Putting On a Happy Face, Bye Bye Birdie Opens on Broadway

By Kenneth Jones
October 15, 2009

Nolan Gerard Funk, Gina Gershon, Jayne Houdyshell, Bill Irwin, John Stamos and Allie Trimm officially say hello to Bye Bye Birdie on Oct. 15, when the first Broadway revival of the Tony Award-winning musical opens at the new Henry Miller's Theatre.

The gently satiric show from 1960 is considered the first musical to introduce rock 'n' roll to Broadway. In the brightly colored revival directed and choreographed by Tony Award nominee Robert Longbottom (Side Show, Flower Drum Song), audiences can see the seeds of Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Legally Blonde and other latter-day pop musicals.

Previews for the Roundabout Theatre Company production began Sept. 10 at the Henry Miller's, a new theatre built on 43rd Street (east of Times Square) on the site of the famed venue of the same name; the historic façade was retained. The auditorium is subterranean.

As in 1960, the Tony Award-winning musical by Michael Stewart (book), Lee Adams (lyrics) and Charles Strouse (music) pokes fun at Elvis-like pop stars and embraces the pre-Kennedy innocence and conformity of American family life.

There are hip-swiveling rock songs — "Honestly Sincere," "One Last Kiss" — sung by a character named Conrad Birdie, played by Nolan Gerard Funk (of TV's "Spectacular!"), but there are also sweetly plucky show tunes like "Put on a Happy Face," sung by Birdie's manager-songwriter, Albert, played by Stamos. Within a decade "real" rock music would flood Broadway by way of Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, but Birdie is significant in its introduction (however gentle) of an electric guitar sound. Some call it more rockabilly than rock.

Director Longbottom has adjusted some scenes and songs to deepen the dramatic impact. "One Boy," for example, sung by Ohio teen Kim MacAfee (played by Trimm), who is Birdie's biggest fan, is now a duet between Kim and her pimply beau, Hugo Peabody, played by Matt Doyle. They get an assist from a couple of Kim's girlfriends. Trimm is a teenager herself, having appeared in Broadway's 13. Doyle appeared in Spring Awakening.

There is one interpolation in the score: Strouse and Adams' title tune from the film version is now the rousing finale of this revival.

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Nolan Gerard Funk in Bye Bye Birdie
photo by Joan Marcus
The plot of Bye Bye Birdie, an original musical not based on source material, concerns idol Birdie being drafted into the Army — and how the milestone impacts both his manager and all of teen-age America.

Here's how Roundabout characterizes the Tony Award-winning Bye Bye Birdie: "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. The writers all won Tonys for their work.

Tony Award winner Irwin (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Fool Moon) is Mr. Harry MacAfee (and actively uses his clowning and physical prowess in the show), Houdyshell is Mrs. Mae Peterson (Albert's hectoring mama), Hoty is Mrs. MacAfee and Schwencke is Kim's little brother Randolph MacAfee.

Bye Bye Birdie also features 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), Angelina Avallone (makeup), David Brian Brown (hair and wigs), Jonathan Tunick (orchestrations) and David Chase (music supervisor and vocal/dancer arranger). Peter Hanson is production stage manager.

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

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