Kathie Urban, the Executive Producer of Metropolitan Educational Theatre Network recently spoke with Tams-Witmark about putting on a production of BYE BYE BIRDIE with students from kindergarten through college. Some actors did need a lesson on how to use a rotary phone, but unlike communications technology, great theatre is timeless.
Kathie Urban: We hadn’t done BYE BYE BIRDIE in about nine years and we weren’t sure how it would be received at this point in time; we didn’t know if the kids would relate to it or find it interesting. The show is set in 1958, which is ancient history for kids born in the new millennium. But it’s also fantastic musical theatre, and as educators we feel it’s important to give our students the opportunity to discover musical theatre classics like Birdie.
It turns out that we never should have had any doubts because our students, who range from kindergarten through college, absolutely loved being in the show! As a show about teenagers and pop culture, BYE BYE BIRDIE was a perfect vehicle for our students to experience a different era in a way that was fun and relatable. Our final performance was very emotional for some of our students. They were sad to close the show and there were actually many tears that it was over.
It proved to be not only great theatre, but a wonderful history lesson as well. The story, the characters, the music and the style of BYE BYE BIRDIE all really embody the time period, but in a way that remains totally relatable to kids of today. Throughout rehearsals we talked about current events of the late 1950s, what kids and teens had then versus what they have today: Elvis, styles of music, types of clothing and hairstyles (many of the girls loved researching hair and make-up), the draft, a myriad of different things. We had all the “fan girls” incorporate an art project of sorts into it as well by having them make and create their own Conrad Birdie signs. They had to think of 1950s appropriate slogans and sayings to put on signs and use their own creativity. And yes, in case you’re wondering, we did have to teach many of them how to use rotary phones. Some of our students had never seen one!
It was also fun to help the students recognize all the things they had in common with the characters in the show. Even with all the ways that the world has changed since 1958, American teens still go through a lot of the same experiences today and we wanted our students to relate the world of BIRDIE to their own world. Even if they aren’t totally familiar with cultural touchstones of the 50’s like Elvis and The Ed Sullivan Show they know plenty about their modern day equivalents, like Justin Beiber and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
We always try to make our productions an enriching experience for our participants and our audience as well. One way that we do that is create educational packets for teachers from our school audiences so that they can tie in the performances to their lessons plans and prepare their class for coming to see the show. We were excited to try and use these educational packets to recreate some of the same exploration of the show’s time and setting that we had done with our own students. As we updated and created our educational packets, we were delighted to find that there is SO MUCH material in this show to pull from to create a wonderful and comprehensive curriculum. One teacher said it was the best educational packet she had seen since coming here from the UK! So it was definitely a hit with our teachers as well.
We were thrilled by how much our audiences loved it. We do quite a few “blockbuster” shows with a lot of spectacle, but many long-time families and audience members commented afterwards that this was actually their all-time favorite production. They loved the score, the energy, the costumes and how excited the kids were. There’s a nostalgic and innocence aspect about Bye Bye Birdie that seems to really speak to audiences.
So, is Bye Bye Birdie a show that stands the test of time? Yes! We were surprised to discover just how much it indeed did. After all these years it still proves to be a winner for all ages!
Metropolitan Educational Theatre Network