Maybe it's better not to know too much, says 'Birdie's' composer

February 16, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Composer Charles Strouse has a theory that his most successful musicals have been the ones whose subjects were largely unfamiliar to him.

"Bye Bye Birdie" is a prime example. The 1960 Broadway hit has been called the first rock and roll musical, yet Strouse's background is far from rock and roll.

To the contrary, the three-time Tony Award-winner -- for "Bye Bye Birdie," "Annie" and "Applause" -- was classically trained. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music, the 63-year-old New Yorker also studied with Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger.

"Bye Bye Birdie" was such an unlikely project for him that he recalls the embarrassment he felt when "Copland called and said, 'There's a show on Broadway by a composer with a name spelled the same way as yours.' "

In fact, when Strouse began working on "Birdie," he researched contemporary pop singers -- especially Elvis Presley (on whom the title character of Conrad Birdie is based). "I made a real effort to do it, and I think what I did was bring a certain looseness and enjoyment . . . If I was a rock and roll writer, it wouldn't have had any irony," the composer explained in a phone interview from Chicago, where he was working on a new version of "Annie 2," retitled "Annie Warbucks."

Whatever role Strouse's unfamiliarity may have played, "Bye Bye Birdie" catapulted him to fame, and the show has flourished ever since, becoming a fixture on high school and college stages. At the moment, "Birdie" is back in the national eye thanks to a touring production starring Tommy Tune that begins a three-week engagement at the Lyric Opera House Tuesday.

The revival includes two new songs by Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams. "A Giant Step" was written for Tune, who plays Birdie's manager, a seemingly hopeless mama's boy named Albert Peterson. The song celebrates the moment "Albert tells his mother off for the first time," Strouse explains. "[It's] a moment that we always wanted to musicalize, but there didn't seem to be time for it."

The other song, "He's Mine," replaces "Spanish Rose," which seemed out of place in these ethnically sensitive times. The new number is a challenge duet sung by Albert's mother (Marilyn Cooper) and his long-suffering girlfriend (Lenora Nemetz).

Strouse admits he wasn't prepared for success when "Birdie" soared to smash-hit status 32 years ago. The show had gone through five writers -- including Mike Nichols -- before settling on Michael Stewart, and Strouse and Adams had written approximately 50 songs. "It was all unreal," he recalls. "It was my first show. I was not exactly just out of music school, but I was pretty close to it in temperament and ambition. [Success] didn't have the meaning it has to me today."

One reason success may mean more to him now is that, at least in recent years, he hasn't seen much of it. Beginning with "A Broadway Musical," which closed after one night in 1978, every Broadway or Broadway-bound musical he has worked on has flopped -- frequently despite critical plaudits for Strouse, who remains one of Broadway's most highly regarded composers.

"Having a show fail is the closest our gender -- men -- experience to miscarriages or abortions. It's a tremendous void. I've lived through a miscarriage with my wife. It's pretty close. You say, 'Did I eat the wrong food? Get careless?' All of those things I blame myself for," Strouse says.

He speaks from very fresh experience; his latest Broadway show, "Nick & Nora," opened Dec. 8 and closed after nine performances. The "Thin Man"-inspired musical canceled tryouts in Baltimore two years in a row, and Strouse is convinced that contributed to its problems. "I was the lone hold-out absolutely for Baltimore. I argued with the producers," he says. "With hindsight, should I have said, 'I quit the show if we don't go to Baltimore'?"

His belief in out-of-town tryouts is partly based on the "very healthy experience" he had in Baltimore during the 1970 tryout of "Applause," which went on to become one of his biggest hits. Bringing "Nick & Nora" to Baltimore "definitely would have made a difference," he insists. "I know that. I've been there."

At the same time, Strouse acknowledges that the show's problems began long before decisions were made about tryouts. "The collaboration in 'Nick & Nora' I knew from the start wasn't a wise one. The three of us, [lyricist] Richard Maltby Jr. and [author and director] Arthur Laurents and I, are too different characters to be put in the same room -- that would be putting it in a kind way," he says. "It never did coalesce, and I tried to leave it very early in the game. If I had been a stronger person, I would have."

Although a cast album will probably be recorded, at this point it seems unlikely that "Nick & Nora" will re-surface. But surprisingly, Strouse has had opportunities to rework other past failures. One of those opportunities is what brought him to Chicago, where "Annie Warbucks" opened at Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre 10 days ago.

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