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NBC is giving the book and lyrics for Bye Bye Birdie a fine-tuning before the musical becomes the network’s next live song-and-dance event in December.
The original 1960 Tony-winning Broadway musical — which inspired the 1963 film — centers on a songwriter-agent Albert and his sweetheart secretary Rosie, who aim to stage a final publicity stunt for their hip-thrusting musician before he’s drafted into the Army.
However, Albert and Rosie — the latter played by Jennifer Lopez, who is also exec producing — won’t be industry folks in the live staging, says Harvey Fierstein, who has finished adapting the book. “I want to be true to the time it takes place but at the same time, having Rosie be Albert’s secretary whom he’s having an affair with is a little sexist and old-fashioned. I didn’t see any reason for that,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So I changed that. I made them both high school teachers.”
“He’s the English teacher who writes a song, and she’s the music teacher who says, ‘I’ve got a great kid with a great voice,'” he continues. “He ends up being Conrad Birdie, who’s supposed to only take one summer off to promote the record but turns into a star. It’s been eight years and Rosie just wants to go back to their real lives. It really makes a lot more sense that way.”
Fierstein, currently starring in the off-Broadway play Gently Down the Stream, previously made similar modern updates to The Wiz and Hairspray for NBC. “I have great respect for Michael Stewart, who wrote the original book,” he reassures. “I spoke to his sister and made sure she knew the changes I was going to make and I would hope Michael would be happy with, had he lived into our time.”
Also among the Bye Bye Birdie tweaks: The beloved opener “An English Teacher” will be repurposed with slightly changed lyrics, and many scenes and songs are reordered to accommodate the commercial-friendly format. For example, the musical will close with the climatic Ed Sullivan Show performance, which originally appears at the end of the stage show’s first act.
Further adjustments will also accommodate Lopez’s wish for the airing to highlight Rosie’s struggles as a Puerto Rican woman about to hit middle age and in a relationship with a man afraid of commitment, as seen in the original musical’s book but lost in the 1963 film. Adds Fierstein, “Then, you know, Jennifer Lopez knows what she wants out of performing.”
A version of this story first appeared in the March 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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