Life in post-war America seems to be one of the most curious periods in recent history. Despite, or more likely because of, the horrors of the previous decade, the 1950’s gives the impression of existing in a snowdome; a quaintly innocent age forever frozen in time protected from the changes to come. Apple pie, mom and pop diners, white-picket fences, the nuclear family; snapshot stereotypes summoned up by small-town conservatives as they hark back to a period they feel we never should have left.
Uncovering the truth behind the myth is one of the joys of Bye Bye Birdie. Performed on Broadway in 1960, this Tony-Award musical is notable for retaining its modernity right into 2015. Spoofing the hysteria surrounding Elvis Presley’s draft notice into the army, it explodes ideas that are often casually accepted about the period and raises questions about how rose-tinted are the glasses through which we look to the past.
Sharply written, it captures the casual racism (witness an amazing string of close-to-the-knuckle one-liners spewing forth from Mae Patterson’s Jayne Ashley) and assumed patriarchal control (witness a highly hilarious rant from Harry Hart’s continually undermined Harry Macafaee) of the times. It is a world where girls become women at fifteen and are seen as fair game from predatory rock ‘n roll stars. The town has a bubbling undercurrent of sexual frustration slowly heading towards boiling point before exploding with the arrival of Zac Hamilton’s Conrad Birdie.
That it found an audience in 1960 America is perhaps not surprising, but it is also not so surprising that it has fallen out of fashion in the UK to the extent that it has never had a major UK revival since playing for 269 performances in 1961. It is not really ‘our’ history. We were too busy clearing up bomb damage and inventing skiffle to find time to buy a Buick Convertible and head off to the 5-and-dime for a soda pop.