While any year would be a good one to give Ann-Margret a lifetime achievement award, 2013 is particularly apt.
It is, after all, the fiftieth anniversary of her breakthrough role as Kim McAfee in Bye Bye Birdie, the first hit for Michael Stewart, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams.
Not that Ann-Margret was a new face in 1963. Fifty-two years ago, she’d had a modest role in Pocketful of Miracles. Fifty-one years ago, she’d intoxicated the nation by snapping her fingers and sinuously delivering the title song to Bachelor in Paradise on the Oscars. Weeks later she was seen in State Fair, where she shared a duet with Pat Boone and was the centerpiece of a big production number.
State Fair lost a fortune, but Bye Bye Birdie was a Radio City Music Hall smash hit. And now, on Oct. 8 only a few blocks away at New York City Center, Ann-Margret will be awarded The Annual Rolex Dance Award. It will be followed by a revue entitled Broadway & Beyond Celebrating Theatre & Dance Career Transition For Dancers.
“It’s a wonderful organization that’s been doing terrific work since 1982,” says the star. “It provides emotional and financial help to those people who have danced all their lives, but feel the time has come to get out of the business. Over the years, I’ve seen so many of my guys have a hard time transitioning to civilian life when they had to stop dancing. All their lives, they had such passion to dance that they never learned anything else.”
Ann-Margret is an apt choice for a night entitled Broadway & Beyond, for she’s done a musical beyond Broadway. For a 2001 national tour, she portrayed Miss Mona Stangley in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “Four hundred and eighty-two shows in forty-two cities,” she says, not with any world-weariness, but with great pride. This came long after she’d been tabbed as a nominee for one Grammy and two Oscars and a winner of one Emmy and five Golden Globes.
There would have been a time when the nation wouldn’t have expected that she’d come anywhere near those honors, for her stunning looks (complemented by auburn locks and green eyes) and native sensuality made everyone automatically assume that she was a one-dimensional, bubble-headed sexpot.
But ho-ho-ho, who’s had the last laugh for the last few decades? Now she’ll add another honor to her shelf when she receives the Rolex Dance Award from Liza Minnelli.
That star’s most famous role had her singing “What good is sitting alone in your room?” It’s advice with which Ann-Margret agrees, for getting out of her room and celebrating New Year’s Eve 1961 in Las Vegas sowed the seeds for her being cast in Bye Bye Birdie.
“I was with a date,” she says, diplomatically deciding to not reveal his name. “And he simply did not dance. Not at all! Well, it was New Year’s Eve, and I wanted to dance. One of the gentlemen from another table was game, and we got up and did the dance that everybody was doing in those days: The Twist.”
(This is proof positive that Ann-Margret’s date did not dance. What dance is easier to do than The Twist?)
“Just happening to be there was Mr. Sidney,” she says, referring to director George Sidney, who was to helm the Birdie movie after Gower Champion had bowed out. “Mr. Sidney thought I’d be good for Kim.”
He didn’t give her the role on the spot, but arranged an audition. “So before I went,” she says, “I looked through my closet and tried to find things that I thought would look good on Kim McAfee. I chose a white blouse, a rust-colored skirt and an alpaca sweater, and, my, was Mr. Sidney disappointed that he wasn’t seeing the girl who’d been in the tight black dress that night in Las Vegas.”
Actually, both turned out to have the right fashion sense. Ann-Margret dressed in sophisticated fashion for the film’s title song and for “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.” Conversely, for “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” she had to dress down, changing into jeans, overstretched sweater, loud knee socks and askew baseball cap.
“We had to film that clothes-changing sequence seventeen times,” she says, still sounding frustrated. “I think I lost ten pounds doing it.”
Recording the pop version as a forty-five rpm single was much easier, she reports. “We did it some months later, and believe me, I knew the song cold after all those different takes on film.” It and a pop single version of the title song appear as bonus tracks on the CD.
Some felt that even youthful duds couldn’t hide the fact that Ann-Margret was no longer a teenager. Lyricist Lee Adams tried to help. Note that In Bye Bye Birdie’s original cast album, he had Susan Watson’s Kim sing “When you’re a skinny child of fourteen wired with braces from ear to ear” before she exults that “Then – Hallelujah! – you are fifteen!” On the soundtrack album, however, he upped it to “When you’re a skinny child of fifteen” and then “you are sixteen!”
Whatever her age versus Kim’s, Ann-Margret’s appearance in the film wasn’t a liability to any “fine, upstanding, patriotic, happy, normal American boy” (to quote a lyric from the original cast album). Many young men were also greatly amused by the way that she sang the last word in the lyric “How lovely to have a figure that’s round instead of flat.” The fury and contempt that she gave the word “flat” suggested that she was still holding a grudge against puberty for taking a dozen years or so to visit.
Ann-Margret also has a sensuous way with a word in “One Boy.” Here’s the song in which she assures steady beau Hugo Peabody that she’s not interested in teen idol Conrad Birdie, although fate has arranged to have her kiss him on The Ed Sullivan Show. When she expresses the need for “One boy to laugh with, to joke with, have Coke with,” she doesn’t seem to be referring to a soft drink that comes out of Atlanta.
Hugo, of course, was played by then-current teen idol Bobby Rydell. “Ah, Robert Ridarelli,” says the former Miss Olson, adopting an Italian accent. “We’re still friends” (even if they’re not “going steady, steady for good”). Rydell acquits himself very nicely on the album. The way he handles the word “so” in “We will be so cozy” (in the song “Rosie”) suggests that his bedroom voice could rival Barry White’s. He also shows an expert way with syncopation in “A Lot of Livin’ to Do.”
That number also boasted “the fabulously new Birdie dance,” as the film’s trailer called it. “We did about three days’ work on that number to get it right. Onna White,” Ann-Margret says, speaking of the seven-time Tony-nominated and Honorary Oscar-winning choreographer, “had a broken foot at the time, so she sat on a chair with her foot on a stool and told her assistant what we were to do.”
It obviously worked out well, for the image of Ann-Margret and the chorus with their upper arms up, lower arms hanging, knees and feet splayed in and heads cocked to one side is not only one of the film’s highlights, but one of the soundtrack’s gems, too; at six full minutes, it’s the disc’s longest cut with dance music galore.
Another number in which Ann-Margret appears is “Hymn for a Sunday Evening,” a song title carefully chosen to keep a secret from the audience; the logical title is “Ed Sullivan!” for those two words are heard more than any others in the song; lyricist Lee Adams simply didn’t want to give away the joke that the McAfee family was astonished at being chosen to be seen on national television the following Sunday night at eight.
The irony is that by this point, Ann-Margret had already appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show – and almost a year to the day before Bye Bye Birdie began filming in April, 1962. Granted, she’d made a perfunctory appearance, letting film clips for her State Fair screen test and a song from the film itself do the heavy lifting. But the nation that tuned into the show on Sunday, April 1, 1961 at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time saw her.
And while many feel that Bye Bye Birdie on film is a bastardization of a fine Broadway musical (oh, that chemically-induced, sped-up ballet!), Ann-Margret is still considered one of its greatest assets – especially for the title song that did not appear in the Broadway production but was written for the film.
“Those front and back sequences that open and close the film were an afterthought by George Sidney,” she says. “When he told the studio his idea, they didn’t like it, but he believed in it so much that he paid out of his own pocket to have both sequences filmed. After we’d finished and he showed it to the Columbia executives, they liked it and said that both sequences had to go into the picture. They even insisted on reimbursing him.”
True, it did mean more work for her (and Strouse and Adams). “I remember that I had to be very high off the floor – something like twenty feet, though I don’t remember why I had to be way up there,” she says. “I was also on this treadmill, but walking on it wasn’t so much of a problem. It was the wind machine that was constantly blowing that was really unsettling.”
But she did it. In the song, she sings that Conrad Birdie has “super-duper class.” We might question the adjective “super-duper” to be matched with class, but Ann-Margret has shown that those who decided on this year’s Rolex Dance Award have made a super-duper decision.