Bye Bye, BIRDIE Ballet

This is actually sort of TV-related because of the most recent episode of Mad Men, which built part of the story around the sensation Ann-Margret caused in the film version of Bye Bye Birdie in 1963 (and the differing reactions of Don, who likes what Pauline Kael called A-M’s “slick, enamelled and appalling” persona, and Peggy, who’s uncomfortable with the fakeness of it all and the idea of selling that fakeness to women). There’s a stage revival of Birdie coming up — which now turns out to have very good timing, since this episode helped to revive some interest in the property — and Gina Gershon, who is playing the female lead, says that the big ballet scene in act two was cut because it’s… “gang-rapey?!”

In the scene, Rose, originated on stage by Chita Rivera and on film by Janet Leigh, crashes a Shriners banquet, flirts and cavorts on, around and underneath a table with the fez-heads.

As written, it’s a funny dance showcase. So why is it too hot to handle in 2009? Gershon told The News’ theater critic Joe Dziemianowicz, “It seemed a little too gang rape-y.”

That should come as interesting news to countless high schools, parochial academies and theater camps where this number has been performed for nearly 50 years.

The idea that a silly comedy scene that kids have been performing without incident since 1960 is “gang-rapey” is so crazy that even an objective news item can’t quite take it seriously, so people are left wondering whether:

a) The scene was cut because Gershon couldn’t handle the dancing (it didn’t work well in the movie because the unbelievably miscast Janet Leigh wasn’t really up to it)

b) The scene was cut because the producers decided it didn’t work any more (it is kind of a relic of an era when every musical had to have a ballet in it at some point).

Either one sounds more plausible than Gershon’s semi-official explanation. Anyway, here’s Chita Rivera re-creating the number in (I think) 1984:

I’m not expecting much of a revival of Birdie, which is one of my favourite stage musicals but is never treated with the respect it deserves. (The revival will have the music re-orchestrated for a smaller orchestra, even though the original orchestrations, by Robert Ginzler, are among the five best sets of arrangements ever written for a musical.) The movie threw out many of the songs, completely re-wrote the script, and gave additional material to the character played by Ann-Margret. (The title song that Don and Peggy argue about was filmed after principal photography had wrapped; the director, George Sidney, realizing that A-M was the key to the film, commissioned a new song and paid out of his own pocket to film it with her.) All of which turned out to be very good box-office — because Ann-Margret made it a hit — but has caused the original stage version to be performed thereafter as if it’s a broad, cartoonish, loud show like the movie. It’s actually a rather quiet, gentle, warm-hearted satire of early ’60s America, with a musical style mostly influenced by ’50s jazz bands.

But it was a good idea for Mad Men to use the movie, because it is one of the key works of that era: absurdly fake and artificial in every way, sometimes deliberately, sometimes just because so many people are miscast (Ann-Margret as an innocent teenager, Janet Leigh as a Latina, Paul Lynde — repeating his Broadway role — as a suburban dad), and with Ann-Margret projecting a sexuality that is halfway between studio-manufactured gloss and something more dangerous and uncontrolled. That whole movie so perfectly embodies the whole Mad Men world — artificiality and order with cracks and flashes of unpredictability — that you almost need to rent the movie to understand what the culture was like in 1963.

However, Peggy’s being unfair in one way: it’s clear that Ann-Margret is being deliberately “shrill” when she sings the song before the credits. When she sings the second half of the song at the very end of the movie, she sounds better (in part because extra reverb has been added to her voice). Apparently George Sidney figured this would get audiences thinking that she had progressed from teeny-bopper innocence to full-blown sexualized womanhood, and he seems to have figured right. (I should add that the film-geek in me thinks that Sidney and Ann-Margret are a director-star combination as fascinating and important in their own way as that other iconic ’60s pairing, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina.)

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