Charles Strouse's Big Scores, From 'Annie' To 'Birdie' The Tony Award-winning composer created the music and lyrics for more than a dozen stage hits, including Annie, Applause and Bye Bye Birdie.
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Charles Strouse's Big Scores, From 'Annie' To 'Birdie'

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Charles Strouse's Big Scores, From 'Annie' To 'Birdie'

Charles Strouse's Big Scores, From 'Annie' To 'Birdie'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

After being dormant for decades, the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" suddenly is current again. Its film version figured prominently in a recent episode of the period TV series "Mad Men," and the stage musical itself, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams, is being revived on Broadway for the first time since its 1960 premiere. It's a show about an Elvis-type singer who stages a publicity stunt to meet a member of a local fan club. From the original Broadway cast, here are Dick Gautier as pop star Conrad Birdie and Susan Watson as his lucky fan, singing "A Lot of Livin' To Do."

(Soundbite of musical, "Bye Bye Birdie")

(Soundbite of song, "A Lot of Livin' To Do")

Mr. DICK GAUTIER (Actor): (As Conrad Birdie) (Singing) There are chicks just ripe for some kissing, and I mean to kiss me a few. Man, those chicks don't know what they're missing. I got a lot of livin' to do. Sizzlin' steaks, all reading for tasting, and there's Cadillacs all shiny and new. Gotta move 'cuz time is a-wasting. There's such a lot of livin' to do.

Ms. SUSAN WATSON (Actor): (As Kim MacAfee) (Singing) There are men of 19 or 20 who are suave and reckless and true, older men who give a girl plenty. I've got a lot of livin' to do.

Mr. GAUTIER: (As Conrad) (Singing) There's music to play, places to go, people to see, everything for you and me. Crazy clothes and motorboat races…

Ms. WATSON: (As Kim) (Singing) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Group #1: (As characters) (Singing) Broadway lights and wide-open spaces. There's such a lot of living to do.

BIANCULLI: "A Lot of Livin' To Do," one of the songs in "Bye Bye Birdie." The Roundabout Theatre production revival, starring John Stamos and Bill Irwin, opens next week on Broadway. To note the occasion, we're revisiting Terry's 1994 interview with Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for "Birdie," and for the musicals "Applause," "Golden Boy" and the mega-hit "Annie."

They started by talking about Broadway's original "Bye Bye Birdie," which starred Dick Van Dyke, Chita Rivera and Paul Lynde and featured such songs as "Kids," "Put on a Happy Face" and "Honestly Sincere."


I have to tell you, I was listening to the album again last night, and I hadn't heard the score in a long time, and I was just shocked to realize that I remembered words to songs when I'd completely forgotten the song existed, like "Normal American Boy." I mean, I hadn't thought about that song in years, and I realized God, I know all the words to this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I bet so many people have that reaction when they hear songs from "Bye Bye Birdie."

Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer): Yes. Fortunately, they do. It's a very-much-performed show. At the time Lee Adams and Mike Stewart and I wrote it, we wrote it because it was offered us, you might say. We would have written, I guess, almost any show that was offered us. It actually wasn't even in that shape. It was just to be a show about teenagers, but had we realized that it would have that kind of commercial clout, that is that high schools and camps and prisons, I don't know - everybody does it. It's incredible, and it keeps picking up in performances. I think we would have say, oh, let's do that show. But at the time, it was just, it was actually even a little strange. It was a bit of an embarrassment, in a funny way, to me and to Mike because - well, to me particularly because I had been in serious music all my life.

I had studied classical music. I was embarking on a serious music career and that this would be the first opportunity that I'd have for a major public hearing and then that we had this silly name, "Bye Bye Birdie," it was not the show that I wanted to write, which taught me something about myself, which is I don't know where the hell I am half the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Let me ask you about writing "The Telephone Hour" from "Bye Bye Birdie," and this is a series of phone conversations that the teenagers are having with each other, and it's not a straightforward song. I mean, you're basically setting a series of conversations to music with little interruptions and phones ringing. So what were some of your considerations when you were writing the music for that?

Mr. STROUSE: Well, you know, before I just answer that, I have four kids, and it's come back to haunt me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: Because I have four telephone lines, and it's still every second, everybody's on the phone.

Anyway, beside the point. My considerations were first of all that it was rock, and of its sort, it is rock music though such an innocent sort that, you know, I don't like to listen to it and say I'm Mick Jagger or anybody like that, but it was rock. And I paid attention very strongly to the guitar chords, you know, that all guitarists play on it. You know, a lot of rock music, in those days particularly, was very - I don't want to say simple because that wouldn't - that would be a little bit derogatory, but there were certain patterns. It became patterned, in a way, and I did model it on that. But then I used a lot of - I used a lot of changes of time and a lot of interjections, which is into the exact rock beat. But I kept the beat going very much, and then I used just, you know, Lee and I sat and kind of carved it out together, high and, you know, the things - did they really get pinned?

GROSS: Well, here's "The Telephone Hour" from "Bye Bye Birdie," music by my guest, Charles Strouse.

(Soundbite of musical, "Bye Bye Birdie")

(Soundbite of song, "The Telephone Hour")

Unidentified Group #2: (As characters) Hi Marcy. Hi Alice. What's the story, morning glory? What's the word, hummingbird? Have you heard about Hugo and Kim? Did they really get pinned? Did she kiss him and cry? Did he pin the pin on, or was he too shy? Well, I heard they got pinned, yeah, yeah, I supposed that they would, oh, oh. Now they're living at last, goin' steady for good.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Harvey Johnson) Oh, Mr. Henkel, this is Harvey Johnson, can I speak to Penelope Ann? Penelope? About the prom Saturday…

Unidentified Group #2: Goin' steady, you know it, goin' steady, it's crazy man, you know.

Unidentified Woman #1: It won't last. Not at all. He's too thin. She's too tall.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Harvey Johnson) Hello, Mrs. Miller, this is Harvey Johnson. Can I speak to Deborah Sue?

Unidentified Group #3: Hiya Hugo, hiya stupid. What'd you want to go get pinned for?

BIANCULLI: "The Telephone Hour," from the original cast recording of "Bye Bye Birdie." The cable series "Mad Men" built a plot line around "Bye Bye Birdie" earlier this season when some of the copywriters for the advertising agency were eager to copy a scene from the film version to help sell a new diet cola called Patio. The idea was to hire someone to sing directly to the camera, all bubbly and full of sex appeal, as Ann-Margaret had done playing a teenaged fan in the film version. But one member of the team, Peggy, played by Elisabeth Moss, doesn't like the idea as much as the men in the room.

(Soundbite of television program, "Mad Men")

(Soundbite of song, "Bye Bye Birdie")

Ms. ANN-MARGARET (Actor): (Singing) Bye-bye, Birdie, I'm gonna miss you so. Bye-bye, Birdie. Why'd you have to go? I'll miss the way you smile. It's always just for me, and each and every night, I'll write you faithfully. Bye-bye Birdie, it's awful hard to bear. Bye-bye, Birdie. Yes, I'll always care. Yes, I'll always care. Yes, I'll always care.

Mr. RICH SOMMER (Actor): (As Harry Crane) Oh, is there more? I love her.

Mr. BRYAN BATT (Actor): (As Sal Romano) I saw Susan Watson do it on Broadway, and she was great, but she didn't have that.

Mr. AARON STATON (Actor): (As Ken Cosgrove) Well, it's not going to be her, but they want that scene, frame for frame, as they say.

Ms. ELISABETH MOSS (Actor): (As Peggy) So something about how desperate she is for a Pepsi?

Mr. STATON (Actor): (As Ken) It's for Pepsi, but it's not for Pepsi. It's called Patio, and it's a dieter's kind of Pepsi to help women reduce. It's Pepsi's Diet-Rite Cola, and there's claims that their lawyers went over calories, et cetera. If we do it right, we land Patio, and if we land Patio, I'll be at lunch with Pepsi.

Mr. BATT (Actor): (As Sal) I think Pete Campbell just broke a sweat.

Mr. SOMMER (Actor): (As Harry) I'm coming to casting.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) We're going right to casting?

Mr. SOMMER: (As Harry) You don't have to if you don't want to.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) I understand why you like this, but it's not for you. I'm the one who'd be buying Patio.

Mr. SOMMER: (As Harry) You're not fat anymore.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Thank you. Let's assume we can't talk them out of the name, and let's assume we can get a girl who can match Ann-Margaret's ability to be 25 and act 14.

Mr. BATT: (As Sal) Is that what she's doing?

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Is it just a knock-off? Are we allowed to make fun of it, at least?

Mr. STATON: (As Ken) She's fun and sexy. Don't be a prude.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Would you say that to me?

Mr. STATON: (As Ken) It's sexy, and it's what they want.

Ms. MOSS: (As Peggy) Clients don't always know what's best.

Mr. STATON: (As Ken) When we land them, you can start talking to them that way.

BIANCULLI: A scene from the AMC series "Mad Men," discussing a scene in the movie version of "Bye Bye Birdie." We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Charles Strouse, who wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie," after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with Charles Strouse, composer of the music for "Bye Bye Birdie." A Broadway revival of the musical opens next week.

GROSS: You studied with Nadia Boulanger. Did she give you any advice about pop music versus classical music?

Mr. STROUSE: Well, oddly enough, she did. She - this woman was the great musician of our generation in many ways, and her greatness was that she was a master analyst, not only of music but a psychoanalyst in her own way. And she used to hear the music of her students, and she was able to - she was able to isolate it. She was able to shine a spotlight on what was you and what was watered-down Stravinsky. And I remember when I worked with her, she asked to hear everything I'd written. And I played her my sonata and my concerto and, you know, various - art songs and all that, and she said well, what else, what else, what else? And I said, well that's it. She said well, no, no what about, you know, your student pieces, and I played her some of them, and then anything else? And I said well, there was - my parents, who were never into serious music at all, though they were very proud of me, I used to come home from college and play them all these pieces that sounded like watered-down Bartok really, but they were very serious kind of things. I was really, you know, into it, and I could see they were proud of me, but they didn't really…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Respond?

Mr. STROUSE: Yeah, not really. I mean, I think so. I mean, my mother was just always so nervous for me, but I remember writing a piece that I considered my party piece that I could play that they could show off to my aunt. I had an aunt, Stella, who - she was hard of hearing to begin with, but it was - she was over at the house a lot. And I wrote this piece, and it was really, you know, I look back at it today - kind of saucy or something. It was very light-hearted, and they loved it. Everybody liked it. So it became my piece, and I played that for her, which I very rarely - I didn't do that for anybody except, you know, a couple of relatives, and she said ah, and she saie, well, what else? And I said well, I really - well, I said well, when my brother - he had been in the Navy, and when he came home from his first tour of duty or his boot camp, whatever, I had written…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: I laugh because it was a funny moment in my life. I said I wrote this little song for him called "Welcome Home Able-bodied Seaman Strouse," and she said, may I hear that? Oh, I said I couldn't. No, she said, please.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: And so there this venerable woman, I played this silly song. She said, I see. She said, anything else? And I said, well, I said, I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: This makes me laugh. I said, I used to go out with a girl. I really liked her. Her name was Janet, and we lived on the Upper West Side of New York, and I wrote this song, but it was a joke called "Moon Over 83rd Street." She said play this for me.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STROUSE: Here I am in Paris, you know, with an intimate of Stravinsky's and every American composer that you could think of having studied with this great woman. So I played "Moon Over 83rd Street," and she said ah, good. Now we go back to this, whatever. So we went back to - the towards the end of my thing, she said to me something that nobody had ever said to me. She said you have a great talent for light music.

GROSS: May I make a request?

Mr. STROUSE: Sure.

GROSS: Could you sing one of the songs that you played for her?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: Wait a second. Welcome home able-bodied seaman (unintelligible). No, I can't sing that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: Moon over - Oh, Moon - this is the funniest interview I've ever done.

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) Moon over 83rd Street with Schrafts right below. Moon over 83rd Street, my heart's all aglow. You, Janet, in the lamplight, I hear something called (unintelligible) - I'm yours body and soul.

Mr. STROUSE: I think that was the last one. It was meant partly as a jest. I mean, you know, well, that was it. There's a first performance for you.

GROSS: So it helped you find out that that's what you should be doing is writing pop tunes.

Mr. STROUSE: Well, that was her genius. That's why I can laugh at it. I can also laugh at it because I've had, you know, some successful shows, but her genius was really taking a young kid like me - I was quite young when I was there. I was around 18 or so. And I know from my own experience with my own children what it is to be searching for an identity, and she in her soft, brilliant way was able to contribute to my identifying who I was.

GROSS: I want to close with the story behind one of your most famous songs, and this is the song from "Annie," "Tomorrow." Did you have to write in a range that you were confident a kid could sing?

Mr. STROUSE: Well, that's really an interesting question because yes and no. The yes is a part of my musical background. I know what kids' range is and sopranos and tenors are. The no part is that I wanted to squeeze a little bit more out of them because I'd, you know, the emotional part of the music is when kids sing high, they scream.

You know, I did it in "Bye Bye Birdie," and in "Bye Bye Birdie," they sang notes in "The Telephone Hour" that they didn't think they could sing. And actually, I had learned a lot of that. I used to work for Frank Loesser.


Mr. STROUSE: I was his assistant for two years, and I remember when Frank was testing people for range, he would often have them sing…

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: From "Bushel and a Peck."

Mr. STROUSE: From "Bushel and a Peck," and because it was - he would put it in a key with the pianist that it would be out of their range. They had to go…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STROUSE: But because they were making fun, they could or could not hit it. Had you said sing that note legitimately in a song like, I don't know, "If I Loved You" or something, they would've said they can't reach it, but when they were playing these characters, they could. So I devised - it's not my own invention, or maybe it is, I don't know - these kids would come in, and I would just have them sing "Happy Birthday." And once they passed the other thing, I would have a sing a song that they didn't have to worry about anything, and…

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) Happy birthday.

Mr. STROUSE: See, and very often, they found that they could reach notes which, on their resumes, they couldn't reach at all, and that was the sound I wanted. So I did write for that, and particularly in a song like "Hard Knock Life" and in "Tomorrow," the song "Tomorrow." And what happened was that at the very beginning, during our auditions, nobody could sing these songs. Today, every girl in the world sings them.

GROSS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STROUSE: Which it's a wonderful, actually, a tribute to the psychology and any popularity the songs have.

GROSS: Well, let me say it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. STROUSE: Oh, thank you, Terry. For me, it's great.

BIANCULLI: Charles Strouse, speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. The first-ever Broadway revival of "Bye Bye Birdie" opens next week. Here's Charles Strouse himself, recorded at the Smithsonian in 1978, performing and telling a story about one of the famous songs from "Bye Bye Birdie." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

Mr. STROUSE: I just wanted to do a couple of songs that might show you some of the things that happened, which were a result of the staging or the underlying dramatics - the performers, the costumes - they all had an effect on these songs.

First there was a song that was in "Bye Bye Birdie." It involved what we thought was a terribly clever idea. We had Dick Van Dyke, and there was a moment in the play in which he was very depressed and had to set up a television show, "The Ed Sullivan Show," and he was working with the lighting man, who was throwing different-color spots on him, and he would be in and out of them, dancing, singing in and out of these spots. He would also be able to express what was inside him and be able to dance, and it was a number right up Gower Champion's alley, who was the director.

We couldn't miss with this number. A big hit, right? No, wrong. It was a real flop, and we couldn't understand it. For some reason, it didn't work. We thought there was nothing else to do but throw out the song, which is Lee's and my habit. We're very impatient with a song not working. But it was Marge Champion, Gower's then-wife, who had what I thought was the corniest idea in the world: Put it in a spot in the first act, where he sang the song to two little girls who were very depressed at seeing their hero, Conrad Birdie, leaving for the Army.

But we tried it, and magically, it worked right away, and you could tell. This was a spot where the audience wanted to see Dick Van Dyke dance. They wanted to see this happen with two little, funny, wonderful-looking girls who were depressed. And the number went on to become one of the great successes in the show. Anyway, here was the number.

(Soundbite of song, "Put on a Happy Face")

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face. Brush off the clouds and cheer up, put on a happy face. Take off that gloomy mask of tragedy, it's not your style. You look so good that you'll be glad you decided to smile. Pick out a pleasant outlook, stick out that noble chin…

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