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A Film by Michael Kantor


Composers, Lyricists & Writers

Charles Strouse

A composer who has experienced the sweet taste of Broadway success — but not for some considerable time. When Strouse graduated from the Eastman School of Music he intended to make a career in the classical field, and studied for a time with Aaron Copland. After meeting lyricist Lee Adams in 1949 he changed course, and during the early ’50s they contributed songs to revues at the popular Green Mansions summer resort, and in 1956 they had some numbers interpolated into the Off-Broadway shows “The Littlest Revue” and “Shoestring ’57.” Their big break came in 1960 with “Bye Bye Birdie,” which is often cited as the first musical to acknowledge the existence of rock ‘n’ roll. It starred Dick Van Dyke and Chita Rivera and ran for 607 performances. The witty and tuneful score included “Kids!”, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” and “‘Put on a Happy Face.” Ironically, two years earlier, Strouse, with Fred Tobias, had written a bona fide rock ‘n’ roll hit, “Born Too Late,” which the Poni-Tails took to number 7 on the U.S. chart. As for Strouse and Adams’ shows, “All American” (1962), a musical about college football, failed to score heavily, but “Golden Boy” (1964) lasted for 569 performances on the sheer strength of Sammy Davis Jr.’s appeal. “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman” (1966), which was based on the syndicated comic strip, came down to earth with a bump after only 129 performances.

Sammy Davis, Jr. in "Golden Boy."

It was four years before Strouse and Adams took off again with “Applause,” their second big hit, which ran for over two years, and, like “Golden Boy,” had a gilt-edged box office star in Lauren Bacall. In 1971 Strouse wrote his own lyrics for “Six” — which ran for eight — performances, that is, Off Broadway. The composer collaborated once again with Adams for “I and Albert” in 1972 — presented in London only — but audiences there were definitely not amused. Strouse’s hit of a lifetime came five years later — but not in collaboration with Lee Adams. Martin Charnin provided the lyrics for another Strouse show that was based, like “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane,” on a comic strip — in this case, “Little Orphan Annie.” Together with librettist Thomas Meehan they turned it into “Annie” (1977), the hottest Broadway ticket of the ’70s, which ran for 2,377 performances. Since then, Strouse has had a string of flops — and some real beauties at that: “A Broadway Musical” (one performance), “Flowers for Algernon” (London 28 performances) — adapted for New York as “Charley and Algernon” (17), “Bring Back Birdie” (four), “Dance a Little Closer” (one), “Mayor” (268, but still a failure), “Rags” (four), “Lyle” (did not reach Broadway), “Annie 2,” the follow-up to his megahit (closed in Washington), and “Nick & Nora” (nine). In 1991, the 1986 disaster, “Rags” — which has a truly delectable score — was revived Off Broadway, and two years later a scaled-down version of “Annie 2,” retitled “Annie Warbucks,” was also presented there.

Charles Strouse

Born: June 7, 1928
Key Shows
  • "Annie"
  • "All American"
  • "Applause"
  • "Bring Back Birdie"
  • "Bye Bye Birdie"
  • "Golden Boy"
  • "Mayor"
  • "Rags"
Related Artists
  • Lee Adams
  • Comden and Green
  • Gower Champion
  • Arthur Laurents
  • Joshua Logan
  • Chita Rivera
  • Stephen Schwartz

It was four years before Strouse and Adams took off again with “Applause,” their second big hit.

During the remainder of the ’90s Strouse hosted “An Evening with Charles Strouse” in the renowned “Lyrics and Lyricists” series and at “Lincoln Center, as well as working on a variety of projects reported to include a musical adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1924 novel, AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY (with Adams) and a new musical based on the film comedy, THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (with Susan Birkenhead). There were also several projects honoring his previous works, such as the revues “Simply Strouse” at New York’s Rainbow & Stars (1996) and Barbara Siman’s “A Lot of Living!” at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre (August 1997), with Dave Willetts, Bonnie Langford, Joanna John, and Chris Coleman. Cabaret performer Jason Graae also released a “sensational” collection of Strouse’s songs on YOU’RE NEVER FULLY DRESSED WITHOUT A SMILE. His career honors have included three Tony Awards for his work on “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause,” and “Annie,” a Grammy for the “Annie” original cast album, and an Emmy for the song “Let’s Settle Down” (with Adams) from the 1996 television version of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Strouse has also composed several operas, a piano concerto, various chamber music, and several film scores, including BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S (1968), THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN (1970), JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT (1980), and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (1989). The concerto for piano and orchestra, which he wrote when he was in his twenties, finally received its world premiere in October 1995 when Barbara Irvine played it with the Maryland Symphony Orchestra. In 1998, the piece was included in a program called “The Other Side of Broadway,” in which Irvine also previewed works by Harvey Schmidt (“The Fantasticks”) and David Shire (“Big”).

Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2004 MUZE UK Ltd.

photo credits: Photofest