Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Musical Watch: Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

I take exception with the promise of this poster's tagline

My Sophomore year of high school I had participated in some stuff in the drama department at my high school.  By the end of the year they were doing the Spring musical, which, that year, was Bye Bye Birdie.  As I'm not a single-threat, let alone a triple one, I wasn't planning to participate.  But, as I am extremely good at happening to be just standing there, someone came by and grabbed me to work crew on the show.  And, because I believed there was no "I" in "team", I somehow wound up as the guy in the "fly booth".  Which is a small box above the stage with a few cranks where I'd wrangle the signs, "flying" them in and out of view of the stage.

So, for three showings of Bye Bye Birdie in the Spring of 1991 (and lord knows how many rehearsals) I sat in a black box thirty-something feet above the stage and pondered the imponderables of high school while my classmates danced, sang and "acted" their way to glory.*

Consequently, I know the play of Bye Bye Birdie fairly well.  Or did, I guess.  And, for a while, I was really over my fear of heights.

I think I've seen the movie version before, but it was a long time ago, and, frankly, I didn't remember it at all.  I've also seen part of a televised newish version, but I doubt we made it very far through that one.

Made in 1963, Bye Bye Birdie had been a Broadway smash, a 1958 musical riffing on the 1957 drafting of Elvis Presley into the army.  And, of course, teen culture - something fairly new to America in the post World War II era when non-rich people between 13 and 18 weren't being expected to be out earning a living.  And, of course, the explosion of teen music, rock'n'roll, etc... that came with the era.

Albert (Dick Van Dyke) is a struggling song-writer (and would-be chemist) who wants to marry his secretary/ girlfriend, Rosie (Janet Leigh wearing a wig and supposedly Hispanic), but can't until he has a hit.  Rosie, learning our Elvis stand-in "Conrad Birdie" is set for the draft, arranges for Conrad to go to Sweet Apple, Ohio to sing a song by Albert live on The Ed Sullivan Show.  As part of that performance, he's to place "one last kiss" on a member of his fan club, Kim McAfee (played by the clearly-not 16-year-old Ann-Margret).

Kim's newly-pinned boyfriend, the severely pompadoured Hugo, and her father are against the idea.  Her father is swayed when it turns out Albert really wants to be a chemist and they'd have a fine partnership.  Hugo, however, is not sold.

As the movie hinges on teen-girls shrieking at the site of their favorite pop-star, one wonders what the musical would have looked like if it had gone into production a year later after The Beatles had appeared on the very real Ed Sullivan Show.  (Ed Sullivan, by the way, plays himself in the movie.)  America hadn't seen anything like the manic meltdown the Fab Four inspired.

I'll be honest - this is probably still a great high school play.  It's fairly wholesome.  Sure, only the grandparents in the crowd would understand half the jokes, and I expect high schoolers doing this show now have no idea what they're even talking about on the stage (I mean, the big number at the beginning is kids talking to each other on the phone, not staring at their iPhones).  But they'd totally get how teens go bananas for a celebrity.

But watching the movie at age 40 instead of in my twenties or the play at age 16, I have one word for Hugo:  Run.

I know the 50's and 60's were a different time, and this is your first girlfriend or whatever, and the movie absolutely makes light of how seriously teen-agers take things, but.  Hugo, my man:  Run.  I don't care how cute Ann-Margret is or how much she pouts.  That girl is gonna run all over you until she dumps you and then laughs about you to her friends.  Two days after the ending of that movie - that girl is going to dump you for the first soda jerk who tells her "she's more mature than all the other girls".  You'll be fine, Hugo.  Maybe not "Ann-Margret is supposedly 16 here" fine, but that girl is trouble, that starts with T, which rhymes with P and that stands for Pool.

Wrong musical.

I dunno.  It's weird.  I kind of hate everyone in this movie.  Even Janet Leigh, which is weird, but... surely America was ready for Chita Rivera (who played the role on Broadway) or Rita Moreno.  I mean, who doesn't want to see Rita Moreno?  You can't hate Rita Moreno.  Someone way less white than Janet Leigh, anyway.  But, we were only two years after Natalie Wood played a Puerto Rican, so I don't know what I was expecting.

On the plus side, the movie is also about the benefits of hard drugs and slipping them to people unknowingly.  The success of all players relies on Albert, who has invented a new kind of speed, as he drugs a Russian conductor (because, seriously, it's 1963 and Russians aren't real humans, anyway), and a Russian Ballet goes way too fast.  It's hilarious, the movie says.

Oh, 1960's.  You really knew how to apply stimulants to solve problems.

There's no doubt the movie has some good song and dance numbers, the songs themselves are quite good and many are now standards.  But...  yeah.

The movie is different from the play, but I don't care, and neither do you.

Yeah, I'm calling it.  We're done here.

*The highlight for me was when some buddies showed up, and every time a sign went up or down, they'd bellow my last name from the audience.

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