Honoring a Classic, Longbottom Still Puts a Fresh "Happy Face" on Birdie

News   Honoring a Classic, Longbottom Still Puts a Fresh "Happy Face" on Birdie
 
Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom says that when he was younger he wore down the needle of his record player listening to the infectious show tune "Put on a Happy Face" on the cast album of Bye Bye Birdie.

Carnival! director and choreographer Robert Longbottom.
Carnival! director and choreographer Robert Longbottom. Photo by Joan Marcus

Now that the Tony Award-nominated choreographer (Flower Drum Song) is directing and choreographing the first Broadway revival of the 1960 hit musical, is he reinventing the iconic charm number in which a songwriter cheers up a pair of sad teen girls whose pop idol is joining the Army?

Longbottom says that when Roundabout Theatre Company unveils Bye Bye Birdie's first preview on Sept. 10, audiences will hear the show's signature song just as it was presented in 1960 — sort of.

"It's the exact same dance music," Longbottom told Playbill.com, referencing the original work of arranger John Morris. "It's one of the more beloved things from the show. I'm working with the best dance arranger in the business, David Chase, and we could have easily scrapped it and done something new, but it's brilliant. It's a great piece of music. I've chosen to do it with six very unhappy fan girls."

John Stamos (Broadway's Nine) now plays the Dick Van Dyke-created role of Albert, the manager-songwriter of pop idol Conrad Birdie, played by Nolan Gerard Funk. Birdie's conscription into the military in 1960 creates an earthquake in the lives of American teenagers (like Kim MacAfee, played by 13 actress Allie Trimm) and their families (Tony nominee Dee Hoty and Tony winner Bill Irwin as Kim's folks, in Sweet Apple, OH). The event also causes trouble between Albert and his girlfriend Rosie (played by Gina Gershon). Albert's pushy mama, Mae, played by Tony nominee Jayne Houdyshell, throws fuel on the fire.

Longbottom and Roundabout explored the Tony Award-winning Best Musical Bye Bye Birdie in a workshop two years ago. "It played like gangbusters; I was very very heartened by it," Longbottom says.

For this first Broadway revival, some revisions and refinements have been made to the show, which has a Tony-winning script and score by the late Michael Stewart (book), Charles Strouse (music) and Lee Adams (lyrics).

"The choice to cast the kids as genuine teenagers made a huge difference — just the believability factor," Longbottom says. "I'm sure in 1960 Susan Watson and company were adorable, but Allie Trimm is 15 years old, and it comes with lots and lots of dividends. She's absolutely adorable."

Ann-Margret was in her 20s when she played the curvy Kim in the movie version of the musical. Longbottom says, "She was great and powerful. We've taken the number that opens that movie and we use it as our finale curtain call. It's a dandy little number — Strouse and Adams wrote it. It's kind of nice to have a title song at the end."

For fans of the show, there are some unresolved song-assignment issues that stick out in the post-Hammerstein, post-Sondheim age of well-made, musically-integrated shows. For example, poor Hugo Peabody, Kim's boyfriend, never had a song.

"We gave him one," Longbottom announces. "He sings a good deal of 'One Boy' [traditionally Kim's song] because Matt Doyle [of Spring Awakening] has such a voice that we thought: 'Let that song be a dialogue.' So he sings a good deal of it. She introduces it and once he's convinced that she's genuine, he sings along. It's great to hear his voice."

Longbottom says Strouse and Adams were "very generous" about being flexible as the new creative team explored the material. Longbottom knew the team from having directed a reading of their musical, Marty, in recent years.

Longbottom explains, "The score is beloved and that record is something that so many people grew up with. I think it would be foolish to play with lyrics, even though there's a temptation [to change] some things that will be [obscure] to 14-year-olds today — including 'Ed Sullivan.' I didn't want to mess with them. If the context is correct, you're going to understand who 'Abby Lane' was. If you know it, all the better."

Still, he admits, "I've changed one lyric because I put Mrs. Peterson into 'Spanish Rose' — I never could really get ahold of…where that number was taking place, other than an 11 o'clock number on stage."

Chita Rivera originated the role of Rosie Grant [now called Rosie Alvarez], whose potential mother-in-law, Mae, hates that fact that her son is in love with a Latina. So Rosie sings a solo song that spoofs stereotypes. "I'll be more Espanol than Abbe Lane," she spits, referring to the rumba-happy nightclub singer-actress married to Xavier Cugat.

Longbottom says, "By putting the mother there as the point of receiving all of that, it made a whole lot more sense for [Rose] to drag out all these kooky stereotypes, and have fun at Mae's expense."

The lyric change comes here. "As opposed to singing, 'I'm just a Spanish tamale according to Mae,' she sings 'you love to say' — and she sings it directly at Jayne Houdyshell. It pays off and it gives the actress playing Rosie something to really play — and aim it at somebody."

Gershon (Broadway's Boeing-Boeing, Hollywood's Showgirls) was quoted recently saying that original director-choreographer Gower Champion's "Shriners' Ballet" — an Act Two comic dance in which Rose blows off steam at a local meeting hall in Sweet Apple — was cut from the revival because it was too "gang rape-y."

Longbottom says the specialty piece "was not cut to be politically correct, nor do I look at what they did as any kind of 'gang rape.' That was an excessive, flippant comment — that's how Gina talks, she's funny. But Miss Gershon dances quite a bit. I wanted her big dance expression to be 'Spanish Rose.' As opposed to have her dancing constantly through the show — at least for my Rosie — the impact will be her dancing at the end of the show."

Longbottom cut "Shriners' Ballet" two years ago in workshop. He explains, "I felt it held up the flow of the story. …As brilliant a number as it was, and it certainly was a terrific showcase for Chita Rivera, there's something misogynistic about it — there's something about Rose's choice going under a table [of men], head first, with her legs spread for four counts of eight, that I didn't really want to contend with. The bigger reason, ultimately, is that it's Gower Champion's number. It's his concept, it has virtually nothing to do with the movement of the plot. It's like the ballet they had in the first act ["How to Kill a Man," according Internet Broadway Database] which is something I didn't think anybody ever does."

Longbottom doesn't think fans will be disappointed with the amount of dance in this new Bye Bye Birdie. "We have a dancing Conrad Birdie. 'A Lot of Livin' to Do' is a huge dance piece, and we've incorporated Rosie into that a bit: As she's on her way to [Maud's, a local watering hole], you get to hear her point of view. She and Conrad and Kim are all itching to get out there and let their hair down. That was an opportunity for me to have a lot more dance in that section."

Mae Peterson never had a song until a 1990s national tour and the 1995 TV film, in which Tyne Daly sang a salty and comic lament, "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore." Longbottom says that Houdyshell has no song, but that Stewart's comic scenes for her are like music.

"We have virtually changed not a word of what Michael Stewart wrote for her," he says. "As much as that song they wrote for Tyne Daly in the movie is a dandy song, I love the monologues he wrote for her."

Longbottom adds, "When you cast someone like Jayne Houdyshell, you just get out of the way."

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Bye Bye Birdie begins performances at Henry Miller's Theatre Sept. 10 toward an Oct. 15 opening.

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Longbottom directs and choreographs the sweetly satiric 1960 musical about an Elvis-like singer who is about to go into the Army — and how the milestone impacts both his manager (Albert, played by John Stamos) and all of teen-age America.

The productions stars John Stamos, Gina Gershon, Bill Irwin, Jayne Houdyshell, Dee Hoty, Matt Doyle, Jake Evan Schwencke and Allie Trimm, plus Nolan Funk as Conrad Birdie, with ensemble members Catherine Blades, Deanna Cipolla, Paula Leggett Chase, Riley Costello, John Treacy Egan, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Todd Gearhart, Patty Goble, Suzanne Grodner, Robert Hager, Nina Hennessey, Natalie Hill, Julia Knitel, Jess Le Protto, David McDonald, JC Montgomery, Jillian Mueller, Paul Pilcz, Daniel Quadrino, Emma Rowley, Tim Shew, Kevin Shotwell, Allison Strong, Jim Walton, Brynn Williams and Branch Woodman.

This will be a limited engagement through Jan. 10, 2010.

Bye Bye Birdie's design team includes Andrew Jackness (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes), Ken Billington (lights), Acme Sound Partners (sound), Howard Werner (projections), David Holcenberg (musical director), Howard Joines (musical coordinator), David Brian Brown (hair and wigs), Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and David Chase (music supervisor).

Here's how Roundabout characterizes the show: "In Bye Bye Birdie, the exuberant rock 'n' roll musical comedy, it's 1960 and hip-swingin' teen idol superstar Conrad Birdie (Funk) has been drafted into the Army. Birdie's manager Albert (Stamos) and his secretary Rosie (Gershon) have cooked up a plan to send him off with a swell new song and one last kiss from a lucky teenage fan… on 'The Ed Sullivan Show'!"

Bye Bye Birdie received the 1961 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Tickets are available online at www.byebyebirdieonbroadway.com or by phone at (212)239-6200. Ticket prices range from $86.50 - $136.50. To become a Roundabout subscriber visit www.roundabouttheatre.org or call Roundabout Ticket Services (212)719-1300.

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All tickets for the first preview performance on Sept. 10 will be $10, made possible through the support of Bank of America. These tickets will only be available for purchase at the Henry Miller's Theatre box office, beginning at noon Aug. 10.

Bye Bye Birdie will play Tuesday through Saturday evening at 8 PM with Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 PM.

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