At 80, Charles Strouse Ready for 'Tomorrow' Even as a newly minted octogenarian, Charles Strouse is still going strong. And while you may not know his name, you'll know his music. One of his works, Bye Bye Birdie, is still one of the most performed musical in high schools across the country.
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At 80, Charles Strouse Ready for 'Tomorrow'

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At 80, Charles Strouse Ready for 'Tomorrow'

At 80, Charles Strouse Ready for 'Tomorrow'

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

You may not know his name, but if you've ever seen or been in a production of "Bye Bye Birdie" or "Annie," you certainly known his songs. Three-time Tony Award winning composer Charles Strouse celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday, and Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

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

Mr. CHARLES STROUSE (Composer): (Singing) Gray skies are gonna clear up, put on a happy face...

(Soundbite of applause)

JEFF LUNDEN: Charles Strouse doesn't have to put on a happy face as he enters his ninth decade. All kinds of birthday events are scheduled over the next several months. His autobiography called "Put on a Happy Face" will be published in July and his 1960 show, "Bye Bye Birdie," where that song was the breakout hit, is still the most performed musical in high schools around the country.

Mr. STROUSE: I'm a very lucky man. And every time I meet another person, often celebrities, whose first show it was - it was the most performed show in America at one point.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) There are tricks just right for some kissing, and I mean to kiss me a few. Ma'am, those six don't go up there missing, I got a lot of living to do...

LUNDEN: The road to "Bye Bye Birdie" took Strouse from the Eastman School of Music - where he studied classical composition - to a summer camp for adults in the Adirondacks called Green Mansions, where he pounded the piano for dance rehearsals. Strouse also wrote a lot of songs, says his frequent lyricist Lee Adams.

Mr. LEE ADAMS (Lyricist): A lot of people of our generation - Sheldon Harnick, Carol Burnett - worked in these summer camps. They were places where young New Yorkers went to meet each other, to eat, to play tennis, to swim. We had a full theater staff at Green Mansions - sets, costumes, orchestra. We wrote an original revue every Saturday night all summer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) The arts, the arts, we're there taking up the arts instead of getting decent steady jobs...

Mr. ADAMS: There's a song called "Put on a Happy Face" we wrote at Green Mansions, which eventually found its way into "Bye Bye Birdie."

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

Unidentified Man: (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 the gloomy mask of tragedy, it's not your style. You look so good that you'd be glad you've decided to smile...

LUNDEN: "Bye Bye Birdie" was the team's Broadway debut. The story is about an Elvis-like singer who travels to Sweet Apple, Ohio, to give one last kiss to his biggest teenage fan before he joins the army. It was the first time rock and roll was heard on Broadway.

Mr. STROUSE: (Singing) Oh, one last kiss, oh baby, one last kiss. You never felt like this, etc. To me, it was all - I don't want to say it was a joke. I never felt superior to the material. But being able to imitate it, it gave me a certain push in that direction.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Baby, give me one last kiss...

LUNDEN: Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times was brutal. He wrote, it is neither fish nor fowl nor musical comedy. But all the other reviews were positive and the show was a big hit.

That wasn't true of every musical that Strouse and Adams wrote. They even had couple close on opening night. Lee Adams says that's just the nature of the business.

Mr. ADAMS: Everybody has flops. Everybody. Nobody only has hits, and so you have to expect it. When I teach, the students say, how can you work three or four years on a show and it flops? How do you recover from that? The only answer is, you've done your best, it didn't work, what's next?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LAUREN BACALL (Actress): (Singing) I feel groggy and weary and tragic, punchy and bleary and fresh out of magic but alive, but alive, but alive. I feel...

LUNDEN: One of the hits that kept them alive was "Applause" in 1970. Based on the classic film "All About Eve," it starred film great Lauren Bacall. She had never sung on stage before, so Charles Strouse had to coach her.

Mr. STROUSE: She always had great intonation and great rhythm. She just had never had the experience and she wasn't used to being looked at and listened to.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BACALL: (Singing) And I feel rotten yet covered with roses, younger than springtime and older than Moses...

LUNDEN: But she, along with Strouse and Adams, won Tony Awards.

Charles Strouse's biggest Broadway hit came after he got a call from lyricist and director Martin Charnin. He wanted to talk with Strouse and librettist Tom Meehan about an idea for a new show.

Mr. STROUSE: He had always professed a desire to write with me and called me one day and said I've got this great idea. And I said, what? And he said, I can't tell you over the phone. You've got to come to my office. So, I went to his office and I met Tom there for the first time. And he told us the idea and we both said, oh.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Hard Knock Life")

LUNDEN: The idea that made both men groan was to make a musical out of the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. Eventually, both said yes, and, of course, the musical they wrote, "Annie," became a gigantic hit.

Ms. ANDREA MCARDLE (Actress): I'll be rollerblading and, you know, some trucker will go, hey, Annie, move over. Get out of the street, you know.

LUNDEN: Andrea McArdle was 12 when she was tapped to play the title role. Even though she's now the mother of a teenaged actress, she's still identified with the iconic character.

Ms. MCARDLE: It's, like, a curse and a blessing. I don't look so different, you know, even with different hair, different, you know, whatever. So, that's my plight in life and I'll take it.

(Soundbite of song, "Tomorrow")

Ms. MCARDLE: (Singing) The sun'll come out tomorrow so you gotta hang on 'til tomorrow, come what may. Tomorrow, tomorrow...

LUNDEN: The show's biggest song, "Tomorrow," was actually an actually afterthought, says Charles Strouse.

Mr. STROUSE: We wrote it because Martin had a very clever set change. She found the dog and she had to, in 12 seconds let's say, get back to the orphanage, so we needed a song there.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MCARDLE: (Singing) ...away.

LUNDEN: And at an age when most men would happily retire, Charles Strouse is thinking about tomorrow himself.

Mr. STROUSE: I love composing. I love it. You know, and if I'm not composing, if I don't have a new project or something, I'm rather at a loss of what to do.

LUNDEN: Strouse is currently working on two projects he hopes to bring to Broadway, musical versions of "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and "Marty."

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

CORNISH: To hear more songs by Charles Strouse, including this one:

(Soundbite of song, "Theme Song to 'All in the Family'")

Ms. JEAN STAPLETON (Actress): (as Edith Bunker) (Singing) And you knew where you were then...

CORNISH: ...go to our Web site, NPR.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Theme Song to 'All in the Family'")

Mr. CARROLL O'CONNOR (Late Actor) and Ms. STAPLETON: (as Archie and Edith Bunker) (Singing) Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.

Mr. O'CONNOR: (as Archie Bunker) (Singing) Didn't need no welfare state.

Ms. STAPLETON: (as Edith Bunker) (Singing) Everybody pulled his weight.

Mr. O'CONNOR and Ms. STAPLETON: (as Archie and Edith Bunker) (Singing) Gee our old LaSalle ran great. Those were the days.

(Soundbite of music)

CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Audie Cornish.

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