Scan a list of titles from the American musical theater and you'll discover the vast majority were inspired by or based on plays, novels and films. The original musical, in contrast, is a rare property, one that features a new story devised by its creators.
Rarer still are original musicals that earned critical praise. That abbreviated list includes “Avenue Q,” “A Chorus Line,” “City of Angels” and “Company.” In contrast, “Pardon My English,” “Allegro,” “Fade Out — Fade In,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” and “Steel Pier” proved that even the most capable practitioners of this distinctly American art form — George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Kander and Ebb, respectively — didn't always achieve success.
Lyric Theatre opens its 50th season this week with another original musical, but unlike the failures mentioned above, “Bye Bye Birdie” became a tremendous success when it opened in 1960. With a score by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse, “Birdie” is fondly remembered for its hits “Put On a Happy Face” and “A Lot of Livin' to Do.”
This marks Lyric's third outing with “Birdie,” the story of a popular singer who's drafted into the Army. Conrad Birdie's promoters decide to capitalize on that event by having the good-looking singer bestow a kiss on a member of his teen fan club before reporting to boot camp.
The Lyric production features David Elder as Albert Peterson, Kat Nejat as Rose Alvarez, Eric Ulloa as Conrad Birdie and Charlotte Franklin as Mae Peterson. Lyn Cramer directs and choreographs. David Andrews Rogers is music director.
Elder and Nejat have 10 Broadway credits between them, the former having appeared in “42nd Street” and “Titanic,” and Nejat in “Lysistrata Jones” and “West Side Story.” We spoke early in their rehearsal process which meant they hadn't yet gotten through the entire show.
“This is a brand new show for me so I'm trying to absorb it as it's coming,” Elder said. “Before I make any decisions (about characterization), I want to see the picture that I'm in first. I sort of want to ride the wave and discover where I fit into the whole story.”
Nejat was eager to tackle her character's featured number, the wildly humorous and show-stopping “Shriners' Ballet.” In it, Rose crashes a local Shriners' meeting and proves that her fiery temperament and feminine wiles can create plenty of excitement.
“Every good choreographer puts peaks and valleys in the ballet,” Nejat said. “It's the manipulation of music and movement that gets the audience involved. It's also a chance to see Rosie break out and let people see the passion that lives within her.”
While Albert has become relatively successful writing tunes for Conrad Birdie, Rose has been after Albert to earn his master's degree and become an English teacher. Rose wants to have a stable future and considers Albert's dabbling in the music industry frivolous.
“Albert is a bright person but he can't make decisions,” Elder said of his character. “Clearly, he and Rose have discussed their future together but Albert doesn't have much of a backbone. Not only is he trying to get out of debt, he's a mama's boy who can't get her to cut the cord.”
Rose clearly understands that conflict but knows that a happy marriage can't survive the constant meddling of Albert's mother. After eight years together, Rose tells Albert she's ready to leave him unless he comes around to her point of view.
“Rose's parents obviously distilled in her that an education is how to get ahead in life,” Nejat said. “She believes that will provide security and stability for their future. If that doesn't happen, Rose is ready to wash her hands of the whole situation.”
Elder concedes that Rose knows what's best for Albert, even though his character undoubtedly feels like he's being backed into a corner at times.
“In most marriages, the wife knows what men want and need,” Elder said. “Rose is trying to lead Albert in the right direction so it's a good manipulation. Because I trust the book, I feel like I just have to shade my character — where he should be dim and where he gets brighter. I trust that it will all come out in the wash.”