By Keith Mason
Bye Bye Birdie was the first musical to use the rock and roll phenomenon as its main theme. Debuting on Broadway in 1960, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 film adaptation. The story of Elvis-like rock crooner Conrad Birdie was inspired by the real-life draft of legendary singer Elvis Presley into the U.S. Army in 1958. With a musical score satirizing what was then a nascent rock-and-roll music world, Bye Bye Birdie would win five Tony Awards, and the film version won two Academy Awards in 1963. By virtue of its pioneering innovation, Bye Bye Birdie paved the way for other rock-based musicals, such as Grease, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tommy.
Bye Bye Birdie occupies a prominent place within American popular culture and musical theatre evidenced by the fact that it has hit all major forms of media, and continues to be a favorite show staged in high schools and theatres all over the country. In learning about this landmark musical, music educators can implement a number of activities that capitalize on its music and themes.
Bye Bye Birdie was first performed on Broadway on April 14, 1960. Composed by Charles Strouse along with lyricist Lee Adams, it was Strouse and Adams’ first score together. Featuring a youthful score designed to match writer Michael Stewart’s youthful script, the music for Bye Bye Birdie took more than two years years to complete, as approximately 55 songs were created for three separate versions of the story.
About his musical collaboration with Lee Adams, Charles Strouse noted, “What we are aiming for is to make the lyric almost undistinguishable from the music. Not merely a wedding of words and music, but the words and music as a total concept, a complete and inevitable part of the character’s expression at the moment. As we see it, neither the melody nor the lyric should be able to exist without the other.”
The original Broadway musical score of Bye Bye Birdie includes the classic “Put On A Happy Face” as well as a number of other well known tunes, such as “An English Teacher,” “The Telephone Hour,” “One Boy,” “A Lot of Livin’ To Do,” and “Rosie,” among others.
The storyline for Bye Bye Birdie goes as follows: Albert Peterson, president of Almaelou Music, is in a predicament. His rock crooner client, Conrad Birdie, has been drafted into the army. Peterson’s saucy secretary Rosie comes up with a publicity stunt, that Albert is to write a song entitled “One Last Kiss” for Conrad, who will sing it to a lucky fan on The Ed Sullivan Show. Kim MacAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio is the lucky girl, to the dismay of her steady boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, and her father. Meanwhile, despite being disliked by Albert’s doting mother, Rosie is nonetheless interested in settling down to married life with Albert.
Comedian and actor Dick Van Dyke became a star in the stage version of Bye Bye Birdie as Albert Peterson; this fame led to his television series The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and a reprisal of his Bye Bye Birdie role in the 1963 film version. The Broadway stage production of 1960 was replicated in a London production in 1961 with Chita Rivera reprising her role as Rosie and Peter Marshall as Albert Peterson. The film version by Columbia Pictures premiered in 1963, almost exactly three years after the Broadway premiere. A television version was produced in 1995.
The film version of Birdie took on a life of its own. The original character Conrad Birdie was named after Conway Twitty, a rock star who became a country music superstar. Elvis Presley was approached to star as Birdie in the film version but Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager, did not want his client to play a role that was considered a self-parody.
Three stars from the Broadway production, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, and Jesse Pearson, played Albert Peterson, Mr. McAfee, and Conrad Birdie, respectively, as in the original. Janet Leigh played Rosie with the last name of DeLeon instead of Alvarez. Ann-Margret became a big star because of her role as Kim McAfee. She went on to star with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas. Rock and roll singer and heartache Bobby Rydell, who played Hugo Peabody, claimed that his role got bigger and bigger in the Birdie film because of the rapport between him and Ann-Margret. Legendary television variety show host Ed Sullivan made a cameo appearance as himself.
The treatment of Bye Bye Birdie in the music curriculum is an obvious one because of its blend of the traditional musical with rock music. The original 1960 musical score of Bye Bye Birdie included 17 songs penned by Strouse and Adams. The 1963 movie used 12 of the original tunes and added a new song by Strouse and Adams, “Bye Bye Birdie,” that appears at the very beginning and the very end. The 1995 TV version included the 17 original songs, “Bye Bye Birdie” plus three new Strouse and Adams songs: “Let’s Settle Down” sung by Rosie Alvarez, “A Mother Doesn’t Matter Any More” sung by Albert’s mother Mrs. Peterson, and “A Giant Step” sung by Albert Peterson.
The premise of Bye Bye Birdie is a focus on a rock idol. With this in mind, it would be fruitful to explore both rock music and the whole concept of the rock phenomenon. For example, we can make comparisons between Elvis Presley and Conrad Birdie, especially in terms of the army draft issue. Other popular icons that might compare to Conrad Birdie are Frank Sinatra, David Cassidy, the Beatles, and, more recently, Justin Bieber.
For a look at rock music, I refer teachers to Helander’s book The Rock’s Who’s Who. Possible curricular activities for music and performing arts might include the following:
Words, Words, Words: How are song lyrics in Bye Bye Birdie used to develop the characters of Conrad Birdie, Kim McAfee, Albert Peterson, Rosie DeLeon, and Mr. MacAfee? Give specific examples using song lyrics.
Song Analysis: Analyze one of the Bye Bye Birdie songs. Identify the verses and the chorus. Are any lyrics repeated (excluding the chorus) or in rhyme? What is the tempo musically? How would you classify the song?
Rock and Roll: Trace the history of rock music to the present day.
Rock Musicals: Take a close look at other rock musicals such as Grease, Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tommy. How do these compare to Bye Bye Birdie?
Elvis, the King: Analyze the music of Elvis Presley including his recordings, movies, and literature about him and his career.
Phenomenal Stars: Compare Conrad Birdie of Bye Bye Birdie to today’s musical superstars.
Words and Music: Create another song for the score. Who will perform it? What will be its main message? How will it further develop the plot or characters? Perform the song for the rest of the class.
Check out the Score: Analyze the “Birdie” score for key changes, tempo changes, ballads, rock songs, and orchestral songs.
Lyrics Analysis: Consider Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” by analyzing the lyrics and extracting the references to the late 1950s and early 1960s. Provide a brief background for each event of this period.
TV and Fame: How does television lend itself to glorifying pop idols such as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Justin Bieber? How do social media and the internet change the equation?
The rock and roll music style of Bye Bye Birdie offers audiences a different type of musical from the traditional ones found within musical theatre. By taking a close look at Strouse and Adams’ first collaboration, we can see why we love Conrad Birdie.
Keith Mason, Ph.D. teaches World Languages at New Providence High School in New Providence, New Jersey. Dr. Mason received eight Rising Star Awards for Educational Impact from the Paper Mill Playhouse for integrating his school’s musicals into the high school curriculum. The second of these awards was for Bye Bye Birdie. He has authored many articles about using musicals in the interdisciplinary curriculum.