Taking a Risk on Bye Bye Birdie Paved the Way for Avenue Q and Something Rotten!

News   Taking a Risk on Bye Bye Birdie Paved the Way for Avenue Q and Something Rotten!
 
Musicals like Anything Goes and Bye Bye Birdie are often considered old-fashioned classics that receive affectionate revivals. But when they first premiered, these musicals were ground-breaking works that opened doors for inventive new styles of theatre.

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So many musicals are based on original sources. In fact, the majority of musicals that make it to Broadway are based on novels, plays, historical events and movies, but very few of the musicals counted as a "success" come from original ideas. There is a great risk in creating a piece that doesn't have a tried-and-true story, an already devised structure, from which a musical can be shaped. Throughout the history of Broadway, however, there have been some surprising hits that emerged from innovative, talented creators who find an original voice with a distinctly original idea. With musicals readying themselves for openings such as Fun Home and Something Rotten!, it's interesting to look back over the years and examine some musicals that took a real risk by being new, out-of-the-box or steadfast in the face of adversity, finding success despite the odds.

Ethel Merman in <i>Anything Goes</i>
Ethel Merman in Anything Goes

One of the most enduring examples of a musical that manifested from original concepts is the 1934 hit Anything Goes. The comic story of two stowaways on a luxury liner who find "Friendship" amid myriad complications has certainly endured the test of time, considering a successful Off-Broadway mounting in 1962, and two Tony-winning Broadway revivals, one in 1987 and the other in 2011. The piece also received two film versions (1936 and 1956), and a made-for-television inception (1956). Anything Goes also traveled well, with several successful West End productions. The lively, fun-filled storyline by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and the fizzy Cole Porter tunes that populate it made for the perfect distraction from the Great Depression, which was only halfway through its devastating term of unemployment, homelessness and bread lines.

What made Anything Goes such a risk was the fact that the show's original plot had to be entirely scrapped and rewritten with just three weeks until the curtain went up on its Broadway opening. It was an entirely different show than how it started. The story was intended to take place on a deserted island, following a bomb threat and shipwreck that brought together a menagerie of colorful characters. Tragically, a real-life maritime disaster struck and the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire and 138 lives were lost. Suddenly, shipwrecks were a taboo subject for musical comedy and Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse were brought in to take the existing material and reshape it into something that wouldn't offend audiences who would no doubt make associations with the recent catastrophe. It would have been easy to just scrap the piece altogether, but the producer and creators pressed on and found themselves with a hit.

Eileen Rodgers starred in the 1962 revival
Eileen Rodgers starred in the 1962 revival

Anything Goes ran for 420 performances, becoming the fourth-longest run of a musical in the 1930s. Its success also catapulted performer Ethel Merman (already a popular face on Broadway), to full-fledged star status, providing her with the first musical role and a parade of songs with which she would be forever associated. The musical was also a financial success and continues to be a popular piece with theatre groups around the world. In 1960, the idea of rock and roll on Broadway was an absurd one. The Broadway showtune had its own place, and the rock song had its shaping world of listeners, poised on the precipice of dominating the Billboard charts before the decade was done. In 1967, Hair would claim the victory for rock on the musical stage, but it was Bye Bye Birdie seven years earlier that would usher in the idea that this strange new music had a place amongst the footlights. Inspired by the 1957 drafting of Elvis Presley into the United States military, the creators of Bye Bye Birdie imagined the hysteria and complications that would arise when a gaggle of young rock-and-roll enthusiasts were bereft of their worshipped star Conrad Birdie.

When thinking of the bravest of all musicals to come to Broadway, and of all the musicals that were stepping into the land of risks, Bye Bye Birdie ranks at the top of that list. First, the creative team was essentially a band of up-and-comers. Charles Strouse (music), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) are certainly known today as stalwarts of the musical theatre, but their resumes were fairly short at the time. Second, the story was one that was entirely crafted by Stewart, an original idea that centered on rock-and-roll performer Conrad Birdie's agent and songwriter Albert and his relationship with his ever-suffering secretary and fiancée Rosie as they try to squeeze one more hit out of the obnoxious star before he leaves for the military. Third, Strouse and Adams got away with the unimaginable. Within their very traditional Broadway-style score, they managed to satirize the rock-and-roll phenomenon and its cause for a generation gap, by sneaking a few songs into the show that emulated the "Elvis" style. "Honestly Sincere," "One Last Kiss" and "A Lot of Livin' to Do" were very much like the songs teens would have been listening to on the radio, thus proving that the genre could be utilized successfully within the confines of a Broadway musical. A decade later, it would be the audacity of Bye Bye Birdie that would lead to Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and the film "Tommy."

Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke in <i>Bye Bye Birdie</i>
Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie

Critics generally cheered, especially excited by the original concept and the performance of Chita Rivera. Bye Bye Birdie won the Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as a handful of other accolades, eclipsing the season's other big musical, Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, in the process. Gower Champion took home awards for Best Director and Best Choreography. A successful, but much-revised, film version of "Bye Bye Birdie" was made in 1963, shifting the focus to teen sensation Ann-Margret's role as Kim MacAfee. A made-for-television version in 1995 featured Vanessa Williams, Jason Alexander and Tyne Daly. The musical has only been revived on Broadway once (2009), but it remains one of the most commonly produced musicals in high schools, community theatres and summer stock companies. Today, it is perhaps taken for granted for the change it incited, but in its day, Bye Bye Birdie was unconventional and completely original.

One of the most avant-garde of all musicals to venture to the Great White Way was a little piece called Urinetown. Starting out at the New York International Fringe Festival and then produced Off-Broadway, the musical eventually opened at the Henry Miller Theatre in 2001 for a run of 965 performances. The piece, by Mark Hollman (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics), with its wince-inducing title alone, was gearing up for a tough-sell to the matinee set. The question is, "Did that intriguing title create an audience or frighten them away?" Probably a little of both. The musical repeatedly mocks its own moniker within the storyline, admitting that it is in entirely poor taste. Just as many people seek out the absurd, salacious or offbeat as are turned off by it.

A scene from <i>Urinetown</i>
A scene from Urinetown

As if its name didn't present enough possible problems and financial risk, Urinetown is pure satire and not exactly what people have come to expect from their Broadway musicals. With a minimal production design and an in-your-face directing approach, the piece felt like a less-than-subtle nod to the plays and stylings of Bertolt Brecht. Brazen, grungy, direct and smartly subversive, Urinetown seemed more at home in the little Off-Broadway theatre where it first stretched its wings, far from the lights of a more conventionally programmed Broadway. Despite this, it proved to be a hit by Broadway's terms. How?

True, Urinetown had been successful Off-Broadway, but what works there doesn't necessarily transfer to the Broadway stage. There had to be a more intrinsic, universal connection for it to succeed on Broadway. Urinetown and its creators found the one ingredient that made this show universal despite its subject matter: in the writing and delivery of its humor. Theatregoers had felt the weight of the political strong-arm and had witnessed the ongoing corrupt systems of government and corporate greed controlling their wallets, personal lives, and liberties. A musical that boldly addressed these transgressions by creating a world where our basic bodily functions were taxed through the required use of pay toilets owned and operated by a corporation named "Urine Good Company" helped the audience feel like they were in on the joke (or ultimately, helped them see that they were part of an even bigger one). Altruistic heroes of the working class taking on the smarmy, manipulative rich power holders, is a theme that has attracted audiences for centuries. Infuse that with humor and your audience is bound to embrace the show. Urinetown did well at the Tony Awards, taking home trophies for Best Book, Best Score and Best Direction (John Rando). It lost the big prize to Thoroughly Modern Millie, but that didn't stop the piece from becoming one of the most sought-out titles by colleges, professional theatres and even, surprising as it is, youth theatre groups. So many odds were stacked against Urinetown being a success on Broadway, it is encouraging to know in the end that the richness of the material and the nerve of its creators was rewarded for artistic achievement and has resulted in a strong shelf life.

An unlikely musical period, but an especially big risk for Broadway was the musical Avenue Q. Featuring a quirkily original concept with a book by Jeff Whitty, and a score by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, the piece appeared to be no more than a glorified puppet show with slightly offensive humor. The vastness of Broadway houses don't particularly lend themselves to the intimacy of puppetry unless it is done on a grand scale a la The Lion King, and puppets are for kids, right?

Wrong! Avenue Q, transferred from Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre in 2003 to the perfectly-scaled-for-puppet-fun John Golden Theatre on Broadway, and an enormous hit was born. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical, ran for 2,534 performances, then made the unique choice of moving the production back Off-Broadway at New World Stages where it continues to play to this day.

Stephanie D'Abruzzo in <i>Avenue Q</i>
Stephanie D'Abruzzo in Avenue Q

Avenue Q succeeded on Broadway, not because it was a puppet show, but because it was filled with heart and told several stories of the human experience that were instantly relatable to the average theatregoer. Princeton, a recent college graduate with a B.A. in English, finds himself looking for a home and a job in NYC and stumbles upon a new group of friends that are more-than-slightly reminiscent of "Sesame Street" characters. On Avenue Q, humans and puppets interact, teaching lessons about adult life just like we learned as kids on the alluded to children's program. Trekkie Monster is addicted to porn, Christmas Eve and Brian are an interracial couple with marital problems, Nicky and Rod are male roommates who may or may not have a sexual attraction to each other and Kate Monster is a single teacher's assistant who just wants to find a connection with someone and open a school for monsters. Even child star Gary Coleman has landed there, experiencing harder times as the sassy superintendent on Avenue Q. The story is about real people with real, everyday problems: paying bills, finding love, dealing with confidence issues, but it delivers these problems with such humor and honesty, that we all easily connect. The original story got at the heart of the dialogues average Americans were having about their lives. Avenue Q was easy to relate to. It's in finding those connections that original stories speak to an audience and become hits. Also, an advertisement slyly cautioning "Full Puppet Nudity" did its share to pique the interest of passersby.

Successful Broadway musicals with original stories are far and between. The ones that work the best are devised by creators who know how to speak to an audience and invite them to celebrate in the shared experiences of life. Timely and timeless, original musicals that succeed walk the tightrope between the two, finding contemporary relevance and durable themes. Their success makes their inherent risks all the more delicious.

Mark Robinson in a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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