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If Conrad Birdie Came Back to Broadway, Would He Have to Drop Some Acid First?

New York Is Beginning to Do Rock Musicals

By Frank Rich

It hardly seems like seven years ago, but I was in seventh grade when I first came across Bye, Bye Birdie. Those were the days when the girls wore boys' identification bracelets, when the boys hung around the drug store after a day at junior high school, when everybody arrived home just in time to catch part of American Bandstand.

It was also the time when everyone was just beginning to forget about Elvis Presley, and "Soldier Boy" was the record they played when you danced with the girl you loved.

And in the middle of all this came Bye, Bye Birdie, an album our parents bought but rarely played. A record that one of my friends discovered, played at a party, and got everyone to listen to.

Bye, Bye Birdie, of course, was a Broadway musical--a satire on the Elvis Presley craze that had opened at New York's Martin Beck Theatre in April, 1960.

I guess that really was a long time ago; it has been a while since we sang Birdie's playful ode to teen-age idols ("We love you Conrad/ Oh, yes we do-oo/ We love you Conrad/ And we'll be true-oo") during giddy lunch hours. Roll has fled the rock forever, and the music we used to "pony" to has been usurped by sounds much closer to pot, orgasms, and revolutions than to late-night necking parties and coke.

But just as we have not forgotton those days just before the Twist, Broadway has not forgotten the success of Bye, Bye Birdie. New York producers seem to have remembered that this Charles Strouse-Lee Adams musical found favor not only with parents who wanted to laugh at their crazy children, but with the very subject of satire as well; the kids liked Strouse's mock-pop rhythms. And now, much later, we (and our parents) are being asked to like Broadway packages of our new culture.

The three biggest Broadway musical hits of the past two seasons--Hair You Own Thing and Promises, Promises--all have something to do with sixties' rock and (in varying degrees) with the accompanying mores and political alienation. The fact that these three shows are big box-office successes (as well as critical ones) means that there are affluent, older audiences going to see them. If the fat-and-fifty crowd can eat up the rock of Hair (billed as "the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical") and the like, is it really possible for these shows to satisfy our tastes? A look at these musicals' scores goes a long way towards answering the question.

Near the end of Hair the entire cast does a number called "Walking in Space," and through this song one can see the dilemma of artists who want to bring acid culture simultaneously to both the drug generation and middle-aged heathens.

"Space" is a song about being spaced-out. It starts slowly, as a stoned-steady guitar beat reverberating through an echo chamber accompanies the cool voices that weave in and out. "My body is walking in space/ My soul is in orbit with God, face to face," the eerie voices tell us, and we can believe in their moonglow-bathed hallucinations. But no sooner is the mood established, than composer Galt Mac Dermot and lyricists Gerome Ragni and James Rado destroy it by tipping their hats to the Times Square crowd. All of a sudden the chorus hippies are yelling out a catalogue of hallucinatory cliches ("Red Light! White light. Your skin is soft!")--and the music descends into vulgarized pop-isms reminiscent of that TV monstrosity Hullabaloo. Why? Presumably to give the uninitiated segment of the audience a quick primer in drug-visions, and in terms and comfortable rock-beat music they can understand. The result is a composition that offers something for everybody, but ecstasy for no one.

Perhaps Clive Barnes, the New York Times critic, states the ambivalence of Hair's score the best. In his various pieces about the show (It has opened three times, twice off-Broadway and, most recently, on Broadway last March), Barnes has said, "This is pop-pop, or commercial pop, with little aspirations to art--2 clever dilution of ... pop music. Fundamentally, it is pure Broadway--but Broadway 1969 rather than Broadway 1949. . . . It's noisy and cheerful conservatism is just right for an audience that might wince at Sgt. Pepper's."

Yet, one cannot take Mr. Barnes' word entirely. In its travels from the Village to Broadway, Hair has gradually improved to the point where much of its material is unconventional--and, for this reason, the Broadway original cast album (which, like the off-Broadway, version has been recorded by RCA-Victor) is worth spending some time with, if only during the day.

At its inconsistent best, Hair in very funny, and this is where much of its value lies. A Supremes-styled trio, for example, sings a which they concede "Every time they're near me/ I just can't get enough." The number, which makes the most of its racial joke, is preceded by "Black Boys" (in which white girls sing "They are so damned yummy/ They satisfy my tummy")--and the convoluted comic juxtapositions are wild.

Similarly, there are songs that spin such sentiments as "Happy Birthday, Abie Baby, emanci-mother-fuckin'-pator of the slaves" or LBJ took the IRT and found the youth of America on LSD." Oh, and there are songs about sodomy, hashish and the age of aquarius. As you can see, there's a lot of good stuff here.

Aside from the more humorous bits, Hair has some other songs that, though lacking in originality, still are quite wonderful in themselves. A girl named Shelley Plimpton, who has a voice laced with clear-toned innocence, sings a ballad about Frank Mills, a boy who "wears his hair tied in a small bow in the back." It seems that Miss Plimpton lent two dollars to Frank after meeting him in front of the Waverley and then never saw him again--and now she loves him. It captures a teeny-bopper's romantic vision with an appropriate unembellished lyricism.

Equally as innocent are some of the songs which serve as indoctrinatons for the non-hip. While some of these (like "Walking in Space" and another number called "Be-In") have too much Broadway sound and too many lyrics that only Life would find hip, some of the others are honest, simple and firmly based in the rock music vocabulary of the pre-Sgt. Pepper's and Hendrix days. One of the authors. Rado, does "Manchester England," a piece happily in the early-Stones idiom in which he asserts, "I believe in God/ And I believe that God believes in Claude/ That's me." this and others (particularly, the very similar "I Got Life") have an optimistic tone that is nicely unfull of shit.

Your Own Thing, the off-Broadway version of Twelfth Night that won the New York Drama Critics' Award for best musical last year, is never equal to Hair, even when Hair is at its worst. The score (by Hal Hester and Danny Apolinar) makes every concession to Broadway and very few to rock. The music is all pre-Beatles rock-and-roll; some of the songs are just waiting for Leslie Gore and Connie Francis.

And the lyrics (except those from Shakespeare) are sufficiently self-conscious to be repulsive. The title song actually advises us to Do your own thing/ Find you own dream/ Dig your own soul/ Or dig your own hole and die." This is nothing compared to "The Middle Years," a paean to middle-age that is a trifle too reminiscent of Birdie's "Kids" and The Girl Who Came to Supper's (a 1963 flop) "How do Do do, Middle Age." If nothing else, Your Own Thing shows exactly how big a sell-out Hair could have been.

But in this scale of artistic integrity it is the names of Burt Bacharach and Hall David that must be put on top. Every song in their score for Promises, Promises, musically and lyrically, is faithful to the style established by the rest of their work--a kind of song-writing pretty much alien to both Broadway convention and acid-rock.

Bacharach (music) and David (lyrics) comprise something of a unique niche in popular music, one that indeed defies categorization. They wrote a large collection of songs before Promises--such as "Reach Out for Me," "What the World Needs Now is Love," "The Look of Love," "I Say a Little Prayer,"' "Message to Michael"--most of which were initially sung by Dionne Warwick. These compositions owe something to rock, something to soul and something to Gilbrerto. But it is rock without the acid, soul without the traditional soul beat and orchestrations, Gilberto without the relaxing rhythms.

Whatever they are (and I'll try to explain in a moment), Bacharach-David songs deserve a special and honored place in the rock schene, even though they fulfill a much different artistic calling than that of the hard rock tradition that gave birth to Hair.

Promises, Promises, which is based on the film The Apartment, is essentially the story a rather strange and depressing love triangle. It is about people who cannot cope with themselves or each other--and within this framework, Bacharach and David have written some songs that are gripping in a most unusual way.

Central to the songs of this team is the faithfulness of the lyrics to the gut essentials of emotion and the accompanying faithfulness of the music to the erratic course the relentlessly frank lyrics take. And thrown in with all this are the rhythmic patterns, which fluctuate wildly as the words shifts (often suddenly) between hope and despair.

When Jill O'Hara, a girl with a voice that is a strange cross between country-western twanginess and Dionne Warwick inflection, sings about "Knowing When to Leave" a lover, music and rhythm change as the character's thoughts move form a detached statement of principle ("Knowing when to leave won't ever let you reach the point of no return/ Fly") to an upbeat assertion of hope ("Foolish as it seems/ I still have my dreams") to an angry stream of abuse ("Keep your eyes on the door/ Never let it get out of sight/ Just be prepared when the time has come/ For you to run away.")

In a Bacharach song, anything can happen. Listening to the original cast album (United Artists), one is consistently caught off guard by lyrics that defy normal rhyme schemes and music that is sensitive to the slightest lyrical change of heart.

Only when the score is called upon to express uninteresting sentiments does the score fall flat. For instance, a plot song ("Our Littlt Secret") which tells about a clandestine illicit arrangement between two characters, though done in the Bacharach-David manner, remains mundane because the subject matter is emotionally barren.

But most of the time, Promises, Promises is about love (and its ups and downs), and the songs run deep. Just before a suicide attempt, Miss O'Hara sings an anguished ballad (that has also been recorded by Dionne Warwick) in which she tells of the difficult man she loves. As the lyrics and music move from the barest hope ("However you are/ Deep down whatever you are/ Whoever you are/ I love you.") to a kind of understated terror ("From moment to moment/ You're two different people/ Someone I know as the man I love/ Or the man I wish I never knew"), the orchestration is underlined with a trickling piano that gives the song a unity despite its diverse expressions.

The orchestrations (credited to Harold Wheeler, but heavily influenced by Bacharach's own brand of arranging) in Promises, Promises are an essential part of the Bacharach score. And, in line with this, the composer has seen to it that his show is the first to use recording-studio electronics in a Broadway theatre. In the auditorium, one hears half sound straight from the stage and orchestra, and half sound that has been sent through an amplification-echo chamber system. There are also four female vocalists in the orchestra pit, who blend their harmonic flights of wordless sound into the instrumentation--and the whole thing is controlled from the back of the theatre with an eleven-channel stereo console.

Yet, for all the rock tendencies and electronic shaping, it is the emotional realism--the soul--of the Bacharach-David songs that makes them important to the future of commercial music, Broadway and elsewhere.

And the success of Promises and the rest of the latest batch of "rock" musicals certifies the fact that the paths of Broadway and true rock culture will continue to meet in the future. While some of the established critics will dissent--John Wilson of the Times found Promises all beat and no melody--the trend seems to be towards a modernization of the American musical. What remains to be seen is whether the New York musical theatre will receive enough potent doses of pop/rock to bring it down squarely on the side of the cultural revolution.

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