Monday, October 19, 2009

cinema obscura: Gene Saks' "Bye Bye Birdie" (1995)

The cast of the good film of "Bye Bye Birdie," the one directed by Gene Saks, not George Sidney
After nearly 50 years, "Bye Bye Birdie" has made it back to Broadway for, unbelievably, its very first New York City revival.

The beloved Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical comedy from 1960 (their debut) had been Gower Champion's Broadway directorial debut, with Champion both helming and choreographing, and his appealing cast included Dick Van Dyke as Albert, a reluctant talent agent; Chita Rivera as Rosie, his secretary and muse; the late, inimitable Kay Medford as Albert's grasping mother, Mae; Dick Gautier, dynamite as the Presley-like Conrad Birdie; Susan Watson, the first and best Kim MacAfee, a girl possibly being corrupted by Birdie; Michael J. Pollard (yes!) as Hugo Peabody, her lovelorn boyfriend, and the late Paul Lynde who, as her father, turned the all-American dad into a sissy. A nice subversive touch, especially when set in the idyllic Sweet Apple, Ohio - Small Town, U.S.A.

The New York Times greeted with the new revival with a pre-opening puff piece by Charles McGrath and Ben Brantley's savage pan, both of which invoked unfavorable comments about George Sidney's 1963 film version.

No complaints from me here. Sidney's film was pretty much a bastardization of the show - albeit an inexplicably popular bastardization.

No mention, however, of the fine 1995 television film made from the material by Gene Saks - a version that went back to Michael Stewart's original book for the show (the TV film has no screenplay credit) and that restored the more sophisticated Strouse-Adams songs that Sidney and his hack writer Irving Brecher promptly trashed in order to showcase Ann-Margret, grotesquely miscast as a teen ingenué. Columbia let Sidney and Brecher make so many bizarre and gratuitous changes that you have to wonder why the studio bought the film rights to the show in the first place.

Not that it mattered at the time - or even now - but Sidney's film also starred Van Dyke and Lynde, recreating their Broadway roles (Lynde in a less exaggerated, more conventional version of what he played on stage), a wasted Janet Leigh as Rosie, a game Maureen Stapleton as Mae, Bobby Rydell, a bad actor utterly hopeless as Hugo Peabody, and a humorless stick named Jesse Pearson, a complete wash-out as Birdie.

Jason as Albert
Champion, who was initially set to make his film-directing debut with "Birdie," reportedly took one look at the script and bailed. Among the excised songs were the excellent "An English Teacher," which opened the show, the cynical "All-American Boy," the Sinatra-esque "Baby, Talk to Me," the defiant duet "What Did I Ever See in Him?" and, most jaw-dropping of all, the show-stopping "Spanish Rose." After Champion left, Onna White was brought in to choreograph. (He eventually made his film directorial debut the same year - 1963 - with Debbie Reynolds' "My Six Loves"; Reynolds was Champion's original choice for the screen Rosie; he had Jack Lemmon, his co-star from H.C. Potter's 1955 musical, "Three for the Show," in mind for Albert.)
Janet Leigh, being a good sport and a team player in the misconceived first "Birdie"
The 1963 film Disney-fied the material, stressing the kids (mostly A-M). The adult characters were either downplayed or turned into morons. Albert, ostensibly the lead character, was planning to be an English teacher in the stage version (hence, the opening song); for Sidney's film, his college major was changed to chemistry - an alteration that added all sorts of nonsense involving a pill called Speedo, a turtle and a Russian ballet company. The "Put on a Happy Face" number, staged on Broadway as an appealing Gene Kelly-type bit, incorporated stick-figure animation for the film. The whole affair is crude and idiotic - and unnecessary.
Chita & Dick in the original
And, apparently, the new Broadway revival is just as bad (that's if you go by Ben Brantley, of course). So much for "Bye Bye Birdie's" reputation as "foolproof."

Before Saks filmed his version, he directed a 1991 revival with Tommy Tune and Ann Reinking that opened in San Francisco and then toured. It was full of newcomers - up-and-comging Susan Egan in the A-M role of Kim MacAfee; Marc Kudisch as Conrad Birdie and Steve Zahn (yes!) as Hugo Peabody, the goof who fancies Kim his inmorata.

Alan Sues, from "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In," was once on-board to play the Lynde part of Harry MacAfee - and presumably revive the sissiness of the role - but he never became a part of the ensemble. The role was played by Dale O'Brien, who essayed it as a sitcom dad.

Saks' was the complete show. He added a new song for Tune called "A Giant Step" - and he resisted inserting the title song that was especially written for (forced upon?) the Sidney film. There was one deletion, however: Saks dropped the Act One "How to Kill a Man" dance, a comic dream ballet that I suspect was designed by Champion specifically to showcase Rivera. In it, Rosie dances her way through fantasy murders and the piece ends with Van Dyke's Albert, expiring and ascending into the sky - the rafters - wearing wings and being pulled up by wire.

(Note in Passing: "How to Kill a Man" has never been staged in any other production of "Bye Bye Birdie" that I've seen, only the original - although, frankly, I have no idea if it is included in the new revival.)

When this "Birdie" went on tour, Strouse and Adams added another new song - "He's Mine," a witty battle of wills sung by Rosie and Mae.

Saks ("Barefoot in the Park" and "The Odd Couple") clearly learned a lot in the four years between staging his revival and directing the movie. His '95 TV film is the definitive "Bye Bye Birdie," with more music than I've seen in any other version of the show. "A Giant Step" from the 1991 revival was inserted into the plotline, but not "He's Mine." Instead, Strouse and Adams wrote two new songs, "Let's Settle Down" (for Rosie) and "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore" (for Mae). Saks also gave in and used the song "Bye Bye Birdie" twice - over the main credits and also as a pleasing four-part harmony, rendered by a quartet of teenage girls.

Kudisch reprised his role as Birdie for the TV version, joined by versatile Jason Alexander as Albert, a very fine Vanessa Williams as Rosie, Tyne Daly, frighteningly good as Mae, Chynna Phillips, a modest Kim, and George Wendt as Harry. The '95 film also revived the role of Gloria Rasputin, played by Vickie Lewis (who appeared with Alexander on a few "Seinfeld" episodes as his secretary.)

Saks filmed the material in the style of Robert Zemeckis' charming "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" (1978), with production designer Charles C. Bennett and set decorator Cynthia T. Lewis, abetted by cinematographer Glen MacPherson, giving the opening New York scene a gray, near-sepia-toned look and the scenes set in Sweet Apple a pastel glow. Mary E. McLeod's costume design fully complement this coloring. And Ann Reinking, Saks' Rosie on stage, did the first-rate choreography.

All in all, this "Bye Bye Birdie" is one of the all-time best screen musicals...

...even if it was made for the small screen.

And, good news! It's available on DVD.


Cliff said...

Although the song was a nice addition to the '63 version of "Birdie," I wish Saks had continued his restraint and left it out of his '95 TV version. It's too closely identified with Ann-Margret who, as you say, over-dominated the original film and threw it off. The movie helped her career but she certainly didn't help the movie. (I hear, however, that it's used in the new Broadway production.)

joe baltake said...


You're dead-right about the song's too-close association with A-M. If you think about it, she actually steps out of the film (the plot) to sing it. And, yes, it is used in the new production - to close the show.


Margaret said...

I never understood why they would cast Janet Leigh, put her in a black wig, say her character is Spanish and then drop all comments to the character's ethnicity, including the song "Spanish Rose." I was always surprised they didn't go with Rita Moreno, as she had just won an Oscar. They obviously didn't think Chita was big enough a star to carry the film. I like the idea of Lemmon, though, in the role of Albert.

joe baltake said...

I agree with you about Leigh, an actress I always liked but clearly wrong for this role. I also question Reynolds in it. Moreno was the obvious choice. Lemmon would have been great - no disrespect to Van Dyke intended - and was, in fact, Champion's choice for the stage version. But Jack was committed to a play that same year - "Face of a Hero." Still, it would have been a kick to see him in the role.

martin m. said...

According to IMDb, neither Dick Van Dyke nor Paul Lynde liked the film version. Both thought too much attention was paid to the Ann-Margaret character.

joe baltake said...

I believe Janet Leigh wasn't a fan either. I interviewed her about one of her books several years ago and brought up "Birdie." All she said was that, in terms of her musicals, she preferred Richard Quine's "My Sister Eileen." Very diplomatic. She then went on to speak at length about "Eileen." (I had wanted to ask her about an old gossip-column item that reported that, when "Birdie" was first previewed, a disappointed Leigh slapped George Sidney after the screening. She felt betrayed. I wanted to confirm, but didn't have the guts to ask her about it.)

John Kaiser said...

Loved the TV version.

Debbie Tyson said...

Turner Classics often shows this feature on Elvis and one of his close associates reminisces about the making of "Viva La Vegas!" and how Presley's handlers complained to the director, George Sidney, about how he was favoring Ann-Margret, picking the shots that showcased her but really didn't do anything for Elvis. Sidney apparently had a crush on her which was obvious to a lot of people.

joe baltake said...

I've seen that featurette on Turner. Very interesting, but not surprising. Ann-Margret had that affect on directors. The same complaints have been made about those associated with "Bus Riley's Back in Town." She's magnetic, talented and, reportedly, a hard worker. So, directors loved her. I can think of few other actresses who tried so hard to be her best and improve. My only problem with her is that she was all wrong for "Birdie." But, hey, it made her a star - so what do I know?

wwolfe said...

As one whose first memory is of singing Beatles songs with his fellow five-year-olds in 1964, I was shocked the first time I saw "Birdie" and heard the teenage girls singing, "We love you Conrad, oh yes we do." I'd always assumed the teenage Beatles fans had made up their "We love you, Beatles" song, heard at airports and outside hotels the world over. Oh - another "Birdie" sighting: Ann-Margaret's number was used in a recent episode of "Mad Men," with the clear belief by the show's makers that it (or she) was a significant cultural marker of its era.

jbryant said...

Though I love film musicals, I've somehow never caught Bye Bye Birdie. I'll know now to look out for Saks' version first. Sounds great.

I've liked other George Sidney films though -- especially Kiss Me Kate and Scaramouche. And Irving Brecher wrote Meet Me in St. Louis, didn't he? That forgives a lot. :)

John Kaiser said...

iTunes has two albums that say Original Broadway Cast. One with Dick Van Dyke, the other with Peter Marshall, both with Chita Rivera headlining.

joe baltake said...


Irving Brecher worked on about a dozen or so screenplays in the 1940s before moving into television for just about all of the 1960s. By the time he wrote the adaptation of "Bye Bye Birdie" (his last credited work, by the way), he clearly picked up a lot of bad habits. There's a reason that the film feels like a glorified TV sitcom with music.

Yes, he did write "Meet Me in St. Louis," a film of which I am quite fond despite my irrational dislike of Garland. It is inarguably the best thing that Brecher ever wrote.

Mike said...

Brecher worked on the "Dobie Gillis" TV series right before he did "Birdie," an assignment which should have eminently prepared him for that film. It's odd that the "Gillis" show is much more sophisticated, savvy and witty than "Birdie," a show that was dumbed down considerably for the screen.

jbryant said...

Joe & Mike: Wow, I had no idea Brecher worked on Dobie Gillis, which just happens to be my favorite TV show ever (I caught it when some cable network was running it weeknights in the 80s). I even went to one of those celebrity collectors' shows just so I could meet Dwayne Hickman, get his autograph and have my picture taken with him. The only geeky fanboy thing I've ever done. :)

So yeah, as Mike suggests, Brecher must have picked up those bad habits on some other show!

Mary said...

I remember reading about that Janet Leigh incident, too. We're dating ourselves here, Joe!

joe baltake said...


I'm glad that I wasn't imaging it!


Excellent job at comparing "Dobie Gillis" to "Birdie." As you said, the TV series should have made his a promising writer for the movie.


jbryant said...

As near as I've been able to find out, Brecher wrote only one episode of Dobie Gillis, in the first season. BYE BYE BIRDIE was his last credit, so who knows? Maybe his draft was great, and he couldn't bear to stay in the biz after it was botched. He was only about 50 at the time, which is pretty early for retirement. I'd like to know the story.

He just died less than a year ago at the age of 94!

joe baltake said...

I'd like to know the full story, too, Jay. Fascinating stuff about Brecher.

Sylko said...

I never saw the 1962 version, but I really liked the 1995 TV movie. I thought Jason Alexander was great, but what I remember most was Vanessa Williams. I thought she was great. I need to see that again.