Jenn Thompson and Warren Kelley revisit 'Bye Bye Birdie' with Goodspeed version
Jenn Thompson says of directing "Bye Bye Birdie" at Goodspeed Opera House, "There are so many things about this particular job that seemed predestined in some way."
Let her enumerate.
One: She played one of the orphans in the original Broadway production of "Annie," which, like "Birdie," had music written by Charles Strouse. She has had a long relationship with the composer. As a girl, Thompson toured around the country with Strouse in his symphony show, which consisted of Strouse, an adult woman and a young girl — Thompson — performing Strouse's songbook. Thompson did all of "Annie" and "Birdie" numbers performed by kids.
Two: Michael Gennaro, who is executive director at Goodspeed, is the son of Peter Gennaro, who was the chorographer for "Annie." Thompson has known the Gennaros since she was a child.
Three: Thompson starred in a 1988 production of "Birdie" with River Rep at the Ivoryton Playhouse. She and her parents, Joan Shepard and the late Evan Thompson, as well as her brother, Owen, were mainstays of the repertory theater group that staged shows each summer there for nearly two decades. Another River Rep stalwart was Warren Kelley, who acted with Thompson in that troupe's "Birdie" and is now performing in Goodspeed's version.
"There are so many pieces of it that felt like why this is happening here and now," Thompson says.
"Bye Bye Birdie," which features a book by Michael Stewart and lyrics by Lee Adams, opened on Broadway in April 1960 and became a Tony-winning hit. The storyline took a cue from Elvis Presley being drafted into the Army. In this case, fictional rock idol Conrad Birdie is being drafted. Agent-songwriter Albert Peterson devises a PR stunt involving Birdie performing one of Albert's songs on "The Ed Sullivan Show." The song is "One Last Kiss," and a girl from Birdie's fan club gets to appear on the show to give him that "last kiss" before he heads off for the Army. That girl is 15-year-old Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio, whose boyfriend and father are not particularly pleased about all this.
Thompson notes that "Birdie" was also the first musical to really address rock 'n' roll, even if the score isn't very rock-influenced.
She says that the people involved in the Goodspeed "Birdie" have "been taken with how surprisingly sophisticated the writing of this show is. There is a lot of stuff in this show, it's got a lot of things, and they're timeless things, which is I think is one of the many reasons this show gets done so much."
It explores the schism between parents and kids, particularly as it developed in the early 1960s. One thing Thompson wanted to do was bring that generation gap element to the fore — or, as she says, "the letting go of kids, the growing-up-ness of this show, which is in lockstep with where it fits in its timeline. It's the last gasp of those fabulous '50s, when we were right on the dawn of all that was coming down the pike."
"I think this show is filled with that leaning into that, and it still has a foot in that classic '50s solid happy musical."
The original "Birdie" was set in 1958, but Thompson has moved it to 1961. The kids who were 15 or 16 in 1961 were the ones who would grow up and go to Vietnam and protest the war. They were the ones who would enact a huge shift, she says.
They were "really at the beginning of the next thing. That was filled with so much angst and horror and lots of terrible things, but these are the kids that are going to change the world."
Warren Kelley, who plays frustrated dad Mr. MacAfee in the Goodspeed production, was a little boy in 1961, and he recalls how the split between past and future that the show touches on was apparent even in his family.
His father didn't behave badly like the father does in "Bye Bye Birdie," but he was terrified of the changes, Kelley says.
Kelley remembers watching the Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964.
"I was riveted, and my brother, who was 4 years older, was behind me doing the air guitar. My father, who didn't take off his coat and tie until he went to bed at night — and I thought that was how everybody lived — was pacing behind us yelling, 'That's not music! Why is their hair like that? Why are those girls screaming?!! ..."
While the Goodspeed production is reflecting that sort of generational split, it also features some alterations in the material. Some songs have been reordered, and the story has been streamlined a bit. The dance arrangements have been opened up. Two songs have been added from other "Birdie" adaptations — the tune "Bye Bye Birdie" from the 1963 movie, and "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore" from the 1995 TV production.
At the same time that Thompson thinks the show is refreshed, she says it's still solidly "Birdie." She said she never wanted to show her hand at all; her goal has been that audiences might not even know there is anything different.
Reflecting on 'Birdman' and 'Annie'
Kelley and Thompson have had impressive acting careers, and Thompson has now developed a thriving directorial career. Kelley, too, has directed, but he has focused more on acting.
"It's so extraordinary what I get to do. I have a regional theater career, but what's incredibly gratifying and fulfilling for me is I'm working in every genre," he says.
Indeed, in the past year, he has played Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Ford in "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Brady in "Inherit the Wind," Vanya in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," and King Arthur in "Spamalot."
In addition to having acted in 200 plays, Kelley has also popped up in movies and on TV series. He, for instance, made a brief appearance in the Oscar-winning film "Birdman," an experience he describes as extraordinary.
Over the course of two 12-1/2 hour days, they filmed what would be a three-minute sequence in the film. Michael Keaton's character does a monologue onstage, then exits into the quick-change area, where Kelley takes his costume and puts a bathrobe on him. Kelley whispers to Keaton, Keaton has a moment with his wife, and then he goes to the stage door to have a cigarette. What follows that sequence is this: Keaton's bathrobe gets caught in the door, he's locked out, and — in the most famous segment in the movie — he has to walk, in his underwear, through Times Square.
The film was shot in long, single takes, and what viewers see is one of the takes that was done repeatedly over those 24-plus hours.
"So we just lived it," he says.
As for Thompson, among her directorial efforts have been Drama Desk-nominated Off-Broadway productions of "Women Without Men" and "Lost in Yonkers." But she started out being a child actor, and she calls being one of the orphans in the original Broadway "Annie" as the best job she's ever had, which has to do with being a kid in that show at that time. She started in it as a 10-year-old and stayed with it for two years.
"At the time, there was not a better job for a 10-year-old girl to have in show business. That was the height. Everybody wanted to be in that show ... and there were seven of us," she says.
It was a great show, she says, and was incredibly rewarding to do.
Beyond that, she says, "we were treated like royalty. We were feted wherever we went. We were like the marshals of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. We were at Studio 54 every week. We sang for mobsters at Jilly's. There was a mobster joint right next to the theater that was called Jilly's. (The owner) would call for us. He'd say (she goes into a hoarse growl), 'I want the kids to come tonight.' ... We'd go over, and they'd have Shirley Temples lined up on the bar, and we'd all sit there, and we would sing for the mobsters."
If you go
What: "Bye Bye Birdie"
When: Goodspeed Opera House, Main Street, East Haddam
When: Through Sept. 4; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also, performances at 2 p.m. some Thursdays and at 6:30 p.m. some Sundays
Tickets: Start at $29
Call: (860) 873-8668
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