News

Two Birdies in the Hand By Peter Filichia

The question was recently asked on Facebook.
“Should I get the Broadway cast album of BYE BYE BIRDIE or the soundtrack?”
Bless the poster for knowing the difference! Broadway stage musicals have cast
albums; recordings from movies are soundtracks (for a film has a track of
sound).

And given that this week is the fifty-fifth anniversary of the film’s smash opening
at Radio City Music Hall (en route to becoming the twelfth highest-grossing
movie of that year), a look at both recordings is in order.
You get more of the score that composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams
wrote for their BIRDIE 1960-61 Tony-winning hit on the original cast album. As
has been the case with many movie versions of Broadway musicals, a number of
numbers were lost en route to filming.

The excisions began with the opening number in which Rosie, a secretary at
AlMaeLou music, reminds Albert – rock star Conrad Birdie’s songwriter — and her
fiancé of long-standing – that he’d originally planned to become “An English
Teacher” (and husband). The song had to go because the film’s Albert had
instead intended to become a biochemist.

But wait! The four-syllable “Biochemist” scans perfectly with “English teacher,” so
why not include it?

Because it’s a patter song, a genre that wouldn’t make Baby Boomers’ pulses
race.

And that was the target audience that Columbia Pictures wanted: all those kids
who were sixteen going on seventeen. Now they were old enough to hold jobs,
but, by still living rent-free at home, they had all that newfound money to spend
on movies and soundtracks.

So the adult sensibility of the stage show’s “Baby, Talk to Me” — Albert’s plea to
Rosie after she’s stopped speaking to him – scuttled it, too. Charles Strouse once
told me that he expected this to be the musical’s biggest hit, which is one reason
why it’s featured first in the stage show’s overture. Who knew that “Put on a
Happy Face” and “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” — the latter didn’t even make the
overture – would eclipse it.

Also lost was “A Healthy, Normal American Boy,” in which Albert and Rosie try to
soft-pedal the (probably true) rumors that Birdie is a draft dodger, rakehell, lush
and reform school graduate. “He was born in Indo-China” rebuts Rosie as Albert
insists “He was born in ol’ Virginny.” You’d think they’d get their stories straight
after working together for eight years, but the song is still fun and missed in the
movie.

“Spanish Rose” didn’t survive because it was a showcase for leading lady Chita
Rivera’s dancing. Janet Leigh, the film’s Rosie, would have paled in comparison.
(And who would have thought that Leigh, most famous for being stabbed in a
shower, would get this role?)

The film’s not including “What Did I Ever See in Him?” was a real loss. Here both
Rosie and Kim – the teen chosen to kiss Conrad Birdie before he enters the army
– lament how the men in their lives have disappointed them. In a show that
stresses the generation gap, this was a nice moment where both adult and teen
had something in common and could commiserate with each other.
“Kids!” was the song that best expressed that widening gulf between parents
and ever-growing children. Mr. McAfee, Kim’s father, released a tirade against
the new generation. On the original cast album, it even gets a reprise, but truth
to tell, for the film Adams added a great many lyrics and actually improved the
song.

On the soundtrack you’ll hear that the song does what the best musical theater
songs do: “Kids!” now moves the action forward.For at its start, Albert plans to
marry Rosie; by the end he’s been made to feel so guilty by his mother that he
vows he’ll never leave her and abandons his wedding plans.
Adams also changed two words in first two lines of “How Lovely to Be a
Woman.” On stage, Susan Watson’s Kim sang “When you’re a skinny child of
fourteen” and “Then — hallelujah! You are fifteen!” Each line was upped a year
for the film’s Kim – no less than Ann-Margret. No, no one would believe that she
was fifteen, but would they believe she was sixteen? Truth to tell, the lyric
changes were futile, for she was twenty-one when filming commenced and
looked it.

(And looked great.)

She didn’t often seem like a teen, either. Listen to Susan Watson sing that she
wants “One Boy” to “have Coke with.” You know she’s referring to the soft drink.

When Ann-Margret purrs out the phrase, you suspect she has something else in
mind.

The greatest contribution that Ann-Margret gave to the film was a dynamic start
by singing the new title song that hadn’t been in the stage show. It became so beloved that it has since appeared in many of the show’s revivals as well as the
1995 TV version. Every time I’ve seen Charles Strouse asked to sing and play
piano in front of a group, he includes this song in his medley.
Years would have to pass for Ann-Margret before she was taken seriously as an
actress. Few in 1963 would have predicted she’d eventually get two Oscar
nominations. But listen to her do the title song at the start of the film where she
sounds like a star struck teen and then check out her rendition at the movie’s
end. You can hear that she’s grown up and her Birdie-idolizing days are officially
behind her.

The “One Last Kiss” that appears here is not from the soundtrack at all. It
couldn’t be, for the song, despite its getting started on two separate occasions in
the film, is never finished even once. Perhaps to fill out the recording, Jesse
Pearson, playing Birdie, went into the recording studio where he was backed up
by a bevy of young women who — presciently if inadvertently — sang “Yeah,
yeah, yeah.” In less than a year, this phrase would become known by all when
the Beatles would sing it in “She Loves You” (which will never be confused with
SHE LOVES ME). The three “Yeahs” would actually become an identifying idiom
for the group.

And in another example of musical cross-pollination, the teens’ credo of “We
Love You, Conrad” actually was repurposed less than a year later as “We Love
You, Beatles” sung by a group called The Carefrees. It was able to crack the Top
Forty (albeit at slot thirty-nine).

For the soundtrack, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” originally sung by Conrad and his
fans, was delightfully expanded. Adams wrote new lyrics for Kim and her on-
again, off-again beau Hugo. The dance music here had to be the greatest factor
in getting Johnny Green an Oscar nomination for “Best Music, Scoring of Music,
Adaptation or Treatment.”

And here’s something the soundtrack does have that was in the original stage
show and yet didn’t make the original cast album: Albert’s mother sings!True,
Maureen Stapleton, who won two Tonys, an Oscar and an Emmy, didn’t have
much of a voice. (You’ll notice that a Grammy is missing from her list of
accomplishments.) But at least she got a section of “Kids!” which is more than
original caster Kay Medford could claim.

In closing, Facebook poster, you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? You
need both the original cast album and soundtrack of BYE BYE BIRDIE to get the
full joyous experience.

 

 

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com
and each Friday at www.mtishows.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s

Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at
www.amazon.com.