Bye Bye Birdie and Hairspray: two musical views of early rock ‘n’ roll

Evan Pulliam as Conrad Birdie, the Elvis-like character, and Caroline Keegan as Kim in The Rep’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie,” Aug. 3 to 5 at the Lexington Opera House. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

Getting ready to head out the door this morning, the movie running on USA caught my eye. It was Hairspray, the 2007 film adaptation of the hit 2002 musical based on John Waters’ cult classic 1988 film — yep, it went full circle.

It caught my eye because it’s a really fun film, but also because I had just written about The Rep’s production of Bye Bye Birdieanother musical set in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. There are some marked similarities in the shows, including the influence of TV in spreading the new music, a heartthrob singer who makes all girls squeal, and parents who scoff at “that racket,” i.e. rock ‘n’ roll.

Talking over lunch last week with Birdie directors Robyn Peterman-Zahn and Steve Zahn, who met on the 1991 national tour of Birdie starring Tommy Tune, and choreographer Diana Evans Pulliam, they noted that the 1960 musical really could not be moved around in time. Birdie is set in a very specific era of cultural change in the United States and uses as its basis a distinctive historical event — Elvis Presley being drafted into the Army. It has become something of a time capsule, bringing to the stage again an era of transition from American standards and theater music to rock ‘n’ roll and teen culture.

Revisiting the show, which I have not seen in years, I was reminded that the Elvis character, Conrad Birdie, and the teens weren’t even the focus of the story. They were supporting players to adult characters Albert and Rosie, who need to find their way out of the financial obligations associated with Birdie so that he can get a job as an English teacher and they can get married.

Zach Efron as Link Larkin and Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton watch Elijah Kelley as Seaweed and Nikki Blonsky as Tracy dance in “Hairspray.” © New Line Pictures photo.

Hairspray is also immovable from its era, for different reasons. It’s not so much a time capsule as it is a reflection. Its take on rock ‘n’ roll is an outsider story of the growing influence of blacks in popular culture. Yes, plus-sized Tracy Turnblad is the central character, but the basic aim is to integrate Baltimore’s local dance party TV show with rhythm and blues music and dance. And the focus is the teens and challenging the adults in charge, specifically TV station manager Velma Von Tussle who thinks it’s her station’s job to show kids the “white way,” as she says in a purposeful misstatement early in the film.

Hairspray, like Mad Men, the acclaimed AMC series also set in the mid-20th century, benefits from looking back and talking about things that writers of the day were not as free to address. Neither is more valid than the other, but it is fun and illuminating to watch them in such close proximity.

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