Everybody knows "Put On a Happy Face," the hit song from the Broadway musical, Bye Bye Birdie, but the name of Lee Adams is hardly on everybody's lips. Next to librettists, lyricists always seem to the forgotten collaborators. With composer Charles Strouse, his primary writing partner, lyricist Adams, now 78, contributed songs to such musicals as All American (which gave us "Once Upon a Time"), It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman! (which spawned the cabaret favorite, "You've Got Possibilities"), Applause (the smash musical version of "All About Eve"), Golden Boy (the Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle), to say nothing of the short-lived I and Albert, A Broadway Musical and Bring Back Birdie. Adams and Strouse will celebrate their first new show in 20 years this month when their musical version of Marty, based on the 1955 Academy Award-winning Paddy Chayefsky film, premieres at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, with an eye toward a Broadway future. Adams, whose hallmark is lyric simplicity, spoke to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about the 50 year creative partnership with Strouse, and the world of Marty, the plaintive tale of a lumpy Bronx butcher who yearns to love and be loved.
Playbill On-Line: I keep wondering where Lee Adams has been since 1981, when you and Charles Strouse did Bring Back Birdie.
Lee Adams: Well, he's been doing other things — some flops — I keep busy.
PBOL: Was your last original show Bring Back Birdie, the sequel to Bye Bye Birdie?
LA: That's the last show I did with Charles Strouse until this one. But in between I did a show that did not succeed on Broadway, with Mitch Leigh, called Ain't Broadway Grand. That's what happens sometimes. You never know how a show's gonna come out when you start. Charles and I have been working on other projects, too. Charles and I have finished a few years' work on a musical based on [Theodore Dreiser's novel] "An American Tragedy." We've been hacking away at that, trying to get that placed. We've been on Marty for about five years now.
PBOL: Whose idea was Marty, the musical?
LA: For years, lots of people have tried to get the rights from the Chayefsky people. Our first producer, Jim Weissenbach, who is still with the show, got the rights because he had Jason Alexander who was supposed to be Marty. On the strength of Jason Alexander, Paddy Chayefsky's widow and his son, who control the rights, said yes to Jim Weissenbach. Jim came to us. We'd worked with Jason Alexander on the TV "Bye Bye Birdie," at the time we thought that was great casting. [John C. Reilly now plays the role.] We went to work on it with another book writer [Aaron Sorkin] and worked on it a year and a half, then we got Rupert Holmes, and it necessitated a new show. We had two-thirds of a show written and that went out the window.
PBOL: Huntington Theatre Company in Boston is a nice out of the way place to make art — a quiet not-for-profit place to tryout.
LA: It's a perfect theatre for our show. That's the way you have to do it now. In the old days, we would tour a show to Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and work on it and fix it. That's not possible, economically, anymore. This theatre particularly appealed to us because it's the right size for the show. This is not a big, gaudy musical. PBOL: What was your first response to Marty as a musical?
LA: We thought, "yes!" We loved the picture. The movie, to me, was one of those iconic movies. Ernest Borgnine was wonderful. We liked the idea of a simple love story, which this is. We're going completely against the current wave on Broadway: The current thing is big gaudy musicals — lots of fun, dancing and yelling, like Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is wonderful, and like Mamma Mia!, which is, in its own way, wonderful, too.
PBOL: Yours is an intimate show.
LA: It's intimate, it takes itself seriously, it's a love story. A very touching love story because it's two people who are outcasts, they consider themselves unlovely and not wanted by anybody else. They meet and they end up together. It could not be a simpler story.
PBOL: Even shlubby guys have dreams.
LA: Absolutely. And shlubby guys find a woman and get married every day. We think it's a timeless subject. Our show is set in 1956, it could be set today, too. One of our challenges, of course, was to take this intimate story and broaden it into a musical without making it a big, splashy musical.
PBOL: There's a famous ballroom scene in the movie — doesn't he meet the girl there?
LA: There's the ballroom scene, sure, but our ballroom is populated by about six people. It's not a big cast for a musical.
PBOL: How do you depart from the film?
LA: The character of Clara [the girlfriend] was not really sharply defined. We have painted her in larger colors and given her a back story — a father and problems of her own, so we fleshed that out. We researched the Bronx of that time; it was a wonderful time. The Bronx in the 1950s was a vibrant ethnic neighborhood, before the [Robert] Moses highways came in and destroyed a lot of it.
PBOL: What was the challenge of writing the songs?
LA: One of the challenges for me, as the lyricist, was the vocabulary. I mean, you have what are basically blue collar people and they're not necessarily gonna use big words. Writing for them, you have to use plain language. If you are not careful, plain language can quickly become trite language. Keeping it plain and not trite was very difficult.
PBOL: Do you find that you and Charles Strouse write differently now than you did, say, 45 years ago?
LA: All I can say is, I thought it would get easier the more you did this work, but it doesn't. Maybe because you're tougher on yourself. You throw out more stuff. You learn to be more discerning, I think. I am a sweater. I don't write lyrics very fast or very glibly, which can make you crazy when your composer can write a tune in 10 minutes, which sometimes Charles can do. It's a process of sitting down and laboring to make it right. Are we writing differently? No, I don't think so. As always, you write for the characters. You write for the play.
PBOL: Here's the question you always get — which comes first, words or music or do you work many different ways?
LA: We work different ways. Usually, the words come first. We'll have a scene or an outline and we'll discuss it and see if a song comes in this scene. If so, where? Maybe if we're lucky we'll get an idea for a title. Then I'll go away and write a lyric to a dummy tune in my head and bring it back to Charles and he will criticize it ruthlessly. We'll hack it over, I'll probably go rewrite it, and then come back and when he starts I will criticize his music ruthlessly. You narrow it down like that. Sometimes, with ballads, the tune comes first. Composers have a trick, you know, of saving everything — every tune goes in the drawer. Unfortunately, lyricists can't seem to be able to do that. Everything has to be made to order. Usually with Charles, with whom I've written mostly, he and I prefer to have a lyric first.
PBOL: Why didn't you write with others over the years?
LA: Well, I have — I worked with others. I wrote a show with Albert Hague. Maybe Charles [who has written with more partners] likes to work harder than I do, maybe he works faster than I do.
PBOL: Your college background at Ohio State and Columbia University was in journalism and you were an editor in Manhattan before Birdie became a smash.
LA: My years on magazines taught me how to edit, which is very good thing for a lyricist to know. Book writers I've worked with often have used me, in a sense, as an editor. I always get involved with the book as much as I can.
PBOL: Did you think you would be in show business?
LA: Not really. I had written some lyrics at Ohio State...I kinda got hooked on it with an undergraduate show at Ohio State. It was something I was interested in but never thought I could make a living at it. I came to New York in 1949 to get my master's in journalism at Columbia, and I met Charles, who was a rehearsal pianist hoping to become a composer...and we began to work together. And 10 years later, we had our "overnight" hit.
PBOL: But until Birdie in 1960, you worked outside the business.
LA: I was a television writer and pre-interviewer for interview shows, then I worked on a magazine for five years as an article editor. I wrote Birdie while I was working on a magazine called This Week, a Sunday supplement in about 60 newspapers, coast to coast. We did 64 pages a week, in the late '50s. All my early lyric sheets are written on This Week paper. I would get to work early and hack away.
PBOL: You did revues Off-Broadway, before Birdie. That's where you built your songwriting muscles?
LA: Oh, yeah. But we learned our stuff also in the mountains, at Green Mansions, this place in the Adirondacks where young singles from New York would go to meet each other, and we had a full theatre program: Orchestra, sets, costumes, lights, a theatre. We would do an original revue every Saturday night — music, lyrics, sketches all summer. That was a great place. You had to learn to write fast. When it came time to write Birdie, we kept saying we needed a song like "Put On a Happy Face," which we wrote in the mountains. Finally, we said, maybe we could use "Happy Face."
PBOL: That was a Green Mansions trunk song?
LA: It was! And "Once Upon a Time" from All American was also one of the songs from Green Mansions.
PBOL: Was it tough to leave a steady journalism job for the unsure world of show business?
LA: Three months after Birdie opened, I was still at my desk at This Week. The boss came in one day and said, "Why are you still here?" I couldn't really believe that Birdie was a hit, that I could make a living writing lyrics. But I finally realized I could.
— By Kenneth Jones