Better Know a Musical: Bye Bye Birdie

Bye Bye Birdie, the terminally-square musical of the ’60s, is having something of a moment here in 2009. This week, Mad Men repurposed Ann-Margret’s shrill opening sequence from the film version. That comes on the heels of Gina Gershon singling out a scene in the upcoming Broadway revival, in which she will star along with John Stamos, as “too gang-rape-y” yesterday. Wow, a Mad Men-approved, gang-rape-y good time! Sounds good, right? Well, don’t get too excited, because Bye Bye Birdie is actually one of the corniest musicals of all time. We have this on good authority, having acted in it in 9th grade (we played Reporter #1).

Conrad Birdie is the Birdie referred to in the play’s title. He’s basically Elvis, or for those too old to understand that reference point, an old-timey Zac Efron. So Conrad Birdie, teen idol, is drafted into the army, and his long-suffering agent Albert plans one last publicity stunt before his send-off. Conrad’s last rite will be a kiss with wholesome everygirl Kim McAfee of Sweet Apple, Ohio. This turns into a big mess, and Albert is already in a mess with his girlfriend who just wanted him to be an English teacher, goshdarnit, and therein lies the play’s central conflict.

There are a lot of corny songs, namely “Put On a Happy Face,” “Kids!” (chorus: “What’s the matter with kids today?”) and “A Lot of Livin’ To Do,” the last of which we remember dancing to on stage while wearing capris. Ack. All of this goes to say that Bye Bye Birdie doesn’t contain winking references to the ’60s the way Mad Men does.  It was written in the late ’50s and includes a song with the lyrics “did she really get pinned?” without a trace of irony.

However, underneath the High School Musical-y ness of the play, it’s actually kind of good. Mainly, we’re talking about the relationship and songs between Rosie and Albert (Gershon and Stamos). “Baby, Talk to Me” is a barbershop quartet-style hymn of sadness that we will always love. “An English Teacher” predates Avenue Q‘s “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” lyric by a couple decades, proving that English major angst has long spun musical gold.  So, while we never want to have to watch Ann-Margret’s heaving bosom again, we remain stealth Bye Bye Birdie apologists. Because, really, it was sooo much better than our junior year class play, The Pajama Game.