Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Birdie's" Strouse Has Roots in Richmond

Posted by Bruce Miller
While writing the Bye Bye Birdie blog, I promised that I'd soon write about Richmond's connections to legendary composer Charles Strouse. Here goes.

In 1961, Charles Strouse made American musical theatre history when he composed the first Broadway score to be written in the rock and roll vernacular. Seven years before Hair, Bye Bye Birdie became Broadway’s first "rock musical." Of course the rock 'n' roll of Birdie is of the Elvis Presley / Bobby Rydell / Connie Francis variety, with several pop numbers and a bit of salsa thrown in for good measure.

Nonetheless, the songs in Bye Bye Birdie (including the title tune, One Last Kiss, Honestly Sincere, Lotta Livin’ to Do and One Boy) sounded a lot more like what we were listening to on our transistor radios in 1961 than had the songs from Broadway’s biggest hits of the preceding five years (My Fair Lady [56], West Side Story [57], The Music Man [57], and Gypsy [59]).

If Charles Strouse had stopped with Bye Bye Birdie, he would have earned his place as a significant Broadway composer. But he didn’t stop. He went on to write ten more Broadway musicals since Birdie, and several musicals that never made it to Broadway. Best of all, he’s still going strong.

All of this is important to Richmond because, to a degree that can be applied to no other major Broadway composer, Richmond has some strong connections to Charles Strouse. To a certain extent, we can honor him as one of our own.

Since Birdie, Charles has written diverse and amazing musicals, collaborating with impressive co-creators:

1962 – All American, starring Ray Bolger, with a book by Mel Brooks. It was Brook’s second Broadway musical, preceding by nearly four decades Brooks’ masterwork, The Producers, which won more Tony Awards (12) than any musical in Broadway history.

1964-66 – Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis Jr. in Broadway’s first musical to feature an inter-racial marriage. The book was written by none other than the great American agitprop playwright from the 1930s, Clifford Odets, who died during the Detroit tryout, prompting the engagement of “co-writer” William Gibson.

1966 – It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, starring Jack Cassidy and Linda Lavin, produced and directed by Hal Prince. Considered by many to be ahead of its time, the campy, pop-art sensibility of It’s a Bird was obviously copied in the hit ABC-TV series Batman, which began to air only months after It’s a Bird closed. Moreover, Robert Benton and David Newman, co-authors of the It’s a Bird book, went on to co-author the Superman movie with Christopher Reeve.

1970-72 – Applause, starring Lauren Bacall, with a book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

1975 – The Member of the Wedding, featuring incidental music by Strouse, with Virginia’s own Glenn Close understudying Mary Beth Hurt in the role of Frankie Addams!!

1977-83 – A little something called Annie. ‘Nuff said.

1980 – Charlie and Algernon

1981 – Bring Back Birdie, featuring Richmond’s own Porter Hudson, who, as John Hudson, choreographed Theatre IV’s production of Cabaret at the Empire Theatre only months after Bring Back closed

1983 – Dance a Little Closer, featuring Richmond’s own Diane Pennington in the role of Shirley, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

1986 – Rags, starring Teresa Stratas and Larry Kert, with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz

1991 – Nick & Nora, starring Barry Bostwick, Joanna Gleason and Christine Baranski, with book by Arthur Laurents and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr.

2005-06 – Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, featuring songs by many composers including Strouse

In addition to the two Richmonders who performed in Strouse musicals on Broadway, one of Richmond’s powerhouse talents, Katherine Tracy (pictured to the left in the title role of the Mill's 1980ish production of Mame), served as Charles Strouse’s personal assistant in NYC for a couple years later in the 80s. After her tenure with Strouse, Katherine returned to Richmond to work as Marketing Director of Theatre IV, and then Managing Director of Barksdale. At least partially through Katherine’s contacts, Barksdale produced in 1993 the Strouse revue, By Strouse, and the world premiere of the new Strouse musical, Bojangles, based on the life of Richmonder Bill Bojangles Robinson, with a book by Richmond playwright Douglas Jones.

On the Theatre IV side, I asked Charles if I could adapt his musical teleplay of Lyle Lyle Crocodile for live touring, and he graciously agreed. For several years, Theatre IV produced the national tour of Lyle Lyle Crocodile, with music and lyrics by Charles Strouse and book by yours truly. During one of the first trips I made to New York to work with Charles on my tour adaptation, he invited me to a backers’ preview of Nick & Nora. It was so cool to sit in the studio with all these Broadway types, listening to Barry Bostwick, Joanna Gleason, Christine Baranski and Debra Monk stand around Charles at the piano, singing his Nick & Nora songs for the first time.

Sometime in the mid-90s, Charles and Bernard Waber, author of the Lyle books, had a parting of the ways. Thereafter Theatre IV had to negotiate with Waber’s agents directly. The version of Lyle that we perform today no longer benefits from the Charles Strouse music and lyrics. Now I’m the sole author of all three – book, music and lyrics. Which is cool. But I certainly enjoyed my years in the sun as a partner of Charles Strouse.

There’s one reason why working with Charles, albeit on a limited basis, was so much fun. Despite being the composer of two of the “Top Ten Most Frequently Produced Musicals in America” (Bye Bye Birdie and Annie), Charles Strouse is about as nice, genuine and generous a guy as you’ll find. I’ll always treasure our too brief association.

So, the next time anyone does a Charles Strouse musical in Richmond, all Richmond theatre aficionados should take some pride in knowing that on several occasions, Charles has been down here and Richmond artists have been up there to collaborate on new musicals. In some significant ways, Richmonders can claim Charles Strouse as an honorary member of River City.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone has a better knowledge of Richmond theatre history than you do. Thanks. Even better, you seem to have such a clear feeling for where Richmond theatre fits in nationally. It's fascinating to read. Keep it up.

Bruce Miller said...

The dangerous thing is if I'm the only one writing the "history" blogs. In September we're going to make a special push to enlarge our blog writing team. Until then, if any of you have a chapter of theatre history that you'd like to record for posterity, please write it and send it in. We intend to publish any and all blog entries that tell positive and/or informative stories about Richmond theatre. It doesn't have to be about Barksdale or Theatre IV.

Anonymous said...

I love Katherine Tracy. What a star she was! How come we don't see her anymore?

Bruce Miller said...

I love Katherine Tracy too. I'll have to locate her number and call her. I believe she's still in town. I have always thought Katherine was a first-rate actor in any league. Maybe we can coax her back on stage one day. I hope so.

Jessica said...

Strouse came to Richmond and saw Annie when I played an orphan at the Mill in '82. Katherine Tracy was terrific in that production as Miss Hannigan. The whole cast got to have their picture taken with him. :)