BYE BYE BIRDIE, Hello Ann-Margret!

June 18, 2015 - 11:27am
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on the 1963 movie musical version of Bye Bye Birdie was written by Cinematheque staff member Amanda McQueen. A 35mm print of Bye Bye Birdie will screen at the Cinematheque on Friday, June 19, at 7 p.m. in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free and open to the public.

In the early-1960s, the Hollywood musical was dominated by two trends. On the one hand, there were big-budget adaptations of popular Broadway musicals. On the other hand, there were low-budget musicals showcasing contemporary pop stars; these were aimed primarily at teenagers, the largest movie-going demographic. Columbia's adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie, which spoofs the drafting of Elvis Presley, is a delightful intersection of these two forms of the genre.

On the whole, Broadway was slow to respond to the rise of rock 'n' roll. Although some in the struggling theater industry recognized that this new style of music could help attract much-needed audiences, few made much effort to incorporate it. Those shows that did – such as Ziegfeld Follies of 1957, which included a song called "I Don't Wanna Rock" – tended only to mock the music and its teenage listeners. Bye Bye Birdie also poked fun, but it did so gently and did not make teenagers the sole targets of its parody. Moreover, Birdie was a huge hit with audiences and critics, making it the first commercially successful Broadway musical to incorporate rock 'n' roll.

Birdie debuted on Broadway in April 1960 under the direction of Gower Champion, who also choreographed. Michael Stewart wrote the book, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams wrote the songs. This was Strouse and Adams' first musical, and many saw them as harbingers of a new direction in musical theater. For the most part, Birdie adheres to the typical Broadway sound, but Strouse does incorporate elements of rock 'n' roll, particularly in rock star Conrad Birdie's numbers, "Honestly Sincere" and "One Last Kiss." Birdie had a long and profitable New York run, spawned international and touring companies, and won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Columbia purchased the rights to the show in August 1960 for $850,000 plus 10% of the profits. Initially, Champion was to direct and Stewart was to adapt his own book to the screen. However, Champion soon bowed out of the project, and George Sidney, who'd spent much of his career at MGM directing musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Kiss Me Kate (1953), was hired instead. Stewart was replaced with screenwriter Irving Brecher, another MGM veteran who'd specialized in comedies and musicals, including the Marx Brothers' At the Circus (1939) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Brecher made a number of plot changes to Birdie, including adding Albert Peterson's biochemistry background and the climactic Russian Ballet sequence. Most significantly, though, teenager Kim McAfee was changed from a supporting character to the de facto lead when Ann-Margret was given the role.

In the early-1960s, Ann-Margret was just appearing on the entertainment scene. Thanks to well-reviewed live performances with George Burns in Las Vegas, in 1961 she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, who marketed her as the "female Elvis" because of her rough, sexy vocal style. That same year, she made her film debut in Pocketful of Miracles, which was followed by 20th Century-Fox's remake of State Fair (1962), starring Pat Boone. Enamored with the young, multi-talented actress, Sidney cast her in Birdie and increasingly made her the film's focus. In fact, Strouse and Adams wrote a new title song at the last minute to allow her to open and close the film. Increasing Ann-Margret's part, however, meant cutting scenes and songs from other cast members. Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde, who were reprising their respective stage roles as Albert and Kim's father Harry, were particularly incensed at this, with Lynde quipping that they should have retitled the film Hello Ann-Margret!

But Sidney and Columbia knew that Ann-Margret also had the potential to attract that lucrative teenage audience. To this same end, they cast teen idol Bobby Rydell as Kim's boyfriend Hugo Peabody, and his part was also beefed up to give him more opportunities to sing. Elvis Presley was first approached to play drafted rock 'n' roller Conrad Birdie, who was, after all, based on Elvis himself (his name, however, riffed on Conway Twitty, one of Elvis's chief rivals). But Colonel Tom Parker, Presley's manager, refused. The role went instead to Jesse Pearson, who had played Birdie in the national touring company. (Ann-Margret did star opposite – and have an off-camera affair with – the real Elvis in Viva Las Vegas the following year.)

The movie of Bye Bye Birdie opened in April 1963, breaking box office records in New York and Los Angeles, and ending up as the 13th highest grossing film of the year. Reviews, however, were mixed. A number of critics felt the musical had lost something in translation from stage to screen, and a few found it garish and tasteless. Moira Walsh of America magazine actually used Birdie as an opportunity to write at length about the "deleterious effects of movies . . . skillfully tailored to appeal to teen-agers and giving tacit, uncritical approval to contemporary teen-age mores." Walsh argued that Sidney had filmed Conrad's "gyrations . . . in a deliberately suggestive fashion," thereby undermining the intended satire of Presley's "'below-the-belt' school of vocalizing." In fact, the Production Code Administration had repeatedly warned Columbia about Birdie's pelvic thrusts, claiming that the "bumps" described in the script were "in vulgar taste and ask[ing] that they be omitted." While the PCA must have found the final result relatively unobjectionable, as Birdie was granted a seal of approval, Moira Walsh did not agree.

Other critics, though, found Birdie quite enjoyable. Variety was especially positive, praising Sidney's direction, Onna White's unique choreography, and all the performers, particularly Ann-Margret. "Singer, hoofer and cutie-pie, all wrapped up into one," the reviewer wrote, "this is one of the most exciting fresh personalities to take the cinematic stage in some time. The magnetism of early-vintage Judy Garland is here." Even critics who disliked the film tended to agree that Ann-Margret was a star, and her career quickly took off.

Overall, Bye Bye Birdie is more Broadway than rock 'n' roll, but Strouse and Adams' innovative score and Columbia's casting decisions nevertheless make it an interesting attempt to fuse the two. At a time when musicals were risky for Hollywood, Columbia opted to combine two tried-and-true strategies: Broadway and pop. Birdie would have few imitators in this regard; musicals tended to be either one or the other until rock made its way more permanently to the American theater at the turn of the decade. Birdie is a unique and fun experience, and one that – as evidenced by the reference to Ann-Margret’s title song on Mad Men – has become iconic.