Originally titled Let's Go Steady, the satire on American society is set in 1958. The name "Conrad Birdie" is a play on the name Conway Twitty, a popular singer at the time, and the character is also based on Elvis Presley, whose draft into the army shortly before the musical was written inspired a plot element. The original Broadway production was a Tony Award-winning success, and revivals followed. The show also became a popular choice for high school and college productions. It spawned a 1981 sequel, Bring Back Birdie, starring Chita Rivera.
Rivera reprised her role as Rosie opposite Peter Marshall as Albert and Marty Wilde as Conrad in the 1962 West End production, which ran for 268 performances. She also starred in an ill-fated 1981 sequel entitled Bring Back Birdie, which closed after four performances. Charles Nelson Reilly also understudied for Lynde and Van Dyke and appeared in their roles periodically throughout the play's original run.
Among those who have appeared in various productions of Bye Bye Birdie are Tommy Tune, Steve Zahn, Doris Roberts, Rue McClanahan, Gary Sandy, Randy Jones, Marc Kudisch, Rachel Bilson, Ann-Margret, Bobby Rydell, Jason Alexander, Vanessa L. Williams, Chynna Phillips, George Wendt, Gene Rayburn, and Tyne Daly.
An abridged version of Bye Bye Birdie was presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, October 2-5, 2008, as part of their Broadway: Three Generations production. Laura Osnes played Kim and Leslie Kritzer played Rosie.
The lucky girl chosen randomly from Conrad's national fan club is fifteen-year-old Kim MacAfee from Sweet Apple, Ohio. All the teenagers in Sweet Apple are catching up on the latest gossip in "The Telephone Hour": Kim MacAfee and Hugo Peabody just got pinned! Kim, excited to have a steady boyfriend, rhapsodizes, "How Lovely to be a Woman". Conrad, Albert and Rosie set off to Sweet Apple to prepare for the event. Before they depart by train from New York City, local teenage girls are ecstatic to meet Conrad, but two young girls are sad that by the time Conrad gets out of the army, they'll be too old for him. Albert advises them to "Put on a Happy Face". Reporters arrive, and Albert, Rosie, and the teenagers tell them that Conrad is "A Healthy, Normal, American Boy". Conrad receives a hero's welcome in Sweet Apple, and Hugo worries that Kim likes Conrad more than she likes him, but Kim assures Hugo that he's the "One Boy" for her. Conrad shocks the town parents and drives the teenage girls crazy with his performance of "Honestly Sincere".
Kim's father, Mr. MacAfee, does not want Kim to kiss Conrad until Albert tells him their whole family will be on The Ed Sullivan Show. Mr. MacAfee, Mrs. MacAfee, Kim, and her younger brother Randolph sing Sullivan's praises in "Hymn for a Sunday Evening". Hugo becomes disastrously jealous of Conrad, and Albert's overbearing, interfering mother Mae comes to break up her son's relationship with Rosie, whom she dislikes for being Hispanic.
Rosie devises "One Hundred Ways" to kill Albert, and then plots a way to ruin the broadcast with Hugo. Conrad sings "One Last Kiss" on The Ed Sullivan Show, and as he leans in to kiss Kim, Hugo runs onstage and punches him in the face. On live television, Conrad collapses, Rosie breaks up with Albert, and Albert, trying to cover for the mishaps of the evening, leads a chorus of "A Healthy, Normal, American Boy".
When Mr. MacAfee finds out Kim has run away, he and Mrs. MacAfee lament how disobedient "Kids" are today. Rosie ends up at Maude's Roadside Retreat, but Albert calls her on the telephone and begs her, "Baby Talk To Me". Rosie, hoping to forget Albert, interrupts a Shriners meeting being held in Maude's private dining room. She flirts with all the Shriners, and they begin a wild dance. Hugo and Albert rescue Rosie from the crazed Shriners, and Albert stands up to his mother. Hugo tells the MacAfees and the other parents that the teenagers have all gone to the Ice House, and they all declare that they don't know what's wrong with their "Kids" (Reprise). Randolph joins in, stating that his older sister and the other teens are "ridiculous and so immature".
The adults and the police arrive at the Ice House and arrest Conrad, although he doesn't appear to have done anything illegal or immoral. Kim claims that she was intimidated by Conrad and Hugo gladly takes her back. Rosie sees Albert's mother and tells her that she's going to marry Albert, even though she's a "Spanish Rose". Albert bails Conrad out of jail and arranges for him to sneak out of town dressed as a middle-aged woman -- presumably so he can report for induction as scheduled. Albert also gets his mother to leave Sweet Apple bound for home on the same train, and then tells Rosie that they're going to Pumpkin Falls, Iowa. It seems the town is in need of an English teacher, and they prefer the applicant to be married. Albert professes his love for her in "Rosie", and they go off together.
Several significant changes were made in the plot and character relationships in the film version. Albert is not Birdie's agent but a talented research chemist who is struggling as a songwriter only to please his overbearing mother. He contributed to Birdie's initial success, and therefore Birdie "owes" him a favor. The film version also includes an additional character, a suave English teacher who flirts with Rosie. She plays up to him in several scenes after Albert has made her angry by caving in to his mother.
The positioning and context of several songs was changed as well. "An English Teacher," "A Healthy, Normal American Boy," "One Hundred Ways," "What Did I Ever See In Him?," "Baby Talk To Me" and "Spanish Rose" were eliminated entirely. "Kids" was performed in the MacAfee kitchen by Mr. MacAfee, Mama Mae Peterson, Albert and Randolph. "Put On A Happy Face" is performed by Albert and Rosie in the MacAfees' back yard; "A Lot of Livin' To Do" was performed by Conrad, Kim and Hugo at a teen dance; and "Rosie" is sung at the end of show by Albert, Rosie, Hugo and Kim. Kim also opens and closes the film version singing the title song, "Bye Bye, Birdie, I'm gonna miss you so...."
The film version ends on a brighter and lighter note. When Hugo punches Conrad, knocking him out with a single punch "live" on The Ed Sullivan Show, he wins Kim's heart, and the young couple is reunited. Albert's mother shows up after the broadcast with a man in tow, informs Albert and Rosie that she has married him, and gives Albert and Rosie her blessing for their long-postponed wedding.
A new adaptation was made for television in 1995. It starred Jason Alexander of Seinfeld in the role of Albert and Vanessa L. Williams as Rosie. Tyne Daly played Albert's mother Mae Peterson. Broadway actor Marc Kudisch, who played Conrad Birdie on tour opposite Tommy Tune, reprised the role. 1980s pop music sensation Chynna Phillips played Kim MacAfee, and George Wendt played her father Harry. While this version remained mostly true to the original musical, several songs were added and re-arranged in the show, and minimal dialogue was rewritten to smoothly facilitate their inclusion. The title song "Bye Bye Birdie" sung by Ann Margaret in the film is rearranged and re-written as a rockin' quintet for a group of Sweet Apple girls at the soda shop. The verse of "One Boy" that Rosie sings was replaced with ""Let's Settle Down". Dialogue where Albert's mother Mae laments her fate was re-written into a song entitled "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore," and in "A Giant Step" Albert tells Rosie how he has finally broken free of his overbearing mother.
Another song, "Put on a Happy Face" has been used in various television commercials, including for Wal-Mart in the 2000s for an advertising campaign with its smiley logo, in the early 1970s for a Kool-Aid commercial featuring a very young Jimmy Osmond, and in a cold sore medicine commercial. Instead of "Grey Skies Are Gonna Clear Up", the jingle ran, "Cold Sores Are Gonna Clear Up...." Another use for Put on a Happy Face was in the BBC television program Keeping Up Appearances. In that show's Christmas special "Sea Fever", the song is used as dance music aboard the QE2 when Hyacinth Bucket finds out that her brother-in-law Onslow won a cruise from horse racing.
A parody of Bye, Bye, Birdie was done in the animated show Home Movies in the fourth episode of the fourth season called "Bye Bye Greasy". The episode involved the main characters directing and performing in a school play named Bye Bye Greasy. The plot of the play featured a mix of other works including Grease, and Rebel Without a Cause.