Happy Birthday, Charles Strouse!

Legendary Broadway composer Charles Strouse turns 88 today, and all of us at Tams-Witmark wish him a joyful and music-filled birthday! Let’s celebrate the man and his amazing musical legacy.

Charles Strouse HistoryFirst, some quick facts, courtesy of www.charlesstrouse.com:

  • Strouse has written scores for over 30 stage musicals, including 14 for Broadway.
  • He has composed scores for 5 Hollywood films, 2 orchestral works and an opera.
  • He has been inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Theatre Hall of Fame.
  • He is a 3–time Tony Award winner, a 2–time Emmy Award winner, and his cast recordings have earned him 2 Grammy Awards.
  • His song “Those Were the Days” launched over 200 episodes of All in the Family, and continues to reach new generations of television audiences in syndication.
  • With hundreds of productions licensed annually, his musicals are among the most popular of all time – produced by regional, amateur, and school groups all over the world.
  • The music of Charles Strouse has undoubtedly touched the life of almost every American in the last half century.

Charles Strouse was born in New York City on June 7, 1928. He began taking piano lessons at age 10, and at 15 he entered the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. After graduating in 1947, he studied under Aaron Copland at Tanglewood, Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and David Diamond in New York. His early career included gigs scoring and composing music for newsreels, composing for dance performances, and playing piano for television.

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Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, circa 1960

In 1949, Strouse met lyricist Lee Adams at a party, and the two began writing songs together. They collaborated on several musical revues and wrote special material for Kaye Ballard, Carol Burnett, Jane Morgan, and Dick Shawn, among others.

In 1958, producer Edward Padula wanted to create “a happy teenage musical with a difference.” He considered several writing teams, and after three rounds of auditions, he finally hired Strouse and Adams, at one hundred dollars a month! The show, initially titled LET’S GO STEADY, was in a constant state of change; five different book writers were hired to take a stab at it. (At one point, when it was titled LOVE AND KISSES, the show concerned a middle-aged couple considering divorce.) Eventually, book writer Michael Stewart and lyricist Lee Adams found inspiration in Elvis Presley’s much-heralded farewell kiss to a WAC (Women’s Army Corp servicewoman), and BYE BYE BIRDIE was born.

Opening April 14, 1960 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, BYE BYE BIRDIE was a smash hit. It went on to win four Tony Awards, including one for Best Musical of the Year.

But one of the composer’s biggest hits almost didn’t make the cut! In his autobiography, Put On A Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir (Union Square Press, 2008) Strouse explains that “Put On A Happy Face” was nearly cut in previews. The song originally appeared in the second act, as Albert (Dick Van Dyke) and the crew set up for The Ed Sullivan Show. Apparently, at the first preview in Philadelphia, the song ended and the audience reaction was tepid. Strouse wanted to cut the song, but Marge Champion suggested they move it to an earlier slot in the first act. Strouse begrudgingly conceded, and, he writes, “Of course, it was an instant hit, Dick became a star, and the song itself became famous.”

"An English Teacher" Bye Bye Birdie

Chita Rivera and Dick Van Dyke in BYE BYE BIRDIE (1960)

After BIRDIE, Strouse and Adams collaborated with writer Mel Brooks on the 1962 musical ALL-AMERICAN, starring Ray Bolger. Despite a modest run, the show yielded one lovely standard, “Once Upon A Time.”

GOLDEN BOY, Strouse and Adams’ 1964 musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’ 1937 play, explored the volatile issue of African-American Civil Rights, and featured a dynamic performance from leading man Sammy Davis, Jr.

Superman musical lois lane clark kent

Jenny Powers and Edward Watts in the NY City Center Encores! production of ….SUPERMAN (2013)

In 1966, Strouse and Adams returned to the lighthearted with IT’S A BIRD… IT’S A PLANE… IT’S SUPERMAN®, a playful romp based on the comic book series. Opening on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on March 29th, SUPERMAN earned three Tony nominations. Tony winner Linda Lavin, in a supporting role, stopped the show cold with an astounding performance of “You’ve Got Possibilities,” which became a nightclub standard.

[Check out Seth Rudetsky deconstructing Ms. Lavin’s performance on the original Broadway cast album. Hilarious.]

Strouse won a second Tony Award for APPLAUSE, his 1970 adaptation of the 1950 film classic All About Eve, starring Lauren Bacall as movie star Margot Channing. Updated to the 1970’s, APPLAUSE featured a funky contemporary score, an energetic band of Broadway hippie/gypsies, and even a scene in a gay bar. The show earned four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Applause "But Alive" Lauren Bacall

Lauren Bacall in APPLAUSE (1970)

In 1977, Charles Strouse collaborated with Martin Charnin and Thomas Meehan on a new musical based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie. The resulting musical, ANNIE, became a blockbuster hit and introduced several of Strouse’s most popular songs, including the classic “Tomorrow.” With three film adaptations and two Broadway productions (so far!) the show has brought Charles Strouse unprecedented acclaim.

After ANNIE, Charles Strouse continued writing glorious and tuneful scores for several other musicals, including CHARLIE AND ALGERNON (1979) DANCE A LITTLE CLOSER (1983), RAGS (1986), NICK AND NORA (1993), AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (1995), MARTY (2002), and MINSKY’S (2009).

Strouse also created at least two sequels to his most popular shows: ANNIE WARBUCKS (first presented as ANNIE 2: MISS HANNIGAN’S REVENGE), and the sequel to BYE BYE BIRDIE, the now-infamous BRING BACK BIRDIE. Starring a Tony-nominated Chita Rivera reprising her role as Rosie Alvarez, and featuring what Frank Rich called some “sprightly melodies,” 1981’s BRING BACK BIRDIE failed to create the spark of its predecessor, and closed after four performances. But the show, thanks to its original Broadway cast album, survives as a cult favorite of BYE BYE BIRDIE aficionados.

Bring Back Birdie Chita Rivera Donald O'Connor Maurice Hines

Chita Rivera, Donald O’Connor, Maurice Hines and Company in BRING BACK BIRDIE (1981)

In addition to his prolific contribution to Broadway, Charles Strouse has scored several films (including Bonnie and Clyde and All Dogs Go To Heaven), composed orchestral works, chamber music, piano concertos and opera, and written for the pop charts and television.

Fans of All in the Family will undoubtedly remember “Those Were The Days,” his charming and hilarious theme song, co-written with lyricist Lee Adams, sung by Jean Stapleton and Carol O’Connor as Edith and Archie Bunker.

Charles Strouse is a legend of the American Musical Theatre, and we are grateful for his glorious contribution to “this business we call show.” 

Charles Strouse HistoryHappy 88th Birthday, Mr. Strouse, and thank you– your music has indeed “spread sunshine all over the place!”