy Face” would become a standard, let alone “A Lot of Livin’ to Do”; at least the former was included in the overture, but the latter was not.
Although “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” had become a pop hit by the time Birdie got to Hollywood, it still wasn’t played during the film’s main titles. Perhaps those assembling the soundtrack felt awkward about that, which was why they added an orchestral version near the start of the recording. So there’s been a lot of life in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” – and even more in the Bye Bye Birdie soundtrack. It may not have the super-duper class of the original cast album, but it may be a great deal more fun.