Throwback Thursday - Bye Bye Birdie
Musicals more often than not have a transatlantic, if not international appeal, with London audiences seeing Broadway's top shows within a few years of opening, and vise versa. The West End is currently flooded with New York imports, from successful hit shows such as 'The Book of Mormon', 'The Lion King', 'Beautiful' and 'Kinky Boots' to lesser hits such as 'Memphis' and 'American Idiot'. Similarly, the past Broadway season was inundated with UK hits, more commonly plays and straight dramas, such as 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time', 'The Audience' and 'Wolf Hall'.
Despite the shared history between the two theatre hubs, there are plenty of examples where a show that was a hit in one country is completely overlooked in the other (Spring Awakening, Drowsy Chaperone etc.), and there are many shows that despite everyone's best efforts fail to make a mark on both sides of the pond.
Whilst the list of Broadway imports looking at transferring to London seems to grow by the day ('Finding Neverland', 'A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder' and 'Something Rotten'), there are many hit shows that UK audiences are begging to be seen in London, but have announced no plans to come ('Next To Normal' and 'Aida').
Looking further back in history to the 'Golden Age' of musical theatre, there are a number of shows that have enjoyed multiple successes in the USA and have virtually no history of performance in the UK. Shows such as 'Pippin' and 'Damn Yankees' spring immediately to mind - these are both productions that every show queen has performed in at High School, Camp and Community theatre. Certain shows transcend specialism and work their way into the psyche of popular culture, thanks to being kept alive by productions around the country, not only numerous revivals on Broadway.
NPR recently published statistics surrounding the most performed plays and musicals in American High Schools by the decade, and it made for fascinating reading. Whilst High School theatre is perhaps a very specific output - teachers looking for ensemble heavy, female bias shows that play to the strengths of the students - it does display an interesting perspective on how certain shows are kept alive for new generations, however 'dated' they may be.
NPR analysis of Dramatics magazine annual surveys
The show that is most popular throughout the decades is the squeaky clean musical Bye Bye Birdie, which has featured in the top ten for five decades - more than any other musical. True, it has since been replaced in the current decade by modern productions such as 'Beauty and the Beast' and 'Into the Woods', but its prominence from 1960s onwards is hard to ignore.
Michael Stewart, Lee Adams and Charles Strouse's 1960 musical is a satire on American society in the late 1950s and was inspired by Elvis Presley's draft notice into the Army in 1957. The original production starred Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera, Paul Lynde and Dick Gautier and ran for over 600 performances, something of a modest hit at the time. The show did win four Tony Awards including 'Best Musical' - an accolade that has helped keep it alive years later.
The show transferred almost immediately to London in 1961, running at the Her Majesty's Theatre for a limited run of 268 performances. The show was seen as being exceptionally time specific, and already felt somewhat dated in a decade where rock music, and rock musicals, were beginning to take off, although we were still some seven years away from Hair defining the genre.
Despite this, a film version materialised in 1963, helping to promote the show further within the American consciousness, and High Schools all over the country were finding themselves performing the irresistible hits "Spanish Rose", "The Telephone Hour" and "Put on a Happy Face".
As the genre progressed throughout the 70s and 80s, the show continued to strike a chord in America, and as the research shows, continued to be performed by new generations of theatre kids. An attempt at a sequel 'Bring Back Birdie' failed somewhat in 1981, closing on Broadway after only 4 official performances. A made-for-TV movie ran in 1995, reinvigorating interest in a show that was now seen as completely kitsch and from a totally different era.
The Roundabout 2009 Revival
Through the Encores! series the show was revived on Broadway in concert form, but its first official revival didn't open until 2009 when the Roundabout Theatre Company mounted a new production at the Henry Miller's Theatre. The production was slaughtered by critics, closing three months later after poor ticket sales, as the charm of the original in the current Broadway climate failed to rub off on audiences.
I spent five years teaching theatre in the USA and was continually surprised to hear how differences in taste between young performers were from here in the UK. Whereas musical theatre is more in built to the DNA of American school children (as proved by the annual Jimmy Awards, which have more talent in them than many of our West End shows), I found them to not only be consistently 'on trend' with new composers and shows, but also highly interested in classic productions. Most of the kids arrived having performed in 'Birdie' that previous year, amongst other classics such as 'Once on a Mattress' and 'You're a Good Man Charlie Brown' - shows that never get an airing in the UK, let alone in an educational environment.
Speaking to parents, another show that was always high up the list of favourite shows was Man of La Mancha, a show that never gains any traction in the UK and is yet to even be presented on the London fringe circuit (someone snap it up please!). Like 'Birdie', the show was only ever presented in London in the original production, and despite the hit song being constantly reinterpreted by every X-Factor-come-musical-theatre 'Boy Band' troupe (the clichï¿½ ridden 'Impossible Dream'), the show itself remains at the bottom of the trunk.
All Star Productions are presenting a new production of Bye Bye Birdie at the Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre in Walthamstow, north London, which will be a rare outing for a musical theatre gem. The company are no stranger to presenting 'lost' musicals, with recent shows being 'Little Me', 'One Touch of Venus' and 'Flora the Red Menace', and have build a reputation and loyal audience base who appreciate seeing these shows through a new eye.
I'm intrigued to see Birdie in a professional staging, and it will certainly be a pleasure to not have to hear a 13 year old sing "How Lovely to Be a Woman" out of tune. Whilst the piece is certainly dated and time specific, I hope the charm of the show isn't lost on a new audience, in the way the Roundabout revival was some years ago. It is important that these productions, however 'dated' they may feel get an airing as they are each significant and important to understanding the history of musical theatre, and its development over time.
I'd be interested to see what shows High Schools on both side of the Atlantic are performing in another ten years time. Something tells me that it won't be Hamilton, Legally Blonde or Fun Home, but instead the classic shows will continue to follow through.
Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com